Ten Packers Training Camp Topics: #2 — Defensive Line Depth

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Packers first-round pick Datone Jones will be asked to play a big role as a rookie. Is he ready to be a starter?
Packers first-round pick Datone Jones will be asked to play a big role as a rookie. Is he ready to be a starter?

When the Green Bay Packers took the field against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, they did so with just five defensive linemen: B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson and Mike Neal.

This offseason, the Packers have a mess of defensive linemen, competing for six or seven roster spots. Raji, Pickett, Wilson, Daniels, Neal and Jerel Worthy return to the team this year, along new competition from 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones, fifth-round pick Josh Boyd and Johnny Jolly.

With nine defensive linemen competing for spots on the 53-man roster, it’s a foregone conclusion that some players will be let go.

Last year, the Packers kept six defensive linemen: Raji, Pickett, Wilson, Worthy, Daniels and Phillip Merling. Merling only played in three regular-season games, as Neal was forced to serve a four-game suspension to start the season.

The Packers may very well have a similar situation this offseason with Worthy. Coming off a torn ACL suffered in Week 16 of last season, Worthy seems like a candidate to begin the season on the PUP list. If that’s the case, it seems likely that the Packers would, again, keep six linemen before making a decision on who is let go once Worthy returns.

Throughout OTAs, the Packers wanted to get a look at Neal at outside linebacker. And earlier this month on Packers Central, hosted by Zach Kruse and me, Worthy said there’s reason to be excited about Neal standing up.

“All I can say about Mike Neal moving to outside linebacker is look out,” Worthy said. “That’s all I can say. There’s about to be some hell to pay for whoever has to deal with him.”

Whether Neal plays as a true outside linebacker or as an interior pass rusher, it’s clear the team views him as one of its most talented pass rushers. And towards the end of the season, Neal may have been the team’s second-most efficient pass rusher after Clay Matthews.

With a deeper group of defensive linemen this season, players who specialize in the pass-rush department may be able to focus on that more than in years past. Raji and Pickett will assume two starting spots, and the third spot will likely come down to Jones or Wilson.

Raji, Pickett, Jones and Neal are all but guaranteed roster spots. And it’d be quite a surprise if Wilson didn’t make the team as well. There’s five spots accounted for, leaving one (two, at most) spots up for grabs.

Daniels, Boyd and Jolly will be the three on the chopping block. Worthy’s status for the 2013 season remains up in the air, but considering he was selected in the second round just one year ago, there’s simply no way the team would look to part ways with him after just one season.

Following the upcoming season, the Packers defensive line faces a great deal of uncertainty. Raji, Pickett, Neal and Wilson are each scheduled to become free agents in 2014.

The team’s cloudy future on the front line surely played a part in their selection of Jones in the first round. Prior to adding Jones, the Packers didn’t have a cookie-cutter mold for a 3-4 defensive lineman, but Jones is now their closest thing to that.

At 6-4 283 pounds, Jones has the frame to add another 10-15 pounds over the course of his career without losing much speed or explosiveness. And as a former basketball player, Jones joins a line that already features a couple impressive athletes in Neal and Raji.

Last season, the team’s first-round pick Nick Perry missed most of the season with a wrist injury. The year before, Derek Sherrod was sidelined for most of the year with a leg injury. I think Jones will have perhaps the best rookie season for any Packer since Clay Matthews in 2009. I think he’s NFL-ready and has the potential to be a special player in this defense.

Question: How many defensive linemen will the Packers keep?

Assuming Worthy starts the year on the PUP, I fully expect the Packers to do what they did last year with Neal and keep six defensive linemen.

Five roster spots are all but spoken for, and I think Boyd is a safer bet to make the team over Daniels and Jolly. It’s a tough call between Boyd and Daniels, but Boyd (6-3 310) has better size than Daniels (6-0 291) and is the more natural fit in a 3-4 scheme.

Best guess: Six (Raji, Pickett, Jones, Wilson, Neal, Boyd)

Jolly cracking the 53-man roster would undoubtedly be a great story, but I don’t see it happening. Being in shape is one thing but being in football shape is another. And for a guy who hasn’t played football in three years, Jolly faces an uphill battle to ever play again in the NFL.

What say you? Six defensive linemen with Worthy on the PUP? Does Jolly make the team? I’m all ears and eyes.


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Marques is a Journalism student, serving as the Sports Editor of UW-Green Bay\'s campus newspaper The Fourth Estate and a Packers writer at Jersey Al\'s AllGBP.com. Follow Marques on Twitter @MJEversoll.


26 thoughts on “Ten Packers Training Camp Topics: #2 — Defensive Line Depth

  1. Ready or not, here he comes.

    I think the past couple of years have proven that for the most part, despite reservations of the coaching staff, it’s best to put the new kids on the field and let them play.

    I like Neal doubling on the outside for psycho looks. He can help plug the A-gap or set the edge with his speed.

    I hope Pickett stays healthy. Far and away the best player on the line.

  2. “Best guess: Six (Raji, Pickett, Raji, Wilson, Neal, Boyd”
    Boy that would be sweet with two Raji’s!
    But I’m thinking more: Raji, Pickett, Neal, Boyd, Jones and either Wilson OR Daniels that are out once Worthy is back.

  3. Neal as OLB smells like an offseason move to test the waters in the event of an in-season injury crisis to me. I think he’ll work only as DL during camp. At least I hope that is the case.

    If I’m wrong about that, it would be a sign that Capers is completely committed to the 2 DL formation. Which I think is quite stupid. It’s a simple matter of physics. (5) 300+ lb OL need to be countered by more mass defensively. When the DL that are available are bad players, it might make sense to only use 2 of them. But given the DL & ILB depth chart, it seems that an ILB should come off the field when an extra DB is required. There is a reason very few teams line up with 2 DL. And the reason is that it is a formation that is easy for offenses to exploit.

    1. It’s one thing to play 2DL in obvious passing situations and another to play 2DL on run downs.

      In this case, there IS mass on the field beyond 2 downlinemen in the form of a 260-lb Nick Perry and/or a 290-lb Mike Neal, and it’s going to hit the OL with a head of steam.

    2. Neal at OLB may be a move to counter the smaller, more athletic tackles. Or a strictly-against-AP measure. Or just a way for him to practice some outside rush moves, or to teach him gap control, or just as an emergency because of our lack of experienced depth at OLB. But I could maybe see Neal bull-rushing a Matt Kalil. It might throw off a guy like him to face Neal’s strength on one down and Matthews’ speed on the next.

  4. Raji, Pickett, Neal, Jones, Wilson and Jolly with Worthy on PUP and a yet to be determined DL on IR.

    Hey, it happens every year.

    1. Given the lack of OLB depth, I wonder if they open with 7 DL *plus* Worthy on IR.

      I think swinging out Neal to OLB has a lot more to do with keeping the best 53 players on the roster than with putting only 2 DL on the field. They are already more committed to running a 3-3-5 nickel than most teams, and tend to go to 2 DL only in obvious passing situations (often with a 6 DBs). Right now all of the DL mentioned in the article look to be at least as good overall as their #4 OLB (Palmer).

      If Neal can swing out to OLB in case of injury, it would be worth keeping 7 DL on the roster. Neal as a pass rusher is also an interesting thought if they develop some kind of ‘Hippo’ formation with (say) Raji, Pickett, Jones and Neal all at in the same time.

      This will be one of the more interesting position to follow in camp.

      1. I agree Ed. I think the Pack goes w/ 7DL. Pickett, Raji, Jones, Neal, Daniel, Boyd, and either Jolly or Wilson.

        Neal will swing between DL and OLB if he shows some aptitude to standing up. Either way Neal is on the roster. But makes it easier if he can fill in at both positions. I’ll be looking for some interesting alignments vs SF and the read option.

        Hoping Jolly gets in shape and can knock out Wilson. Wilson is decent at best, but Jolly was a beast in ’09. If he can come close to what he was, he’s a huge upgrade over Wilson. I can also see Boyd going on the PS for a year. I think he’s gonna be groomed to replace Pickett in a year or 2.

        1. Thanks Stroh.

          I agree that replacing Pickett is an issue they need to concentrate on. Ok, *this year* that means finding a back up/developmental player who can eventually replace him. Jolly is a long shot but if he works out he could still have 3 or 4 years as a run-stopper.

          This is a much better situation than the past few years when it seemed like they were scraping for DL.

  5. “All I can say about Mike Neal moving to outside linebacker is look out,” Worthy said. “That’s all I can say. There’s about to be some hell to pay for whoever has to deal with him.”

    There may be some hell to pay for whoever implied the idea.

  6. Johnny Jolly needs his fix and is currently broke. He will play like a rabbid hyenia and make the roster… He will be a star for 3 years and make enough to buy the Sudafed company. And the rest is history.

    1. Big T, that’s really a comment of poor taste and ignorance. As a member of 12 step program for 23 years, I’ve seen the miracles every day of those staying clean and sober. Jolly has a disease, plain and simple. For all you know like me, alcoholism was as common in the family as blue eyes. In other words it’s a hereditary disease. Instead of making a horrible comment about Jolly, why don’t you be happy for a man turning his life around. My money is on Jolly making the team, but even if he doesn’t at least he gave it a shot. If he does though, I think you should come back and speak about on your ignorance about things you clearly know nothing about.

  7. We definitely need to improve on the dline. Raji looked like he was on roller skates vs. SF, just completely manhandled. If you don’t have a couple of “difference makers” up front your defense is going to struggle. We have some guys who seem to have the potential, but need to play at a higher level consistently.

  8. I hope they keep 6 or 7. DL guys get tuckered out faster than any other position on the roster.

    Every time GB’s had a deep and talented DL in the past 10 years, they’ve had a good D. I don’t think that changes now.

  9. Where is Daniels on the list? As much sub as Capers plays Daniels is still a guy who can get 3-4 hundred snaps a season and be very effective. He’s a guy that can get to the QB, and we don’t have many of those on the roster. DL usually don’t peak until year 2 or 3 as well. He should be better from year 1 to year 2 – and if that’s the case it would be a mistake to let him go.

    1. I like Daniels as well.

      I don’t care how tall or heavy he is. He plays bigger than his measurables.

      That guy is like the Tazmanian Devil out there.

      Just a matter of time before he starts making noise… As I always say, “Whirling Dervish”.

      1. Also a Daniels fan. But MM and TT will probably have to decide if they value Daniels’ pass rush abilities more than Wilson’s run-defense qualities. As Pickett is their only true run-stuffer, the odds might be in Wilson’s favor. But I’m in the “Keep More DL” camp. Heavily, if you’re looking for a pun.

        1. The Packers may be able to find room on the roster for extra defensive linemen by playing it stingy in the LB corps, particularly if the Mike Neal experiment goes well enough they feel he can play OLB in a pinch.

          There’s no more Bishop or Smith, so MLB is cleared out a bit. Keep in mind, Jones, Lattimore, and Francois are all MLBs now who have reps in at OLB, a position where only Matthews and Perry have any real roots laid down.

          Perhaps the Packers roll the dice and run leaner across the LB’s due to their personnel flexibility, and find the room to keep an extra big body on the line.

          Last year they kept nine active LB’s. Perhaps we could see 8 LB’s and 7 DL.

  10. There are injuries that GB will have to deal with. The numbers will work themselves out. Its nice going into the season with options.

    1. my sentiments exactly. Great to have depth and let the numbers work themselves out.

  11. I think an injury might pop up to make this easier for Ted, but if not, I still don’t think he will part with Daniels. Daniels played well at times and is too valuable in pass rush situations to let go. He even plays good special teams too. I think they bite the billet and keep 7 and worthy doesn’t come back until next year, when the team knows what they have with the younger guys and they can let picket and or Wilson go to open up a spot for worthy. Boyd might flop but I doubt it. Daniels stays on the team, no way we let a second year 5th round pick with promise leave for nothing.

  12. I think Pickett & Raji will be gone next year. I’d be looking at replacements now & maybe even let Pickett go. He played well for us & we were fortunate the Rams let him go, but it’s not like looking for a replacement for your QB.

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