We continue our offseason series discussing each position on the Green Bay Packers roster by turning to the defense. Just in case you missed the offensive positions you can catch them here: QB, WR, RB, TE, OL.
Let’s begin taking a close look at the defensive side of the ball by discussing the big men in the trenches. Every good defense has big, athletic defensive linemen that can consistently win at the line of scrimmage. After being gashed for 579 yards, 323 of those on the ground, against the Forty-Niners in last year’s playoff loss, it was evident the Packers front seven needed to improve, and that begins with the players on the defensive front.
With the Packers bringing in two young defensive linemen in the draft and veteran starters, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, entering contract years, the defensive line will be one of the most intriguing position groups to watch this offseason. Hopefully, the new additions to the defensive line will bring some heated competition to camp, and the Packers will get the best out of their players. If Green Bay’s defense wants to hold up against the elite offenses of the NFC in 2013, they’ll need outstanding play from their defensive line.
Let’s see if the Packers have the talent and depth on the defensive line to lay a solid foundation for a strong defense heading into the 2013 season.
Defensive Line (11)
The Packers demonstrated their commitment to improving their defense by spending their first pick of the 2013 draft on an athletic defensive lineman. Jones is a versatile 3-4 defensive end who possesses the strength to hold up well against the run and the burst to get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback. He is a rare talent for a player his size, and could prove to be a real difference maker on the defense if he plays to his potential. Green Bay’s pass rush could be formative this season with Jones added into the mix with Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, an improved Mike Neal, and B.J. Raji. Jones has the skills to be more than just the typical hold the point type of 3-4 defensive end and could be a real impact player, but it is also important to garner our expectations of the rookie defensive end and give him time to grow as player in 2013.
Raji and Pickett are both entering contract years, and it will be interesting to see if either one of them gets a contract extension before the 2013 season concludes. They have been anchoring the Packers defensive line the past few seasons, and are valuable leaders for the young position group.
Pickett has been arguably the Packers most underrated player since he arrived in 2006. He has been the defense’s best run-defender and is effective in holding the point and eating up blocks. Pickett’s contributions largely go unnoticed because he rarely makes splashy plays on the field, but he has been the most consistent performer on a defensive line that has had its share of struggles the past few seasons. Pickett’s play has deteriorated a bit the past two seasons, and at age 34, it’s more than likely that Green Bay will let him walk after this season. Despite being the oldest player on the team, Pickett still has a lot to offer this season and will still be a key contributor in the base defense.
2013 is a big year for Raji. It appears contract extension talks are on hold for the moment, and Raji will more than likely play out this year under his current deal. Raji could do himself and his bank account a big favor by having a fantastic year and returning to his 2010 form. Even though Raji is Green Bay’s most gifted defensive lineman, he has struggled at times the past two seasons. Raji’s play improved significantly when the Packers moved him from nose tackle to defensive end last season. Defensive end seemed to fit Raji better, but Green Bay still likes his ability to move to the nose or play on the inside in nickel packages. Raji should play at his best this season, proving to the Packers organization that he deserves a lucrative contract, and I expect Raji to be true leader on the defensive line.
Neal might be the only backup defensive lineman with a safe roster spot heading into 2013. Neal’s versatility has been well documented this offseason, and it is intriguing that Dom Capers is experimenting with him at outside linebacker. This demonstrates how athletic Neal is for a player his size, but for the time being, Neal is still a defensive end first. Neal offers some pass rush on the defensive line, and so far has the inside track for being one of the two defensive linemen in the nickel defense. It will be interesting to see how Neal’s role changes or expands based on Jones’ performance in his rookie season. Expect Neal to push Jones for playing time and maybe even some defensive packages where both Neal and Jones are on the field together.
There is not much separating the players in this group, except for second year player, Jerel Worthy. Worthy may not even see the field this season because of the knee surgery he underwent in January. Worthy will begin the 2013 season on the PUP list, and will be strong candidate to ride the entire season on injured reserve.
With Worthy out of the picture this season, the Packers will keep at least two players between Daniels, Boyd, and Wilson. Wilson has the most playing experience. He started the last couple of seasons at defensive end and has done admirably against the run, but hasn’t done enough to standout. Wilson can provide good depth on the defensive line and should find himself with a roster spot because of his experience in the system.
Daniels is a high-effort player who brings some fight to the defensive line. Daniels had his moments last year and proved to be a solid rotational player. However, Daniels lacks the length to play a true 3-4 defensive end and lacks the bulk to play the nose in the base defense. Daniel’s lack of size will always work against him in the 3-4 system, and with Neal and Jones already competing for the nickel defensive linemen positions, I’m not sure where Daniels fits on the defensive line. However, the coaches seem to like him, and Daniels might bring enough tenacity that the Packers will find a spot for him on the roster.
As a fifth round pick, Boyd is a good bet for making the roster this season, even if he struggles in his first training camp. Boyd has the size and experience to play either defensive end or nose tackle. We’ll see how Boyd adjusts to the Packers’ 3-4 system. He could end up being Pickett’s replacement after the 2013 season.
Miller, Pena, and Jolly all have long hills to climb to make the roster. Coming off the practice squad, Miller will compete with Pena for the backup nose tackle spot. Both Miller and Pena are good candidates for the practice squad this season, and with no clear nose tackle on the roster beyond Pickett, one of these players could even make the final roster.
Jolly’s return from a three year absence is one of the top storylines this offseason. Unfortunately, this feel good story may come to an abrupt end. The deck is stacked against Jolly to make the team, but like McCarthy said in his most recent press conference, if any player could do it, it would be Johnny Jolly. Recent reportsout of Packers mini-camp have stated that Jolly doesn’t look too bad in the limited action he’s seen so far. Maybe Jolly will make the team, after all. I know a lot of fans would love to see that. However, realistically Jolly’s best chance to make the team will be if the Packers are met with injuries at the position during training camp.
Last year the Packers kept six defensive linemen (Raji, Pickett, Wilson, Neal, Worthy, Daniels) on their final roster and one on the practice squad (Miller). My early prediction is that Green Bay starts Jones, Raji, and Pickett, with Neal, Daniels, and Boyd providing depth. I also think they’ll retain one player from Wilson, Miller, and Jolly, and place Pena on the practice squad and Worthy on injured reserve.
For the Green Bay defense to take the next step in 2013, they’ll need improved play from their defensive line. With the additions of new young talent, the competition at this position should heat up this offseason, and consequently, make the overall position better. This group has the potential to anchor a solid defense heading into this season. It will be fun to see how this unfolds.