The most talked about defensive lineman in Green Bay last year wasn’t even with the Packers. But the lamenting over the loss of Cullen Jenkins officially was put to rest when the Packers traded up eight spots in the second round to select Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy.
Worthy won’t be handed the starting right defensive end spot, but if the 6-foot-2, 308-pounder is the player the Packers think he is, there’s reason to think he’ll be lined up there in Week 1. Given a first-round draft grade by most prognosticators, the Packers made a rare move up to get an impact player, trading their second-round pick (No. 59) and fourth-round pick (No. 123) to Philadelphia to move up to No. 51 overall.
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“He’s a big guy, he’s quick for a big guy, he’s got good movement,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, “He’s got really good agility, he’s got excellent instincts. He’s one of the better players I’ve seen in a couple years of finding the ball very fast. I thought he did a great job of that and I think he’ll add some juice to our front.”
Green Bay’s defensive front is sorely in need of some juice after looking dehydrated for most of last year. It was a far cry from the dominating unit of 2010 that helped win Super Bowl XLV, and ultimately the undoing of last year’s team that went 15-1 led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a prolific offense.
Conspicuous by his absence was Jenkins, who left Green Bay for Philly and left a huge void in terms of pass rush. With outside linebacker Clay Matthews the only legitimate threat to get to the quarterback, he drew the bulk of the attention and the Packers’ defense sunk to last in the league, as they gave up the most passing yards in NFL history. Jenkins’ departure was hardly the only reason for the defense’s demise, but he was a big one.
Enter Worthy, a first-team All-American defensive tackle that played all along the Spartans’ defensive line, racking up 30 tackles – including 10.5 for losses – and 3.5 sacks as a junior in 2011. His three-year totals include 38 of 40 starts with 107 tackles and 12 sacks. Switching from green and white to green and gold, he’ll have an opportunity to give the Packers what Jenkins did – a stout run defender on the outside and some interior rush when the team plays its nickel defense.
The plan, according to Trgovac, is for Worthy to be a three-down player. That ultimately will be up to him, but a glance at the roster makes it an achievable goal.
Last year’s starters in the base 3-4 scheme were Ryan Pickett and a mixing and matching of Jarius Wynn/Howard Green/C.J. Wilson. Wynn isn’t in the same class as Worthy athletically and Green is an unsigned free agent unlikely to return. Oft-injured Mike Neal will start out the year with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, free agent Anthony Hargrove was brought in as more of a rush specialist, and third-year player Wilson is a backup, at best.
That makes it Worthy’s spot to lose.
“He's a very instinctive player. He's very quick off the ball. He has a sort of a natural ability to have vision in traffic, see things, come off blocks, that sort of thing,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. “We liked a lot about him.”
UConn’s Kendall Reyes, another versatile, similarly sized defensive lineman that fit Green Bay’s scheme, was plucked by San Diego at No. 49. With Worthy and Penn State’s Devon Still arguably the last top-flight players at the position, and sensing a “run” on defensive lineman, Green Bay made its move. Trgovac said that while both graded out well, Worthy had a little more of what they were looking for.
“Still is a little taller, longer,” Trgovac said. “I don’t think he had quite the wiggle Worthy did. They were kind of two different players. We just thought in the end – it was very close between those two, but we just thought at the end he had a little more of that wiggle and get-off than Still. That was a tough one. That one was debated long and hard. It wasn’t a slam dunk. We liked both those kids; we just thought as far as movement and juice he gives us in there, we went with that pick.”
Some of Worthy’s most impressive games came against top-caliber teams like Wisconsin (guard Kevin Zeitler was a first-round pick to Cincinnati while center Peter Konz went to Atlanta in the second round) and Georgia (tackle Cordy Glenn went to Buffalo in Round 2).
But if there was a knock on him, it was one that many lineman pushing 300 pounds hear – inconsistent effort, or the cliché “taking plays off.” Former coach and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden even brought it up during the draft broadcast when Green Bay made their selection. But it’s nothing Worthy hasn’t heard before.
“Well, really, the way I handle it is, the film speaks for itself,” Worthy said. “People criticize and say I may take a play off here or there. There’s nobody in the NFL game today or college or all the way down to pee-wee who plays every play full speed, full-go without getting tired. It’s impossible. All I can say is I’m going to come in and try to continue to work to be a lot more consistent, and I’m going to be a lot more consistent. That’s going to be my goal. The plays that showed up in the highlight tape, that’s the same plays that I’m going to transfer up to the NFL and do it on a consistent basis.”
If he does, then Green Bay just put a large piece of their pass rush puzzle into place. And they can thank Jenkins’ current team for being a willing trade partner to land Worthy.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.