Packers Defensive Line Entering Big Contract Year

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Packers defensive linemen Neal, Wilson, and Pickett are all set to become free agents in 2014.
Packers defensive linemen Neal, Wilson, and Pickett are all set to become free agents in 2014.

In the wake of the Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews contract extensions, many of us have been wondering how the Green Bay Packers will utilize their remaining cap space. How they use it will depend a lot on the current players who will be free agency following this season. Not counting the recent restricted free agent tenders and offseason signings, there are a total of fourteen Packers players entering their final year of a multi-year contract.

One of the major concerns, though, is that four of those players – or over a quarter of them – are defensive linemen. And not just any defensive lineman. They accounted for 38 starts, 51 total games played, and 2,108 defensive snaps in 2012. Take a look:

  • Ryan Pickett, DT, 33, 13th yr.
    (2012: 16 starts, 16 games, 658 snaps – 2nd DL, 3.8 PFF grade – 2nd DL)
  • B.J. Raji, DT, 26, 5th yr.
    (2012: 14 starts, 14 games, 768 snaps – 1st DL, 6.5 PFF grade – 1st DL)
  • Mike Neal, DE, 25, 4th yr.
    (2012: 0 starts, 10 games, 323 snaps – 5th DL, 3.4 PFF grade – 3rd DL)
  • C.J. Wilson, DE, 26, 4th yr.
    (2012: 8 starts, 11 games, 359 – 4th DL, -2.1 PFF grade – 6th DL)

Obviously, Pickett and Raji are the two biggest names to be worried about. They are the workhorses of the defensive line and pretty much have been since their first years in Green Bay. Neal and Wilson aren’t every-down players, but they’ve proven their worth and could still show some improvement.

Unfortunately, the contract situations of these players are being pressured by multiple forces. Ted Thompson has drafted four defensive linemen in the past two drafts, who could each be major players: Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, and Josh Boyd. (There’s also Jordan Miller and Gilbert Pena looming in the shadows.) But in addition to the performance pressures, there are also going to be financial ones. Some other big-name players are going to be hitting the market in 2014, as well. Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, James Jones, and Marshall Newhouse are all going into their final contract year, plus Evan Dietrich-Smith and Sam Shields are currently on restricted free agent tenders that last just a year.

It’s going to be intriguing watching how things develop, to say the least. Should Ryan Pickett not show a significant decline in performance due to his age, then there’s a good chance he will be signed again, but at a reduced rate. His cap hit for this season is $6.7 million, which is fifth highest on the team. Pickett also said in his interview with Cheesehead Radio on Thursday that he “definitely” wants to end his career with the Packers, suggesting he might take a smaller contract if the Packers still want him.

B.J. Raji could command the largest payment of the group, since this will be his second contract of his career. He’s already taking up about $6.6 million of the team’s salary cap this year, which is right behind Pickett. Though Raji hasn’t produced quite up to the level expected of him, it could be hard to let him walk if he has a good 2013 season.

C.J. Wilson and Mike Neal have the most to worry about this year. They only saw half of the snaps that Pickett and Raji saw last year, and they graded out lower according to PFF’s grading system. Despite both of them coming from the 2010 draft class, Neal was a second rounder, while Wilson was taken in the seventh round. Strangely, Wilson seems to have been the most productive during his time with the Packers. Of course, this was mostly due to Neal’s injuries and suspension. With all of the young blood coming in to compete for starting jobs, these two linemen will need to have stellar training camps and seasons if they want to be back in 2014.

A lot will depend on how the entire defensive line group performs come training camp. It wouldn’t be terribly shocking to see one of these four players cut before the season begins, and I could also see Ted Thompson letting these guys test the free agent waters in a year, depending on how well they perform in the regular season. There’s no rush to sign any of them, but the clock is also ticking, and decisions will have to be made by the end of the season.

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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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  • jay

    Mike Daniels is apparently so awesome you named him twice

    • Chad Toporski

      Oops… Fixed it to Josh Boyd.

      Thanks for the catch! My editor will hear about this. ;-)

  • cow42

    this is easy…

    pickett = gone (too old)
    wilson = gone (no upside)
    newhouse = gone (no good)
    finley = gone (too expensive)

    there, that makes things more manageable

    • Chad Toporski

      And if none of the replacements are better than the three starters you’re getting rid of…?

    • Lars1

      Raji gone, too expensive and the best of a bad bunch is still bad, especially for $6.5 million a year. Pickett, this will be his last year in GB,at least at that salary. Wilson is the worst of a bad bunch. He’s gone this year. Neal, gone. Finley gone as you say.

      • Gopackgo

        Ummmm…. What? The packers are not going to get rid of their NT while running the 3-4. Rajis stats do not do his play justice, he anchors the middle of the line and eats up double teams all day. If there’s one free agent that I had to put money on that he would be resigned it would be Raji

  • Shawn

    I could see letting Wilson, Neal and Pickett go after this year if none step up and play well above the herd of younger guys. Pickett would be just another controversial Vet releasing by TT to make room for younger cheaper talent that he drafted.

    • Dobber

      There’s enough teams out there playing the 3-4 that there might be a market for a run-down DE like Wilson in trade.

      If there’s no decline in his play this year, Pickett is too valuable to let go (unless his price tag is exorbitant). He knows where he is in his career and what he offers, plus, he and his family are firmly entrenched in the area. I think he’ll stay at a reasonable cap number.

  • Tarynfor12

    Pickett next season will hamper the Draft and Develop process no matter how he plays this season…’Age,Money,Competition,All of the Above’.

    Rajis’ snaps need to be reduced,otherwise most will be screaming he’s overpaid ala Hawk when he is resigned…’LESS IS MORE’

    Wilson…Negative rating,negative upside..’TWO NEGATIVES DON”T EQUAL A POSITIVE..RIGHT?’

    Neal…2nd rd pick will be given the chance to..what was it…be a ‘TENTACLED’beast of some kind?
    If not,it won’t take much ‘INK’ to sign him again for ‘depth’.

    • http://allpackers.com Nick Perry

      I think we’d all agree Raji’s best season was 2010, when he was a decent run stopper and actually collected some sacks (6.5 sacks). That was also the last season that Jenkins was playing along side him. Seems to me Raji doesn’t seem to make the impact we all expect unless he has someone decent playing next to him. Maybe Jones can be a force, even in his rookie year. Maybe Neal actually steps up. To bad that Worthy got hurt because I would think he was the one on the defensive line that would have made the big year 2 jump. Every season we hear about the decreased snaps Raji must get. Every year the snaps aren’t decreased, or at least not enough where we’re bringing it up the following season. No matter what, I don’t think Raji is worth a ton of money, not with what we’ve seen the last few seasons.

  • Ron LC

    Raji – must become the defensive player that consistently creates havoc on the O side of the ball to get his desired “elite” level payday. Since his rookie year he has been steady but not outstanding. It will be a mater of is he worth what he thinks he is? My opinion – he has not impressed yet.

    Wilson – a run stopper? Not that I’ve noticed when it really counts. Could be replaced easily by just about anyone.

    Neal – finally saw some positive movement from him late last year. Needs to keep the improvement up this year and he might be worth keeping at a reasonable salary level.

    Pickett – the wear and tear of years in an NFL Dline are beginning to show. Renegotiate his contract down and he’d still be a good backstop for another year, possibly two. Being one of TT’s two great FA signings should earn him that consideration.

    For this year let’s hope their desire for big money contracts drives them to play with reckless abandon. Hopefully, to pay off with a SB run.

    Of course, if they don’t make the step forward then there’s some more “cap money” to use elsewhere.

    • Stroh

      How exactly is the wear and tear beginning to show on Pickett? He played as well last year as he ever played. Is he older? sure… But he is still the best run stuffer on the team and a lot of NFL NT play very well into their 30’s. Pat Williams was a force till he was well over 35.

      Picketts contract is ending, but he is still very valuable. And IMO, he’ll be easy to re-sign at a much lower salary. I’m guessing he would get a 2 yr/6M ext.

    • Lars1

      Good post. Pickett, according to PFF is one of the most overpaid players on the team. Rather than start with the vets and figure out who among the bad line will be kept—let’s start with the 4 picks and add the best of the mediocrities—

      Jones, Boyd, Daniels, Worthy (PUP)…Raji, Pickett (Ted loves him) and maybe Neal because he can at least pressure the QB, even if he failed at replacing Jenkins and can’t defend the run.

  • Clay Matthews’ Bicep

    I don’t see any reason why the Pack would not keep Neal. He’s had a long history of injuries but that will probably mean the Packers can give him a deal with low guaranteed money and make up for it with incentives. Right now on our roster, he and Raji are the only ones on the DL (not including Jones) that have shown any ability to rush the passer.

    You don’t let go of pass rushing talent unless the team has absolutely given up on the player and even though Neal has been frustrating since he can’t get on the field, it’s not time to give up on him yet.

  • http://gogglechrome madtowne

    Some will come and some will go. This is
    the way it is.
    Follow the man with the gray hair, for he
    is wise.

    St. Vince-Book of Matthews-Verse 12

  • tjc

    Great article. We have some good DL’s, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is elite. TT doesn’t put out money for average production, unless you play ILB :P… and I don’t get that because it seems like we can put anyone at ILB and they do ok.

    Raji can stay in 2014 for 2.1MM, but he can void that and try free agency.

    I predict that next year we overpay one DL free agent for his average production (BJ), let a few get paid by other teams, and rely on our young guys for the rest.

  • Oppy

    It is rare that I find PFF ratings completely out of whack, but that’s exactly how I feel on this.

    Pickett is a stud.. Still. Only NT on the roster who… is actually a NT.

    Raji is okay, but not great. Definitely not the NT of the future unless something “clicks” this year, he’s an interior DT in sub or a DE in base, IMO. I think he’s more suited as a 3 tech DT in a 4-3.

    Wilson is our truest 3-4 DE on the roster. He does what he’s supposed to do, hold the point of attack for the LBs to make plays in the backfield and help stop the run on the edge. It’s not flashy, but it’s exactly what a 3-4 DE is supposed to do.

    Neal is finally healthy and starting to show some of the talent he showed as a rookie as an interior pass rusher in sub packages.

    I don’t think any of these guys are poor players at their position. That said, who to keep and who to pass on is difficult. I feel like Raji has the highest ceiling of any of them, but he’s just not a good fit for the Packers defense, IMO. Will he sign a contract that equals his actual worth to the Packers? Pickett has to slow down at some point, but he’s the best D lineman (and ONLY good NT) on the roster, IMO. But how long can he do it? Neal has talent in nickle rush situations, but w/ Mike Daniels (and perhaps Datone Jones, now) does he bring anything that can’t be found elsewhere on the roster?

    CJ Wilson might have the lowest ceiling of all these players.. Yet.. He’s the only guy out of them who I look at as being a good fit and that I can’t find any reason why he wouldn’t be offered (and accept) a new contract with the Packers.

    Sometimes fans need to come to grips with the fact that the majority of players on a football team aren’t superstars. They are just reliable guys who do their job, and that’s okay.

    • Chad Toporski

      Well said on all points.

    • Stroh

      Sorry but I think your completely misguided about Raji being a poor fit for the Packers D. And he is certainly NOT a 3 tech DT! Some good points, but your completely off base on Raji! He’s the one guy on the entire DL, that as of now has PROVEN he can play on any down and be productive. No matter how you cut it Raji IS the NT of the Future!

      Wilson is what he is… A run stuffing DE that had a negative rating playing almost exclusively on downs that are supposed to be his strength. He can easily be replaced and should be. Nothing against him, he just isn’t that good and won’t get better anymore.

      Re-sign Pickett at a reduced salary. Re-sign Raji at a slight increase, since he’s at 6.5M now. That will still open up cap space overall.

      Neal has this year to show he can stay healthy and continue to progress like he did last year. But he has to be productive or Worthy will be given his snaps and the opportunity.

      • Stroh

        Hopefully Wilson will be replaced by Jolly. That would instantly make the run D better. It would make the Packers D more physical and bring an attitude that is lacking on D! Plus Jolly might be able to take snaps not only at DE, but also at NT if needed.

        • Dobber

          Might be true of the old Jolly. No clue what kind of Jolly we’re getting now.

          Gosh, that second sentence just sounds bad.

    • Stroh

      Funny how Pickett is Great to you and Raji w/ a significantly higher rating isn’t a good fit! Makes no f’en sense!

      • Oppy

        Pretty simple, we went through this before:

        I put more stock in what I see on the field, you put more stock in reading players stat sheets.

        I think you could ask 31 offensive coordinators who is the more dominant d-lineman, Pickett or Raji, and 31 OC’s would tell you without hesitation, RYAN PICKETT. Why? Because they watch hours and hours of film…

        • Stroh

          YOU think 31 DC’s would tell us that. I seriously think 31 would say it was Raji. He plays a lot more snaps, and he grades higher. Unless you have proof of what YOU feel you don’t have squat to back your claim!

        • Stroh

          And if you think I don’t watch closely you AGAIN are sadly mistaken! I don’t go by stats as the tell all, I just use them to support my opinions when I can. And in this case I can! You have nothing but your opinion.

          • Oppy

            yup. you win…

  • Scott1956

    There’s no debate. TT will resign Raji, even though he won’t deserve it. He’s not a NT, which is why he was drafted, and he can’t rush the passer as an DE. None of that matters, TT will resign him. He resigned Hawk, which was a waste of money. And he resigned B.Jones, who is a career backup! He’ll resign Raji and tell us how much he’s improving! And Raji will continue to play soft, get pushed off the line of scrimmage.

    • Oppy

      I would debate Raji’s -ABILITY- rush the passer as a DE.

      The issue isn’t his ability. It’s his assignment. DE’s in this scheme are rarely asked to rush.

      Raji is a penetrating DT who isn’t asked to rush the passer very often. That’s the biggest issue, IMO. Mismatched for the scheme.. He’s got great burst and agility for a man his size. He’s not given a job that allows him to showcase those talents.

  • MJ

    Does anyone else look at this as a good thing for this year? Players in their last year of contract often play their best to impress and get the big payoff. We could actually see a d-line that is trying to impress others to insure the big payday next year. That could be a VERY good thing for the defense this year.

  • cow42

    the only reason any of use would get upset over losing any of these guys is because they are KNOWN QUANTITIES. none of them are really any good.

    losing any/all of them isn’t the problem.
    not having players better than them is the problem.

    • Oppy

      Glass half empty..

      I think none of them are bad.

    • Oppy

      .. and Pickett is actually Great.

      • Dobber

        How about “very good in his role?” Great might be a little bit of a stretch. But I agree: the Packers would be in tough shape without him right now.

        • Oppy

          Dobber, I’m sticking with great. Watching Pickett two gap when he gets the chance to play true nose (0 technique, doesn’t happen often) is a thing of beauty. There aren’t many guys in the league who can control both “A” Gaps as well as “Big Grease” does. He can anchor, locate the ball, get off the block(s) to either side, and make the play.

          Also, when he’s shading the C or playing the 1, he fully commands two blockers and rarely gives up an inch of ground.

          Unsung hero, he’s a beast. One of the better big guys in the league, imo.

          • Stroh

            ” Watching Pickett two gap when he gets the chance to play true nose (0 technique, doesn’t happen often) is a thing of beauty.”

            I don’t know where you get that Pickett isn’t playing NT! That’s where he played the VAST MAJORITY of his snaps last year. Just like w/ Raji your off base here. Pickett played more NT snaps than Raji becuz he doesn’t have the mobility to play DE like he did in ’10.

            • Oppy

              You’re in over your head, Stroh. Packers rarely line up the NT at 0…

              • Stroh

                And your a head case. You got nothing to back your claims.

              • Oppy

                Whatever helps you sleep at night.

  • BrianD

    I like the idea behind this article. Keep in mind these are 1/20th of the DL players who will be free agents next year. Even if they aren’t former Packers, there very well may be more valuable DL available in free agency next year with similar skill sets to the players listed in this article. What contracts will be offered is far beyond the scope of this piece.

  • Wagszilla

    I’ve yet to see the appeal of BJ Raji.

    He’s been below average since Jenkins left. That makes him an important piece of the defensive puzzle but nothing like the 3rd member of the Packers franchise trinity or any of the absurd things I’ve seen bandied about on the interwebs.

    He’s fat, slow, out of shape (getting redundant now), and has a horrendous attitude (see: 2011 Falcons, Giants post-games).

    Don’t see how that guy is worth the money he’s (supposedly) worth. If people are going to give Finley a hard time for being a “Hollywood” loudmouth then it’s time they start calling the spades spades…

    • Oppy

      While I agree that Raji hasn’t lived up to his draft position, (and I’m also of the mindset that Raji is in no way a “must resign” guy, either), I completely disagree with your assessment that he’s fat, slow, out of shape, and has a poor attitude.

      Fat? Well, sure. Show me a 340lbs DL who isn’t.

      Slow and out of shape? Not even close. Raji is greased lightning for a man of his size, and the percentage of snaps he has averaged over his career is about double of what most defensive linemen his size typical get. You can’t do that out of shape.

      I really don’t see the bad attitude, either. He doesn’t sulk over a loss, but I don’t think he’s any type of cancer, diva, or distraction.

      • BRinMilwaukee

        Good stuff, Oppy. I pretty much agree with everything you’ve written. I’m gonna keep an eye out for your posts.

        • Oppy

          Thanks, but fair warning: Be prepared for staggering disappointment. I lay eggs with the best of ‘em.

      • Wagszilla

        I’ll have to go re-watch the proverbial tape but he wore down faster than iPod earbuds in the 2nd half last year. (This after there was more depth on the D-Line and he was supposedly seeing less snaps).

        He’s quick, sure, but only until he gets winded. No endurance.

        I don’t think he’s a locker room cancer or anything like that but he definitely has a bad attitude.

        I like guys like Woodson who are accountable and take responsibility when they lose or get clowned. Clay and Raji on the other hand have deflected criticism and made foolish comments like “we were the better team”, etc. It’s a systemic pride, arrogance, and lack of class I expect from anyone but the Packers.

        Perhaps I was being too critical in some areas but I think BJ would be a much better player if he took some of the weight off.

        • Stroh

          Raji played some of his best football the last 1/2 of last year. His snaps were down some, but he still played about 70% IIRC of all defensive snaps. Down from about 85% if I rememeber the article saying.

  • bobalou13

    I think you extend Pick right now for a couple years and reduce the cap hit in the process. You also extend Neal right now because my own feeling is that he is going to have a breakout year. He not just improved towards the end of last year, he was borderline unblockable at times. Raji is the tougher decision. He is awfully athletic for a man his size. I think you try to resign him for reasonable money, maybe a shorter term deal and make him play for another contract. He is still a young guy.

  • Big T

    Has to be tough evaluating talent on the D-line. I am sure everyone looks like a beast in practice going against one of the worst O-lines in the NFL. They should bring in the 49ers O-line for a couple of days and have them push our fat lazy D-men around for awhile. Hell there are some college O-lines that our better than the Pack…

    • Dobber

      “Hell there are some college O-lines that our better than the Pack…”

      I just don’t buy that assertion when it’s made about pro-level players. Not in this case because I think the Packer DL unit is great, but because it’s very difficult to assemble the kind of OL at any school that can stand up to pro-level players, which all represent the upper echelon of college-level players picked and groomed vs. pro competition. For this assertion to be true, we would be saying that the Packer DL is only–at best–a good college DL.