Next up in the AllGreenBayPackers.com’s positional group analysis is the defensive line, who while showed some improvement from their disastrous 2011 season was still probably the reason behind their playoff collapse this year.
Where Are We Now
Here are the current suspects;
- BJ Raji (1st round, 2009)
- Ryan Pickett (1st round, 2001)
- Mike Neal (2nd round, 2010)
- CJ Wilson (7th round, 2010)
- Jerel Worthy (2nd round, 2012)
- Mike Daniels (4th round, 2012)
- Philip Merling (2nd round, 2008, cut week 4)
So that’s where we are. Thompson has made quite an effort to shore up his defensive line, with three 1st or 2nd rounders in the last four years. However, despite Thompson’s focus on the defensive line, not much good has happened. BJ Raji hasn’t been as dominant a force as he was in the 2010 Superbowl season, Mike Neal is essentially starting his sophomore campaign with all the injuries he suffered and rookie Jerel Worthy looked like a raw rookie before suffering an ACL injury.
- Raji: Raji spent considerably more time as a defensive end this year than as a nose tackle (536 snaps at DE vs. 123 at NT) and overall as I’ve written in my previous articles this is probably the best move for the Packers as defensive ends are much more important to a 3-4 defense than nose tackles. While Raji definitely had a better season than his lackluster 2011 campaign, it still pales in comparison to his 2010 season where he earned the nickname “the freezer”. One distinct possibility is that Raji is starting to wear down due to all the snaps that he’s had to take since there were no other viable DL around, but the addition of Worthy, Neal and Daniels will hopefully allow the Packers to have a decent DL rotation.
- Pickett: Pickett again was a consistent performer in the middle, while he’s never going to really get the sacks or tackles to make fans notice, he does hold up double teams and do the dirty work for the rest of the defensive linemen and linebackers. However at 33 Pickett is certainly in the twilight of his career but surprisingly is playing more snaps ever year since 2009; this obviously can’t continue to happen for a guy at his age and size so chances are good with Raji perhaps spending the majority of time at DE, we could see the Packers look for a replacement at nose tackle.
- Neal: After a disastrous start to the season where he was banned 4 games for using Adderall without notifying the league Neal had a pretty decent season overall. Neal managed to rack up 5 sacks and finally started to look at home on the field (it certainly helped that he wasn’t seriously injured for once this season). While Neal does provide a good pass rushing option, he is still only acceptable at run defense, which is quite surprising given his supposed strength. Overall, I think the Packers like what they see in Neal, while his development was hindered due to injuries, he did play good football once things got going and I’d would think that the Packers will consider 2013 to be Neal’s sophomore season and look for him to rapidly improve.
- Wilson: Wilson is almost the exact opposite of Neal; while Neal excels in the pass defense, Wilson excels in run defense. Neal was a high draft pick who hasn’t lived up to his expectations, Wilson was a low draft pick that has certainly lived up to his. Wilson is the Packers most consistent run defender at DE and is basically a starter in the base formation (unfortunately the Packers don’t line up in the base formation all that often anymore) and outside of Raji and Pickett, logged the most snaps of any of the “rotational” defensive linemen.
- Worthy: While Worthy didn’t really show much during his rookie season, which isn’t all that surprising since most linemen on both sides of the ball struggle to adjust from the collegiate game in their first years, perhaps more unsettling is the ACL injury that he suffered in week 17 against the Vikings. Given that he sustained the injury so late in the season would seemingly dictate that at best Worthy begins the season on the PUP and at worst lands on IR for the entire season like inside linebacker Desmond Bishop did this year. Some speculation has already begun that the Packers are going to count off Worthy’s 2013 as over and are looking to draft another DL high, my feelings are the Packers aren’t going to jump the gun on the matter.
- Daniels: Mike Daniels is one of the stranger players on the Packers roster. At 6’0″ and 294 lbs, he’s too short to play anything other than inside linebacker in the front 7, while too heavy to play linebacker but too light to play any of the defensive line positions. In the end, Daniels ended up being a rotational pass rusher, though he did see starting action in week 16 against the Titans with mixed results. Going forward I’m not entirely sure what the Packers are going to do with him, presumably Neal, Worthy and Raji are their preferred starters in the nickel defense and obvious passing situations and presumably Daniels has neither the length or the size to really match up well in the running game. It will be interesting to see what the Packers ultimately decide to do with Daniels moving forward.
- Merling: Philip Merling was essentially a stop gap and a warm body for Mike Neal and only recorded 48 snaps over the entire season. He was cut after game 4 and did not resign to another team for the rest of the season.
Where We Want To Be:
Overall, the defensive line was average to below average in just about every regard, but considering that the line was atrocious last year the improvement on the line is actually a pretty surprising, hey Rome wasn’t built in a year. Still much improvement must be made in order to field an efficient defense. First and foremost is probably finding more playmakers for the defensive end position. As I’ve mentioned before, one common thread that link the better 3-4 defenses together is they have a star defensive end (SF-Justin Smith, BAL-Haloti Ngata, HOU-JJ Watt, ARI-Calais Campbell), while I believe Raji could be that guy and Worthy and Neal also have a smaller chance of being that guy; but at the moment the Packers don’t have “the guy” and it’s killing them in all aspects.
How Do We Get There?
Previously my assumption had always been that the defensive end position in the 3-4 was essentially irrelevant and basically any 3-technique 4-3 DT could probably be converted to a 3-4 DE without much penalty. However, in light of my recent analysis and the statistical trending of the NFL, this is almost exactly opposite; defensive end is one of the most important positions on the defense and it takes a special type of player to truly be dominant in the position. With that being said I’m not confident that the Packers will make DE one of their top priorities. For one there aren’t many players out there in the college system that would translate well from the predominate 4-3 scheme to a NFL 3-4 scheme (which might explain why some people believe the Packers overdrafted Mike Neal). Secondly, there is much more risk in drafting a 4-3 DT who has to make the transition to 3-4 DE than say drafting a safety. Finally, Thompson has already invested two high draft picks on Neal and Worthy, and before he knows how they will ultimately pan out, I doubt Thompson would be willing to spend any more high draft picks on defensive end. That being said, I do think that defensive end and nose tackle make a lot of sense in the mid rounds. Nose tackle in particular is probably a concern since Ryan Pickett is near the end of his career and curiously the Packers are double booked on the defensive depth chart (Raji is the backup to Pickett at NT while Pickett is the backup to Raji at DE) so adding another wide body would make a lot of sense. Also look for Thompson again to sift through the free agent “trash can” and see if he can find another player like Philip Merling to try out during the offseason.
Listen to the companion podcast using the player below or download the podcast from the Packers Talk Radio Network on Itunes:
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.