2012 Packers Position Group Analysis: Defensive Line

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Packers Defensive Line
Packers Defensive Line

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.




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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.


41 thoughts on “2012 Packers Position Group Analysis: Defensive Line

  1. Good article. I felt it was very accurate. I do have a question though you said that we need a de that can be a force ie take on double teams and play more of a contain than a de that really gets after the qb. I can’t really think of an example of a guy that draws double teams and is thought of as a major threat without being the tenacious qb head hunter type of pass rusher with a high sack count. Can you give me an example of the type of guy that you’re talking about? Also agree that raji isn’t an every down type of guy. I felt Like he was specifically brought in to be a run stuffer not really A pass rusher. He showed some flashes of that ability in past years but was never consistent. Why do you think they looked to him so heavily this year? That was never his MO.

    1. well first, I never said the 3-4DE needs to be a major threat. What he needs to do is draw double-teams in the run game and try to get the attention of two blockers in the pass rush. Ryan Pickett is your example, although he is better as a NT. Maybe Castillo of San Diego would be another.

      As for Raji, they leaned on him so much because they had to, thanks to Mr. Neal’s injury.

      1. “What they do want, however, are defensive linemen that can force and take on double teams…”

        I read that wrong the first time, I read that as defensive linemen that can BE a force etc. Sorry about that. Now we’re on the same page.

  2. Thanks J-Al,
    Nice article…and it’s why I would like to see TT bring in two DL (1 early, 1 later). The combine and pro days may change my thinking but as of now I like Brockers, Cox, Poe, and Thompson. Not sold on Still, Worthy, or Winn. I think Poe is better than adveritsed.
    I think a good OLB can be had in the 2nd: Curry, Branch, Irvin, C. Johnson et al.

      1. Problem is, the majority of the defensive lineman in this past drafts, this drafts and future drafts fall in the ‘nickle’ category. You can find a lot of guys with a 6’3″ and under body type you can run out there in nickle, get skinny and generate some rush or push the pocket.

        You’re lucky to see even 3-5 legitimate 5-techniques in any draft. I’m with you on the need for defensive line, but I think it’s going to most likely be in the form of these ‘nickle’ sized interior lineman. The key is legitimate depth. Just feels like TT is more likely to hit on a bunch of depth with one quality rusher as opposed to finding that true ‘5-technique’.

        Here’s to hoping. Feels like we’re moving to a nickle and dime league, base is a minority for almost every team now that coordinators are spreading out the field.

  3. Good stuff Al. As I look back at the season, I am still confused at the way the defense played. There reluctance to use Dlinemen in a full rush mode was the most disturbing. Something was going on with that team that could not be fixed. And, as you state they were in the traditional 34 a minority of the time. Why? Because Neal was/is a bust? Partially!

    Something else was happening and early on Capers decided to play off the ball and rely on turnovers. The problem with that was the abysmal tackling killed them. With the DB’s and LB’s (except for Mathews) unable to cover the middle and huge YAC the defense was not able to get off the field.

    TT, MM, and DC have the whole off-season to fix the line and the rest of that unit for that mater. They better do it or it will cost them big time once again.

  4. I really like the potential of TaT Flynn and pick 28 to Cle for pick 22 and pick 37. GB would be able to have a good chance of getting an impact guy for the Dline/OLB/C positions (I like Brockers the best here or Konz if Wells isn’t resigned). Brockers might not contribute tons year 1, but if GB gets Jason-Pierre Paul like performance out of him, that’s a small price to pay. Again, we could take a guy like Brandon Thompson or Jarred Crick with pick 37 and make another positive impact on the D line. At that point, GB could take an OLB/FS/C with pick 60 and still have an impact player.

    If GB can resign Wells, or sign Chris Meyers, then they have more ammo to spend on Defense. Let’s hope that happens.

    As a side note, here’s what Rotoworld has to say about Brockers at the combine. What a disappointment:
    LSU DT Michael Brockers ran “unofficial” forty times of 5.33 and 5.37 at the NFL Scouting Combine.
    Brockers is 6-foot-5, 322, and he runs like it. He also didn’t show up in the top-ten 10-yard splits for defensive linemen. While some teams may drool over Brockers’ body type, length, youth, and perceived upside, he was at his best plugging the run in college. He’s got a long way to go as a pass rusher.

      1. I don’t really see why. I haven’t watched his film but his college production wasn’t huge and his combine numbers were really pretty poor. Also, I’m not sure that I buy into the whole upside theory. What GB needs is for a guy to produce while he’s under contract, and if they are going to pay a guy 1st round draft pick money, they need him to produce quickly, within 2 seasons. Otherwise, if a player has a andyear rookie contract Nd he explodes in year 3,

  5. The good news it that are literally 20 DT/DE prospects in the top three rounds that would fit what Capers wants out of the position. I’d expect the first round pick to go that way. But if not the first, definitely the 2nd.

    What I’m more concerned about is ROLB. There is just not that much high end talent available this year at that position.

    What about Flynn to Miami for Cameron Wake straight up???

    That would rock.

    1. I’d go for that in a nano-second. One negative is that this would be the 4th year of his contract, and I would suspect, at 30, he would want a big payday to remain on the team. Plus the Pack have a few contracts coming due next year as is.

      1. Yeah – He’s older. But you can play at OLB until 34 or 35. That would give TT some time to find the ‘right’ guy rather than drafting on need…. I don’t know about the contract. It probably won’t happen anyway… sigh..

  6. Amazing how what was one of the stronger units in the SB year became one of the biggest sore-spots this past year. I think most of us could have lived without them being dominating pass rushers but being third from last in run defense too – yuck! (By the way, are most of the bottom pass rushing D-lines 3-4 oriented. Since they’re main purpose is to take up blockers, I’d think so.)

    Although players like Neal and Guy have potential(from Guy’s bio;”…also rated as the No. 1 overall player in the state of Nevada and the No. 13 defensive tackle in the country by Rivals.com…ranked as the No. 5 “Best Athlete” and No. 5 “Pass Rusher” among all defensive tackle prospects nationwide by Rivals.com..”) and could make an impact in the future, we can’t count on it. I think Wynn, Wilson, Green and Jones are who they are, and don’t have much upside.

    I wouldn’t mind if the Pack drafted the best defensive players available for the entire draft, with the first 3 rounds taking D-lineman or pass rushing OLBs. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing the opposing team’s QB get over 5 seconds to pick apart the secondary. Especially on third and long.

  7. Ok, here’s GB’s solution:

    1) T&T Flynn, package pick 28 to them for pick 22 and 37.

    2) I assume the Rams are going to trade out of pick 2 and that the ‘Skins are going to give them a king’s ransom for pick #2 overall. Maybe the Rams will want to trade into the back/middle of the 1st round and GB could send them pick 22 and pick 60 for pick 33 and 39 (from Washington).

    3) Draft 3 guys that are going to help our Defense (like Crick, Thompson and Mercilus) or, potentially trade down a bit from pick 33 (1st pick of 2nd round) to a team that desperately wants to move up to select a guy that on day 2 (like a 2nd-tier QB).

    4) Win Super Bowl.

    1. To some extent GM’s have to draft for need, as well as BPA. Let’s say that a top-20 talent falls to GB at pick 28 and TT decides to pick him. Now, let’s assume that player is a WR. That doesn’t make much sense, now does it? TT would have to either make cuts at WR to make room for the guy or find a trade partner. That pick would make the team marginally better possibly, but much less than if TT had taken a top 30-talent that also fills a need on the roster. GB sorely needs help along the D line, as well as OLB. Also, the whole Wells situation needs addressing as well. I would be very disappointed if TT did not address needs early on, as long as the “value” is there with those picks.

  8. i have never heard / read anything mentioning neal moving to olb. where have you seen this? doesn’t he weigh in the 290’s?

    1. From JSOnline:

      Ten days ago, D-line coach Mike Trgovac said some in the organization have been talking about giving Neal a shot at OLB next season. Although Neal maintained his weight of 295, he’s a committed body builder who probably could drop weight to do it. The Packers would have to determine if he has the athleticism to stand up

  9. I think CJ Wilson has shown a few flashes over the last season. I know most folks like to talk about him as though he’s a waste of space. When I’ve watched him, he’s been dependable and, as stated, has had brief flashes of tenacity and aptitude. I wish I could remember the game- later in the season, I believe- he came in and on consecutive downs contributed heavily to stop a drive, 1st play I believe he came off a block and hit the ball carrier, slowing him down for others to finish up, second play he bull rushed through his man and made a one-armed take down of the RB for a loss (i think it was 3rd down). This is probably CJ’s last year to prove he can get it down pat, but he’s been a decent rotation guy, IMO.

    Al, Lawrence Guy is another example of when we’re on the same page. Yes, he’s a long-shot, but when you look at his measurables on paper, he’s the second coming of Cullen Jenkins- who, by the way, was a project player himself.

      1. I was all in on Guy and noted him as my “sleeper” of the draft as I did with Starks in his draft.
        I still feel we haven’t seen the best of Starks as yet and think Guy will break out this season as I said Lang would last season.

        1. keep in mind that Guy is truly a project- he was drafted knowing there is a LOT of work that needs to be done for him to have a chance. Don’t forget that the path Cullen Jenkins took was UFA in 03, sent straight to NFL Europe for a year to improve(That’s kinda like not quite being good enough for practice squad!)before finally making the team, and even then, he didn’t really show much until 2007-2008 after a year or two of taking the majority of snaps away from Kabeer… It can take a long time for some guys to flip the switch

          Guy is pure athletic potential. Weather he’s an NFL caliber football player remains to be seen. Boy, I sure hope he is. He’s got the tools.

  10. I just don’t know how to rate the younger players on ours or any other team, there was no off-season developmental work and that had to play some kind of a factor. I have to think being thrown in at game speed basically, had to impede their development for last year, as much as it helps their development for this year. Kind of like in college,as for the ones that just don’t have it , well they still got pretty far, My highlight came in grade school, so I developed other talents. If they move on I say, thanks for really,really trying and good luck in moving on to your future. Meant in good fun, but still a little serious.

  11. Hey Al,

    I keep getting a TON of emails from your blog any time someone comments on a post I have commented on.

    How do I make this stop? I mean, I want to read what you other intelligent Packer fans write, but I’d prefer to do it, you know, on the blog – not through email.


      1. Well, I’ve gotten 6 since last night. Every single comment shows up in my email, and I’ve tried to manage my subscriptions on your site too… Yesterday there was like 40.

        I took a screen shot of my email inbox to show you what I mean (I’m computer challenged to put it nicely), but the image won’t paste in the comment section.

        1. Sorry guys. I think I have it fixed. Notice the default setting below the comment box is now set to not automatically subscribe. You have the option of getting notified of replies to your comment, if you choose.

          If it’s still not working correctly,please let me know!

          1. Still happening for this post and Thomas Hobbs post…..

            Maybe this won’t clear up until those posts are not commented on anymore?

              1. btw, looks like you’ve been getting a lot of fresh faces posting around here, a lot of posts in general, things are really taking off it seems! Congrats.

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