Green Bay Packers Taking Shotgun Approach to Improving the Defensive Line

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Phillip Merling
Veteran free agent DE Phillip Merling became the twelfth defensive lineman on the Packers' offseason roster.

Call it the “shotgun approach.” Ted Thompson added his twelfth defensive lineman to the roster on Wednesday with his signing of DE Phillip Merling, who spent the last four years with the Miami Dolphins. Of the four (non-Packer) veteran free agent signings by Thompson this offseason, three have been defensive lineman: Daniel Muir, Tony Hargrove, and now Merling.

There’s obviously been some emphasis by the Packers on bolstering the talent and depth across the unit. The drafting of Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels take the total number of new linemen up to five, meaning almost half of the group will be new faces in training camp.

Is this a case of desperation in response to the horrible performances of last season? No, that’s taking it a bit far. Ted Thompson is not spending beaucoup money on these free agent players, which one would tend to do when desperate.

But he is stockpiling the talent pool in a variety of ways, and hoping a good number of them stick.

The three free agent signings are not superstars. Tony Hargrove is the most well known of the group, but he’s probably not going to be a game-changer. His career has been up and down, playing with four different teams over eight years and racking up just 19.5 sacks and 16 run stuffs in the process. Hargrove hasn’t started a game in two seasons, and he only has 25 starts to his name across his entire career. Those numbers aren’t meant to discourage anyone – they’re certainly not the whole story – but they’re not indicators of a guy who’s going to “tilt the field.”

Then there’s Daniel Muir, whose career contrasts with Hargrove’s. Both are 28 years old, but Muir has 3 years less experience in the league and a slightly less impressive resume. Unlike the travelling Hargrove, he spent most of his years with the Indianapolis Colts after his rookie stint with the Packers. Muir’s numbers aren’t as flashy (just a half a sack in his career), but he is also an inside tackle player rather than a defensive end, so his role is considerably different.

Finally we have Phillip Merling, who seems to have the least potential of the three. He was a second round draft pick for the Miami Dolphins in 2008 and played in all 16 games in each of his first two years, though he only started four of them. He showed improvement from his rookie to his sophomore year, but a torn Achilles tendon derailed his career in 2010. He hasn’t played the same since.

While it’s doubtful any of these free agents will bring a lot of “star power” with them, they are still risks that the Green Bay Packers can take with minimal concern.

Hargrove’s one-year, “veteran minimum” contract has been well documented by the media, especially in light of his 8-game suspension currently under appeal. Muir was also signed for a similar one-year contract for the veteran minimum, and though Merling’s contract has been undisclosed, bets are he settled for about the same.

These guys are all going to be competing for spots on the roster, with none of them being a sure bet. But the hope for Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and Dom Capers is that at least one will prove to be an upgrade over some of their current players.

Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji are the two key players on the line. Beyond that, there’s not that much to get excited about. Mike Neal was supposed to be part of that group, but has fallen flat on his face with injuries and underperformance. In the words of McCarthy, his “availability and accountability” are less than desirable.

C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn make up the next tier of talent, being decent players but not shining stars. At the bottom sit the unproven Lawrence Guy and Johnny Jones, who are still in the early stages of blazing their career trails.

In short, there are some expendable players in this group – players who are solid backups, but who don’t quite have the skills to be full-blown starters. Whether it’s the free agents or bottom-tier linemen, a couple of these guys will need to step in and show they’re capable of improving the unit beyond what it was last season.

Draft picks Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, on the other hand, will probably hold a slight advantage in making the roster. Their expectations will be high, but they will be granted more time to develop in the system. More often than not, Ted Thompson keeps the young rookie with room to grow over the veteran who’s already hit his apex as a player.

As a second round pick, Worthy will be their biggest hope for an immediate upgrade, though I’m sure they’d also like to be pleasantly surprised by Daniels, who will probably be backing up the tackle positions.

All of this, however, boils down to the “shotgun approach” mentioned at the start of this post. More players competing for spots in camp means a higher chance of nailing some difference-makers. The NFL’s increase in the offseason roster limit from 80 to 90 players has helped make this all the more possible for Thompson and the Packers, but we’d probably be seeing the same approach regardless.

As a point of reference, Thompson only brought in three rookie defensive linemen last year (Lawrence Guy, Chris Donaldson, and Eli Joseph), all while releasing Justin Harrell and letting Cullen Jenkins walk in free agency. Donaldson and Joseph were cut from the final roster, while Guy spent the season on injured reserve. Perhaps too much stock was being put into the prospect of Mike Neal, or perhaps being the league’s number two ranked scoring defense the year before gave everyone a false sense of security.

Either way, Thompson has changed his strategy this offseason. He has acquired a number of veteran free agents and notable draft selections to ramp up the competition and increase the team’s chances of landing the right players for the job.

Only time will tell if any of those shots hit their mark, but as of right now, the Packers have a lot of bullets to shoot with.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • BubbaOne

    Chad,
    I’m curious to where you think they line up? Like, will Muir play NT or line up at DE the way Pickett has at times? Care to give us a depth chart?

    Merling’s release was due to Miami not happy he didn’t attend their OTA’s. I think it takes a 1 1/2-2 yrs to fully recover from a torn achilles. So along w/ those points, the change of scenery, and Trgo may be Merling surprises us. It’s at least worth a roll of the dice.

    • Chad Toporski

      I like FireMMNow’s list below.

      As for Merling, I think there is potential, but right now it’s still a long shot. Definitely worth the roll of the dice, though, as you said.

  • FireMMNow

    There is definitely two sets of lineman on this years team. They have their base DEs and their subpackage DTs.

    Base DEs:
    Merling
    Wilson
    Worthy (actually a swing player, but will get snaps all over)
    Pickett (grudingly putting him here, but i want him as a backup NT only)
    Wynn
    Neal

    Subpackage:
    Daniels
    Hargrove
    Muir

    I think TT and MM find a way to keep more than the standard 6 DL this year. I think they could keep 7 or maybe even 8 DL. The casualties will be in the TE department. They could also just carry two RBs and Kuhn is your swing man at FB.

    I think there will be HEAVY rotation on the line. They will come in waves this year keeping everyone fresh and itching for snaps. Look for more 4 man fronts as well.

    • Oppy

      Agree with this, but Wynn I find hard to designate as anything in Capers’ D. He’s not really suited for anything. He’s actually been used more as a sub package guy than anything else; interior pass rusher out of 4 down nickle packages. He’s just not cut out for what we do.

      Really agree about Pickett as DE; he’s still a far better two-gapper than Raji, who acknowledges as much and says he still has a lot to learn about playing the nose/two gapping from “big grease”.

    • PackersRS

      Pickett should be in every run down. He is, by far, the best run player the Packers have, and one of the best in the league.

      In fact, I advocate he shouldn’t be on passing downs. Only on 1st downs, 2nd downs (not 2nd and long), and on short yardage situations.

      If Pickett goes down, the defense won’t be able to stop the run.

    • BubbaOne

      You left out Raji, Guy, and Jones.

      Of the 12, what’s the depth chart at RDE, NT, LDE?
      i.e
      Raji # 1 at NT, who’s #2?
      Does Muir play DE or NT in the base or just DT in the sub pckg?

      Sub Pckg 2-4-5:
      Daniels, Hargrove, Raji, Worthy, and Neal (if healthy) rotation?

      • Chad Toporski

        I think I’m going to wait until training camp before I start coming up with an actual depth chart. Too many questions with all the new faces and unproven worth for the Packers’ defensive system.

        • FireMMNow

          i left out raji because he is a NT. i do not like him at DE at all. And he was very poor all year last year. He has some pass rush abilities, but with guys like hargrove (after suspension), worthy and daniels, raji should see significantly less snaps next year.

          jones and guy…who knows. i have not seen them play. no idea where to put them.

      • Oppy

        Based on past performance, Pickett really SHOULD be the #1 NT

        • PackersRS

          Funny thing is I don’t ever remember the Packers playing the typical 2 gap 3-4, with a NT at 0 and two DEs at 5.

          Pickett played DE, not NT, but he was the one who had 2 gap responsabilities.

          If someone care to correct me, be my guest. I don’t have access to game tape and haven’t seen any highlight where the Packers are in a 3-4.

          • FireMMNow

            they ran some base last year, but it was primarily nickel with two down lineman was the true “base”.

            i think DC felt that his best players were LBs and secondary players so get more of them on the field. hopefully he feels that the DL group can carry their own weight this year. i did read that MM felt they were in nickel too much last year.

          • Oppy

            First year we installed Dom’s 3-4 Pickett was playing alot of true NT (0 tec) and he played well.

            FireMM, I’m pretty sure RS wasn’t talking about the Packers playing more 4-down fronts/nickle packages, but was commenting on the fact that when we did play base, the NT wasn’t playing 0 technique, but rather shading the center or even being completely offset all together. Correct me if I’m wrong, RS.

            • PackersRS

              Yeah, that’s it. The first year Pickett did play the NT at 0, but after that Raji moved to NT and Pickett to DE. But I don’t think their responsabilities in base, gap wise, changed. It just moved.

        • BubbaOne

          Thanks Chad and Fire MM. I know they’ll be experimenting but I wanted to get a starting point on who lines up where.

          Oppy, I think Pickett is more stout at NT than Raji but Raji can create more havoc. I feel Capers wants to see more inside rush on all downs. That’s why they wanted the quickness of Worthy and Daniels and the inside blitzing Manning, Lattimore, and Jones may provide.

          • Oppy

            No question Raji can create more havoc. Pickett has little to no penetration. Raji’s strength is agility, quickness, and his ability to collapse and penetrate. Those are not prime requisites of a NT. Pickett’s strengths are his ability to anchor vs. the double team, two gap, shed and make tackles. That’s exactly what you need a NT in a 3-4 to do.

            Raji at this point in his career is really best suited as a 4-3 DT who has a single gap responsibility and is allowed to just shoot that gap and make plays. Not to say he can’t become a true NT, just saying that he’s not there yet. Pickett is perfect for a 3-4 NT.

  • Ron LC

    I guess I wouldn’t call this part of the Packer 2012 strategy “shotgun.” I would call it very diliberate. That is, have enough Dline candidates to pick the 5 or 6 to keep on the roster which will allow substitutions at critical periods. Last year Capers had NO CONFIDENCE in Wynn or Wilson and over-worked Pickett and Raji. That has to change. Capers will have his pick of a stable of GOOD, if not, above average talent to fill those critical back up positions. He already has Worthy for the RE.

    If Wynn or Wilson expect to make this team in 2012 they better upgrade their skills and efforts significantly.

    • Oppy

      I think a big part of the strategy here is also the presence and tone some of these guys will set in camp for the rest of the D-Line.

      There’s just enough players who will literally be playing not just for a spot on the Packers’ roster, but playing for their very CAREERS. Guys like Hargrove, Muir, Wynn, and maybe even Merlin may end up tagged as “washed up” or “worthless” if they fail to make a roster at this point in their careers- either not enough talent, or past their prime, or damaged goods…

      That is a powerful motivator- one that you can bet Trgo is going to remind them of- and when guys are at OTA’s and TC playing for their very careers, that creates a very competitive, fierce fight-for-life atmosphere that the other defensive linemen must match. It becomes infectious, and could spread throughout the other rooms as well. Hard for LB’s or DB’s to lay back at practice when the big bodies at camp are going to war on every drill and down.

      • Chad Toporski

        I think that’s one of the big reasons TT has brought in 3 veterans. They’ll bring in some experience and competition that will help set a tone for the overall group.

    • Chad Toporski

      You can still take good aim with a shotgun. ;-)

      But yes, I understand where you’re coming from…

  • Oppy

    Let’s get my broken record statement out of the way:

    People, please actually WATCH Wilson’s play last season. He’s better than you think.

    It’s popular to groan about Wilson and Wynn in the same breath. Wynn does not fit in this system. Wilson actually does, and last year he played sound when called on, and even flashes here and there. He’s not a game changer, but a sound rotational player. I don’t know if that will be enough to stick with the extra talent brought in this year, but Wilson is a good football player.

    Mike Daniels might be as much of a beast at his position as most fans hope Worthy will be at his. Daniels is a gamer.

    Merlin has more POTENTIAL than hargrove by a wide margin; and more than Muir by a total landslide. Yes, the injury has hobbled him, he’s still a better player than either of these two guys. Even if his achilles tendon permanently effects his speed and burst, he could make a great transition to a classic 3-4 DE who hunkers down and uses his length to entangle OL and keep the lanes free for our OLB’s to penetrate and make plays. He’s prototypical 3-4 DE size- 6’5″, 315 and long levers. Sure, he’s a question mark, but he has tons of potential.

    • Oppy

      Dang it, why can’t I type “merlinG”? I know he’s not a wizard. ;)

    • FireMMNow

      Hargrove is a proven interior pass rusher in the NFL. No one else on this team has proven that. The packers are hoping Worthy and Daniels can be that type of player, but Hargrove is the only one who has PROVED he can do it.

      Merling is from Clemson. They ALL have potential and that is usually all you ever get. I love the signing because it was a no risk signing, but he will have to be better than he has been at ANY point in his career to make the team.

      I do agree that Wilson is better than most give him credit for. The coaches felt that he took a step back last year and he probably did. He could be a dark horse to start on the DL this year.

      • Oppy

        Fair enough, it was sort of foolish to declare Merling a better player than Hargrove, I probably should have stated he has more upside. Merling is still young and has time to rebound from his injury/early disappointments; Hargrove is on the backside of his career and while he still could get some mileage out of his career, it’s hard not to think he’s on the downside of it.

    • Chad Toporski

      You’re right, it is “convenient” to put Wynn and Wilson in the same breath. And to be honest, I don’t have the eyes (yet) to discern the play of defensive lineman without hitting replay about 20 times. Perhaps “decent” wasn’t the right word to describe them, but I did purposefully stay away from bemoaning their abilties, since I think both have contributed in their own way over the years. And as you said, Wilson moreso than Wynn.

      That said, Wilson is still in that middle tier of players right now.

  • Big T

    Lets spend the money and get a quality player instead of being cheap and getting 3 crappy players who probably won’t ever start a game………

    • Chad Toporski

      That’s the problem… not a lot of money to spend, especially with some big contracts that will have to be negotiated this year.

      • FireMMNow

        rodgers, cm3, jennings, jordy and raji will all need new deals in the next two years. you pick which one you do not want on the team so you can spend big money on another DL.

        • BubbaOne

          And if Lang continues to improve he’ll be in line for a hefty pay raise this off season.
          Sidebar-W/ TT’s ability to make a trade rather than just release a player (Sclauderaff, QJ, and earlier LS J.J. Jansen) I put the over/under at 3 for the # of trades he makes acquiring picks for our players.

          • FireMMNow

            i actually put lang on the list and then deleted him. i think you could make the argument to sign a top notch DE rather than a LG. but i agree. he is going to need a bigger deal than colledge got to keep him around.

            • Oppy

              One thing that might be an indication that Lang loves the Packers and the opportunity playing for this team provides more than just taking an outright big paycheck:

              His tweet that went out right away when Scott Wells signed with the Rams:

              “Those that stay will become Champions”.

              It’s not much, but I’d love to believe it’s a little insight into TJ Lang’s priorities.

              • Steve Cheez

                Easy to say until somebody dangles a huge check in his face

  • Ron LC

    Word from GB – A conditional offer has been prepared for DD.

    • Oppy

      Pretty sure the Packers are going to want to give DD a deal that is heavily performance based.

  • Pete Kliman

    The odds are on our side that at least one of these guys will produce . We don’t need much just some pressure so that our DB’s don’t have to cover the receivers for ten minutes.

  • PackEyedOptimist

    The strategy is much like the “more draft picks equals more chances to succeed” that TT has used, though not so much this year. Maybe that’s part of it: he burned some picks trading up, but he still wants more bodies.

  • Lou

    Adding DEPTH at MINIMUM COST is a good business proposition with the hope that one of the 3 veterans becomes an overachiever. Muir showed promise as a rookie in Green Bay and started for winning teams with the Colts, Hargrove has flashed talent and did play on a Super Bowl winner, Merling was drafted high and progressed until injured. They key to all 3 is Coach Trgo’s ability to get one of them to overachieve. Again, a smart non-risk move that may pay off. We can’t expect anyone to see our opponents offensive look like they are playing 7 on 7 passing drills against us again, it was gut wrenching to watch for an entire season.