Packers Defensive Line: This is the first in a series of examinations I’m going to do on each Packers position group as it currently exists. Kind of a State of the Union address – where we are, where we want to go and what we need to do to get there.
Where are we now:
Here are the current suspects;
BJ Raji (1st round)
Ryan Pickett (1st round)
Mike Neal (2nd round)
C.J. Wilson (7th round)
Jarius Wynn (6th round)
Howard Green (6th round)
Lawrence Guy (7th round, injured reserve)
Johnny Jones (undrafted, 77th ranked DT by nfldraftscout.com, cut by Miami in preseason)
Notice a pattern here? This is classic Ted Thompson building depth with late round picks, but thanks to Neal missing so much time, the emergency fill-ins ended up playing a lot more that you would want. For the year, both Jarius Wynn and CJ Wilson were both within a hundred snaps of Ryan Pickett. Frankly, that’s way too much. Pickett’s value against the run can not be argued against – one just has to look at the two games Pickett missed – the Packers gave up 344 rushing yards in those two games.
But at age 31, Pickett is just not a full-time player anymore. He’s certainly no BJ Raji, who played 80% of the defensive snaps last season. While Raji and his coaches say it’s not a problem, that he didn’t wear down, one has to wonder. Raji’s production was down in every category this year, and some observers outside of the Packers organization have hinted that he wasn’t playing hard every play.
Certainly fatigue will do that to you. Looking at the game-by-game rankings over at ProFootballFocus.com are certainly telling. Raji’s only “Plus” performances were early in the season while the last six games were all on the minus side, especially against the run. In my mind, there is no doubt Raji wore down and did not show much of the explosion he’s capable of. Instead, he was playing way too upright (another sign of fatigue), which makes the offensive lineman’s job that much easier.
As for Neal, what can we say? The guy has played a total of 237 snaps, the equivalent of about a third of a season, in his first two years in the league. The Justin Harrell comparisons are running rampant, and one has to wonder what the Packers’ insiders think of Neal when there has been talk of possibly moving him to OLB. Is that how desperate they are for OLB help or do they just feel Neal will not be an impact player on the DL? Even if he goes full-time on a Jenny Craig diet, it’s hard for me to picture Neal playing there. He would probably do a decent job setting the edge in run defense, but what happens when he has to play in space?
When Neal was drafted by the Packers in the second round, my first reaction was; Who? Eventually, the tales of his weight room prowess and a promising game against the Redskins early in his rookie year won me over and convinced me he was the answer. The fact that Green Bay let Cullen Jenkins leave also told me the Packers had big expectations from Neal. Now, after another injury-marred season, we really don’t know what we have.
Five rounds after Neal was drafted, the Packers picked CJ Wilson, who I actually knew much more about than Neal. Wilson was a pass-rushing force at East Carolina, with 27 sacks in his college career. I was sure the Packers had their steal of the draft. Reality shows that Wilson has just been an adequate fill-in that ironically, has played much better against the run as a pro. I guess the offensive tackle talent in Conference-USA was not so hot and made Wilson appear much better than he is.
Jarius Wynn was drafted the year before Neal and Wilson. With the two new competitors in camp, Wynn was released at the end of 2010 training camp, but then re-signed just 10 days after when Justin Harrell was lost to injury for the last time with the Packers. The drafting of Wynn was always a bit of a puzzlement to me, as he’s just not suited to DE in the 3-4. He’s just not strong enough to take on double teams, and is easily handled in the run game. He has done much better as a pass rusher, and in fact, was the Packers’ most effective rusher in 2011 from the DL position.
Next we have 33 year old Howard Green, who was rescued from the scrap heap after being cut by the Jets in 2010 and had some good contributions in the Packers’ Super Bowl season, when the Packers were playing much more Okie, or 3-man front, and of course in short yardage and goal line situations. This year, he was somewhat the same immovable force, but he did not show any of the surprising mobilty seen in the previous season.
Lastly, we have Lawrence Guy, whom has been on injured reserve all season and Johnny Jones from the practice squad. More on them later.
So that’s where we are. Next let’s look at…
Where we want to be:
The short answer is, just about anywhere but where we are now. Yes, it was that bad in 2011. According to ProFootballFocus, the Packers’ defense was ranked third from last in the NFL against the run and fifth from last in pass rush. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, there were four teams with a worse pass rush than the Packers (Carolina, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and New Orleans).
While it’s fasirly impossible to turn that completely around in one season, progress has to be made, specifically on the defensive line. That doesn’t mean the Packers need a big pass rusher from the 3-4DE spot. In fact, that’s really the last thing the Packers want. What they do want, however, are defensive linemen that can force and take on double teams, hold their ground and play more of a contain game. Guys like Cullen jenkins, who can generate consistent pass rush as a 3-4 end are actually pretty rare. And like it or not, it’s really not what the Packers look for in a DE.
It’s my opinon that Dom Capers played a whole hell of a lot more nickel this season than he wanted to. But really, he had little choice. With only two NFL starting caliber defensive lineman in Raji and Pickett, plus the paucity of QB pressure from anyone other than Clay Matthews, nickel was the best option.
According to ProFootballFocus, the Packers were in nickel 61% of the time and dime 6% of the time, while playing in the base 3-4 only 27% of the time. That is not where they want to be. The Packers need a good five-man rotation on the defensive line so they don’t have to wear out their best player and have some protection in case Mike Neal really is Justin Harrell.
How do we get there?
Well, we are talking Ted Thompson here. Expecting him to go out and pick up an experienced free agent defensive lineman is like hoping for snow in the Bahamas.
Really, the one thing that would have the most immedeiate impact on improving this defensive line would be Mike Neal getting healthy. Of course, as we’ve seen with Justin Harrell, hope can be a fool’s game. So what else can the Packers do?
Looking back at the defensive linemen on the Packers’ roster, remember the breakdown by where they were drafted? There is little doubt in my mind the Packers need to look for a defensive lineman in the first 3 rounds of this draft. There is only one player I would call worthy of their #1 pick, and that would be Michael Brockers of LSU. He’s still young and raw, but has the prototypical size, length and strength to be a real force at the 3-4DE position. Brockers would probably require a trade-up, but if he falls into the 20s, I think it starts to make serious sense.
If the Packers go elsewhere with the first pick, like WR (just kidding), Ted needs to take his highest rated DL with one of his next two picks. The Packers desperately need another early round DL talent on their roster.
While Howard Green is a free agent that wouldn’t cost a lot, you started to see his limited effectiveness this past season. Keeping a 33 yr old player on your team who is only going to play 200 snaps just impedes the development of your younger prospects.
Speaking of which, there are two players on the Packers roster we never saw on the field this past year. Lawrence Guy was a player I had targeted for the Packers in my final mock draft last season, but did not expect him to last until the seventh round. He had been a bit of an underachiever in College, but did have to fight through some obstacles like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. With therapy and medication, he’s put those problems behind him and is ready to show the combination of size, speed and strength he flashed in college. After the Packers drafted Guy, I wrote at the time that all he needed was a year in the weight room. Well, although not as he would have planned, he did get his year to focus on training and hopefuly, he can be a pleasant surprise next training camp.
Then we have practice squad player Johnny Jones. He’s 6’4″, 310 out of Marshall University. He was undrafted and cut by the Miami Dolphins and then signed by the Packers later in the season to their practice squad. I don’t know that we can call Jones anything more than a warm body, at this point. I just don’t see him helping the Packers’ next season.
As for CJ Wilson, I’m hoping this is the year he shows some of that athletic ability you see on his college game tape. Jarius Wynn needs to keep getting stronger so he can better hold his ground in the run game. Realistically, it hard to see either of these players being much more than what they’ve been so far.
So it all comes down to the draft, as it always does for Ted Thompson. In order to improve this defensive line, the Packers MUST use an early pick on a defensive lineman. Otherwise, all of the Packer’s eggs are in the Mike Neal basket, which may or may not be a good thing – we just don’t know.
Jersey Al Bracco is the founder and editor of AllGreenBayPackers.com, and the co-founder of Packers Talk Radio Network. He can be heard as one of the Co-Hosts on Cheesehead Radio and is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.