The Green Bay Packers have unexpectedly moved on from a key defensive lineman who started nearly half of the 2021 regular season for them.
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst released third-year defensive lineman Kingsley Keke from the 53-man roster on Wednesday, January 19. The 25-year-old was a fifth-round pick for the team in the 2019 NFL draft and played in 41 games over his three seasons with the team, recording a combined 54 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
Kingsley was a core member of the Packers’ defensive line to begin the season and started in six of their first seven games, but he struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks with no pressures generated in each of his first three performances of the year. He then suffered a concussion early in Week 8’s win over Arizona and essentially missed three games, including the next two full contests.
While Keke returned in Week 11 and played at least 50 percent of defensive snaps over the next four games, things took a turn for the worse when the Packers made him a healthy scratch against Chicago in Week 16 and Baltimore in Week 17. He was also on the reserve/COVID-19 list for the regular-season finale against Detroit.
According to independent salary-cap specialist Ken Ingalls, Keke was due to receive a $1.468 million raise during the 2022 season from a proven performance escalator that considers his contributions across his first three seasons. He also noted Keke’s release will save free up $2.4 million in cap space for next season.
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Packers Quiet on Issues With Keke
Keke didn’t produce nearly as well as fellow defensive line cohorts Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry throughout the 2021 season, but his status as a healthy inactive down the stretch of the regular season did raise some eyebrows given the generally slim depth at the position. Unfortunately, the Packers haven’t shared too much about why he was out.
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters Keke’s healthy scratch was due to “personal” reasons ahead of their Christmas Day matchup with the Cleveland Browns in Week 16. The following week, Clark said he had a private conversation with Keke about being inactive and felt confident that his young teammate would get back to contributing moving forward.
“Yeah, Keke’s a huge part of what we want to do,” Clark said on December 29. “Keke has a lot of ability. He’s a great pass rush, can get on edges and all that kind of stuff and do really good things. So yeah, he’s a huge part of this run that we’re trying to make and what we’re trying to do.”
Since LaFleur spoke before Wednesday’s practice — at which media members noticed Keke was not present — he has not yet commented on the defensive lineman’s release. Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry spoke later in the day and did confirm Keke was no longer with the team, but he declined to add more on the subject.
“I’m not going to get into personnel stuff with you guys,” Barry said.
How Will Packers Stack Their Defensive Line?
With Keke now gone, the Packers can be expected to lean more heavily on fifth-round rookie TJ Slaton and fourth-year Tyler Lancaster for rotational reps in the playoffs.
Slaton received his most consistent playing time down the stretch of the regular season, seeing action on more than a third of defensive snaps in each of their final four games. Meanwhile, Lancaster — who was re-signed on a one-year deal in March — has been a rotational contributor all season and finished the regular season with a career-high 31 tackles and three tackles for loss.
The Packers also have rookie Jack Heflin to consider for snaps in the rotation. He played just 17 defensive snaps over four games during the regular season, but he impressed them enough during camp to be the only undrafted rookie to make their initial 53-man roster. If they believe he is ready for more action, he could get some looks against the 49ers.
Be on the lookout for some practice-squad elevations as well. The Packers used two of their four weekly practice-squad protections on defensive linemen R.J. McIntosh and Abdullah Anderson, increasing the chances one or both are elevated for Saturday’s game.