WHAT WE KNOW
The Packers’ defensive line was terrible last season.
How else can you describe a unit that recorded just six sacks and played a large role in the defense finishing 26th in yards allowed per rushing attempt?
As an answer, general manager Ted Thompson gave the position group a sweeping revamp.
Thompson selected Jerel Worthy in the second round and Mike Daniels in the fourth, signed unrestricted free agent Anthony Hargrove and added street free agents Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir. Free agent Howard Green was not re-signed, and there’s no guarantee returning players Mike Neal, Jarius Wynn, C.J. Wilson and Lawrence Guy will make the roster.
“We hope so. That’s what we drafted them for,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said when asked if he believes his group will make more impact plays. “We want to be an impactful group, so we hope that will happen. It’s a hard-working group. I think what Ted’s done is added a nice mix of competition in there. We’ll give everyone a chance to go in and compete and find out who the best players are.
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Of the 12 defensive linemen going to camp, only three are guaranteed spots on the Week 1 roster: B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Worthy.
Raji was voted to the Pro Bowl but wasn’t nearly as good as he was in 2010. In 2011, Raji finished with three sacks and 10 quarterback hits, by the team’s count. In 2010, when he lined up alongside Cullen Jenkins, Raji produced 6.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits.
He wasn’t any better against the run. Pro Football Focus defines a “run stop” as making a tackle that prevents the offense from getting 45 percent of the required yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third down. Of the 43 defensive tackles/nose tackles who were on the field for half of the running plays, Raji ranked dead-last with a run-stop percentage of 2.4 percent.
Pickett, on the other hand, ranked 11th out of 20 3-4 defensive ends with a run-stop percentage of 6.5 percent. Unlike Raji, Pickett is practically immovable by double-team blocks. At this stage of his career, however, he’s only an asset against the run. Last season, he had no sacks or quarterback hits in 247 snaps against the pass.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Thompson took a “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks” approach to the defensive line. Simply put, there’s no guarantee any of the newcomers will pan out or any of the returning players will take a step forward.
At least there are options.
The Packers are banking on Worthy to provide what Mike Neal has not: Cullen Jenkins’ impact.
From the first day of offseason practices, Worthy lined up with the first-team nickel defense. Considering the Packers play nickel about 70 percent of the time, that’s a huge role. Worthy recorded 12 sacks in three seasons at Michigan State. That’s good production but hardly overwhelming. Can Worthy get close to approaching Jenkins’ final season in Green Bay, when he had seven sacks and 21 quarterback hits?
It will be a scramble for roster spots beyond those three, even with Hargrove (eight games) and Neal (four games) serving suspensions,
Given the situational nature of the game, Jarius Wynn will battle Daniels for snaps in pass-rushing situations, with C.J. Wilson ahead of Phillip Merling, Lawrence Guy and Daniel Muir to land a run-stopping role in the base 3-4 defense.
BATTLE TO WATCH
Wynn vs. Daniels: With Neal and Hargrove out, the Packers are short of pass rushers. Wynn had three sacks but they all came in the first three weeks of the season. Daniels had nine sacks as a senior at Iowa but didn’t practice in the offseason due to a torn labrum. The Packers desperately need one of these guys to step up, otherwise Raji will be on the field far too often again.
NUMBER TO NOTE
32: That’s how many 3-4 defensive ends played at least 25 percent of their team’s passing downs last season, including Wynn, Wilson and Pickett. They all finished near the bottom of ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rush productivity rankings: Wynn was 26th, Wilson 29th and Pickett 31st.
Raji, on whether top picks Nick Perry and Worthy will help him get to the quarterback: “Not just myself but all the guys in rotation. When you add two young guys with the energy and the talent that they have — let’s face it, they’re first- and second-round picks and very talented guys. They’ve shown they can be productive and play at a high level at a (BCS) conference. With this scheme, they’ll be asked to do a lot but I think they can handle it.”
B.J. Raji (6-2, 337; fourth year): Raji’s up-and-down play can be criticized but nobody can be critical of his attitude. In 2010, he played 85.2 percent of the defensive snaps; in 2011, that slipped to “only” 79.3 percent. Those are outrageous numbers. The Packers need him to return to 2010 form, when he had 6.5 sacks and 31 run stops.
Ryan Pickett (6-2, 340; 12th year): It’s a pass-first league but Pickett’s run-stopping ability is invaluable. According to Pro Football Focus, Pickett led the defensive line with 20 run stops last season. He hasn’t played more than 14 games since 2008.
Jerel Worthy (6-2, 308; rookie, R-2): Worthy, Michigan State’s first first-team All-American defensive lineman since Bubba Smith, not only is expected to provide a pass rush but the Packers want him to be a three-down player. He’ll battle C.J. Wilson for a spot in the base defense.
Jarius Wynn (6-3, 285; fourth year): Wynn started the season with three sacks in his first three games. In the final 13 games, he had no sacks and just two quarterback hits. He’s got 4.5 sacks in three seasons. His time could be up, either at the end of camp or when Neal and Hargrove return.
C.J. Wilson (6-3, 290; third year): Wilson might be the Packers’ most underrated defender. In limited playing time, he finished second among the defensive linemen with 19 run stops. His run-stop percentage of 9.6 ranked sixth among the NFL’s 3-4 defensive ends.
Mike Neal (6-3, 294; third year): The 2010 second-round pick has played in 10 of a possible 37 games (including playoffs) and recorded 11 tackles in his two seasons. He’ll start this season serving a four-game suspension for unauthorized use of the prescription drug Adderall.
Anthony Hargrove (6-3, 282; eighth year): Hargrove will start the season serving an eight-game suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty scandal and coverup. Here’s why the Packers signed him: With Seattle last year, he had three sacks and 20 total pressures in 223 pass-rushing snaps. Raji led the Packers with 23 total pressures in 579 pass-rushing snaps.
Daniel Muir (6-2, 322; fifth year): Muir, who made the Packers’ roster as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State in 2007, returns after starting 26 games for the Colts from 2008 through 2011. If he makes the team, he’d be the backup nose tackle.
Phillip Merling (6-5, 315; fifth year): Merling bombed as the 32nd pick in 2008, starting just five games, recording 3.5 sacks and tearing an Achilles during his four years in Miami. He was released before the draft. “It feels like a new start, a new beginning,” he said.
Lawrence Guy (6-4, 304; second year): Guy, a seventh-round pick last year, suffered a concussion during training camp and spent the year on injured reserve. Guy, a junior entry, got stronger and learned the playbook during his year on the sideline.
Johnny Jones (6-4, 310; first year): Jones missed the offseason practices because of an unspecified injury, a blow considering all the new faces. Last year, he went undrafted, failed to make Miami’s roster and spent most of the season on Green Bay’s practice squad.
Mike Daniels (6-0, 291; rookie, R-4): Daniels recorded 15.5 sacks during his Iowa career, including nine as a senior and four as a junior. He tore his labrum before Iowa’s bowl game but recorded two sacks anyway. He had surgery after the season and sat out the offseason work.
Total: 12. On 2011 opening roster: 6.
Final prediction (6): Raji, PIckett, Worthy, Wynn, Daniels, Wilson. (Note: Neal and Hargrove do not count while serving suspensions.)
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.