GREEN BAY – It would be difficult to find a player who improved from the day he walked into Lambeau Field to the end of his rookie season as much as Tyler Lancaster.
The undrafted defensive lineman from Northwestern went rather unnoticed through his first NFL training camp, landed on the practice squad, worked his way onto the active roster, and was averaging a half dozen tackles per game by year’s end.
So the question now becomes … can Lancaster continue to progress at such an accelerated rate in his second season?
That won’t be easy, and Lancaster is one to take nothing for granted. The burly 6-foot-3, 313-pounder used the offseason to refine his reads, work on his foot quickness, and develop consistency to his game.
He feels like a different player in Year 2, but just feeling like one won’t be enough, especially on a unit with veterans like Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and Dean Lowry ahead of him, plus Fadol Brown, Montravius Adams and 2018 draft pick James Looney all back for more as well.
He needs to show it as well as feel it, come training camp and the preseason.
“It’s a tremendous difference,” Lancaster said as the Packers’ offseason program wrapped up a week ago. “Last year, I was still figuring out the defense, still figuring out the differences between college and the NFL. This year, I feel like I’m on top of my stuff, especially with the defense. I know exactly what to do on any given call.”
That alone has allowed him to pay attention to so much more than he did as a rookie.
He noted defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery has stressed pre-snap reads, knowing what to expect based on the offensive formation and making anticipation its own form of athleticism.
As for the athletic traits, when Lancaster recorded 29 tackles over the final five games of 2018, he was using his brute strength to stuff the run, plain and simple. His next step is to get after the passer more and improve on the four QB pressures and two QB hits from a year ago.
So during workouts in the spring he focused on what he called “twitchiness off the ball,” to get a half-step quicker than the interior linemen across from him.
“Obviously pass rush is the one thing … not the only thing, but my main area of need,” said Lancaster, who had just 3½ sacks over his four-year college career in the Big Ten. “I know that and (the coaches) know that, so that’s really what I was working on the whole time, being able to flip my hips, getting looser and more flexible, rather than more powerful. And my power is still there. It’s not like my numbers have dropped.”
Montgomery wasn’t about to let that happen. He had a front-row seat to all of Lancaster’s progress in 2018, when the injury to Muhammad Wilkerson prompted his promotion to the active roster, and then injuries later to Daniels and Clark led to a starting job and significantly more playing time.
Lancaster may have some athletic limitations at his size, but none of his competition up front has anything on him as far as desire and determination. Those traits helped him make an impact as a rookie as a far less refined player than he plans to be this year.
“If I said, ‘Hey, Tyler, you need to lose 20 pounds,’ he would do it tomorrow, right? If I said, ‘You need to put on 30 pounds,’ he would do it tomorrow. He’s that kid,” Montgomery said. “If I tell him how to do something a certain way, it’s going to kill him until he does it right. That’s just his mindset.
“So I wasn’t shocked when he got his opportunity. I wasn’t nervous putting him in the game. It was one of those deals where I’m like, ‘Alright bud, go do what we do.’ And he did.”
The finish to his rookie year was a huge boost of confidence for a player who wasn’t sure how his career would begin behind so many established pros. Linemate and former Northwestern teammate Lowry could sense in the spring that Lancaster was trying to pick up where he left off in his bid to make the 53-man roster for Week 1 this time around.
“I think his momentum from late last year has really carried on this offseason,” Lowry said. “If you see him out at practice, he’s the same Tyler he was the last five games of the season. Consistently getting knock-back, getting off blocks, and being strong inside. That’s what he prides himself on, and that’s what he is as a player.”
Only this year he wants to be more, because last year’s marked improvement is now in the past. As he moves forward, he’s trying to strike a balance between pushing himself and staying patient in order to remain on the right track.
“I catch glimpses for sure,” Lancaster said of a more well-rounded game. “It’s not consistent yet, but last year at this time, I wasn’t anywhere near where I am now. I understand it’s not going to happen in a day, and it gets frustrating like that sometimes, where you just want to be perfect all the time.
“I want to be able to get in that steady rotation … and work up to that starting-caliber player. Last year, in the middle of the season I saw myself grow a lot, and I want to see that growth over the coming months so I can become a more complete player. I think I’m on the path right now for getting there.”