2014 Packers: Breaking Down the Defensive Line
By Dan Dahlke
Green Bay Packers defensive endMike Daniels
(76). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
In this series we take a close look at the Packers 90-man roster on the verge of training camp and discuss each player’s chances of making the final 53.
When they take the field for the 2014 opener in Seattle, the Green Bay Packers front seven might look a little different than in years past.
What was once a defensive front defined by big-bodied linemen, like Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, and B.J. Raji, is now shifting towards more athletic, explosive players who can disrupt and penetrate at the line.
Even though the Packers brought Raji back for another season to play nose tackle, a position he excelled at during the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run, it seems Green Bay’s new emphasis on their defensive front is versatility and generating quarterback pressure.
By drafting Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels and Khyri Thornton the past three years the Packers have steered away from the tall, heavy defensive ends commonly seen in traditional 3-4 systems and have moved toward a more athletic defensive line.
Now, the Packers are hoping to get a return on all the young talent they’ve invested in the past few seasons. Daniels is a budding star, but the jury is still out on Worthy and Jones. And it remains to be seen if Thornton can make the jump to the pros.
The theme of versatility continues to resonate with hybrid players like Mike Neal and Julius Peppers, who will split time between defensive line and outside linebacker in the Packers new “elephant” position.
Only time will tell what this will really look like for Neal and Peppers. It’s hard to even know what to expect from this Packers defense this season, let alone how their front seven will take shape.
But for now, I am including Neal in my defensive line breakdown because I believe the majority of his snaps will still be as an inside rusher. I will analyze Peppers with the outside linebackers, but this doesn’t mean he won’t get a significant amount looks at end in the Packers defense, as well.
DEFENSIVE LINE (11)
Safe: B.J. Raji, 6-2, 337; Mike Daniels, 6-0, 300; Datone Jones, 6-4, 285; Mike Neal, 6-3, 285; Khyri Thornton, 6-3, 304
Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji (90). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The Packers may play nickel a majority of the time, but the foundation of their 3-4 base defense begins with Raji at nose tackle. With Pickett and Jolly gone, Raji is one of the only big gap-occupying lineman left on the roster.
His performance will be key in the Packers’ ability to stop the run this season. Let’s hope he plays better than he did in 2013.
In a contract year, Raji had perhaps his worst season as a pro. According to Pro Football Focus, Raji was the 45th-ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, the worst of any defensive lineman with more than 200 snaps from scrimmage.
Raji struggled to hold the point of attack and failed to keep blockers off the Packers linebackers. He led Green Bay defensive linemen in snaps with 618, but only generated 13 quarterback pressures, 15 tackles, and zero sacks.
In fact, it was Raji’s second season in a row where he didn’t register a single sack. Considering he had 9.5 sacks in his first two seasons as a starter, this is a dramatic drop off.
However, quarterback pressure and sacks aren’t the most important statistics for a 3-4 defensive lineman. As a nose tackle, Raji will be judged this season on his ability to stop the run and clog the middle of the line so the linebackers can make plays.
Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Daniels (76). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Green Bay hasn’t had a top-ten run defense since 2009 when Raji emerged as the team’s premier nose tackle. Hopefully, he can get back to form and prove he’s still the guy that can anchor the middle of the Packers’ line.
Daniels was the one bright spot on the Packers defensive line last season. Even though he only played around half of the defensive snaps (517), Daniels finished second on the team in sacks (6) and quarterback pressures (39).
According to PFF, Daniels finished with the highest grade (+17.3) of any Green Bay defensive player in 2013. The former Iowa Hawkeye is a rising star on a Packers defense that is desperate for more playmakers to emerge.
Daniels still needs to show he can be an every-down player in Caper’s system. He’s not built for the 3-4 base, which hinders his ability to see the field on first down. However, he makes his presence known as an inside rusher in nickel packages, and this is where his true worth to the team is apparent.
Expect Daniels to lead the charge as the Packers look to get meaner and more explosive on defense in 2014.
Green Bay Packers defensive end Datone Jones (95). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jones had a disappointing rookie season, to say the least. After making a lot of noise with a fast start in training camp, the 2013 first-round pick injured his ankle in his preseason debut against Arizona, which severely hindered his development throughout the 2013 season.
Jones only played 263 snaps in 2013, a majority coming on passing downs. The former UCLA Bruin did show some flashes of pass rushing talent, tallying 3.5 sacks and 18 quarterback pressures in limited action.
Many expect the athletic defensive end to play a bigger role on the field in 2014. The pass rushing talent is there, but for Jones to see more snaps he’ll need to show improvement against the run.
He needs to play with better leverage and not get pushed out of his spot by bigger offensive lineman in the run game. It was Jones’ shortcomings holding the point of attack against the run that led to the Packers utilizing fifth-round pick, Josh Boyd, more often as the season progressed.
For the Packers defense to take the next step, they’ll need Jones to make a big jump in his second year and become a reliable starter for them at defensive end.
Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Neal (96). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Neal played the second most snaps out of any Packers front seven player with 746, only finishing behind A.J. Hawk in 2013. However, because of injuries, Neal played a majority of these snaps at his secondary position, outside linebacker.
Neal will yet again split time between defensive line and outside linebacker, but with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, and Carl Bradford at the position, Green Bay is hoping to use the former Purdue defensive tackle more frequently as an inside rusher on the line.
Despite learning on the fly at a new position, Neal led all Packers in quarterback pressures last season with 46 and finished third on the team in sacks with five.
Neal had his fair share of struggles as an outside linebacker, especially when dropping back in coverage. It’s clear that linebacker is not his natural position.
Instead, I would expect the Packers to use him more as a rotational pass rusher, similar to what his role was in 2012 when he recorded 4.5 sacks and 20 quarterback pressures.
Neal is not a good fit as a starting defensive lineman in the Packers 3-4 base either, but his ability to generate pressure in the Packers’ sub packages, whether it’s at linebacker or on the line, makes him a valuable asset to this team.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles defensive lineman Khyri Thornton (98). Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Many were surprised when the Packers spent their first of two third-round picks on a generally unknown defensive tackle out of Southern Mississippi in Khyri Thornton.
The Packers reportedly like the energy and passion Thornton plays with when he takes the field. Thornton started the last two-and-half seasons in college at defensive tackle, recording 99 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks in that time.
Thornton can use his athleticism to shoot the gap and get into the backfield and be disruptive, and his motor never stops, even playing on a team that went 1-23 in his final two years as a starter.
It remains to be seen if he can two-gap as a traditional 3-4 defensive end, but he did hold the point of attack against double teams in college effectively.
Maybe the Packers envision him more as a pass rushing defensive lineman that will rotate in with Neal, Jones, and Daniels in the Packers’ sub packages. A role they saw Jerel Worthy fulfilling when they drafted him in the second round in 2012.
However, Thornton’s ability to hold his ground against double teams may lead to the Packers trying him out at nose tackle, as well.
On the Fence: Jerel Worthy, 6-2, 304; Letroy Guion, 6-4, 315; Josh Boyd, 6-3, 310
Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Jerel Worthy (99). Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
As a former second-round pick, Worthy has had a disappointing NFL career so far. He struggled to make his mark as a rookie in 2012, only recording 2.5 sacks and nine pressures as a nickel rusher. Even more disappointingly, he struggled to stay healthy.
Worthy’s rookie season ended with a knee injury in week 17 that kept him out of all but twelve defensive snaps in 2013.
Entering his third season, Worthy must prove he’s healthy and the player the team envisioned he’d be when they drafted him out of Michigan State in 2012.
Worthy has a lot of ground to cover to beat out Daniels, Jones, Neal, or Thornton for playing time as an interior rusher in nickel packages, and he seems to lack the length and run stopping ability to factor in at end in base defense.
At this point, it’s hard to know what Worthy’s role on this team could be going forward. His biggest competition might be Thornton this season, which doesn’t bode well for his chances of making the final roster.
Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Letroy Guion (98). Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
The Packers picked up Letroy Guion this offseason in free agency. The big defensive tackle out of Florida State started for the Minnesota Vikings the past two seasons, recording 52 tackles, 3 sacks, and 20 pressures.
Guion’s role on Minnesota’s defense faded as the 2013 season progressed, but Guion is looking for a fresh start in Green Bay. Unfortunately, the position is already crowded, and Guion will have to impress in training camp to earn a roster spot.
Guion’s size and ability as a run defender could help his cause. There’s just not very many defensive linemen on the Packers roster with his size. He seems best suited as a 3-4 base end and could be Ryan Pickett’s successor, but he’ll have to beat out Boyd for the job.
Boyd may not be an early round pick or a veteran free agent, but he has just as good of chance as any to crack the Packers defensive line depth chart.
Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray (29) is tackled by Green Bay Packers defensive end Josh Boyd (93). Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Late in the 2013 season, Boyd got some looks as a 3-4 base defensive end and played admirably, especially against the run. Boyd is a player Coach McCarthy said he expects to make a big jump this year.
The Packers like Boyd’s ability to play either nose or the three-technique, but there may not be room on the final roster for both Guion and Boyd.
Boyd and Guion are both run-stuffers, which are valuable to any team, so I think at least one of the two will be on the final roster.
However, the position is so crowded already with young talent, and with the Packers pushing to get more athletic and explosive on their defensive front, it’s tough to see a scenario where they both end up on the final 53.
Long Shots: Mike Pennel, 6-4, 332; Carlos Gray, 6-2, 313; Luther Robinson, 6-3, 301
Pennel is a massive lineman out of Colorado State-Pueblo and a potential nose tackle Green Bay could develop down the road.
Gray left North Carolina State two years early to pursue his NFL dream and brings some explosiveness to the position.
Robinson is long and lean for a defensive lineman and didn’t quite reach his potential as a reserve in the Miami Hurricanes defense.
The defensive line is already a crowded position, and the Packers may go heavy at other more key positions, like outside linebacker and cornerback. Unfortunately, for Pennel, Gray, and Robinson it would have to take a run of injuries on the defensive line for them to make the final roster.
However, the three undrafted rookies will be competing to make their case for one of the eight spots on the Packers practice squad.
With swing players like Mike Neal and Julius Peppers the Packers may not have to keep as many defensive linemen on their roster as in previous years. I think the Packers will strike a nice balance between traditional 3-4 players and guys better suited as inside rushers in sub packages.
Green Bay keeps seven on their final roster: B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, Mike Neal, Khyri Thornton, Jerel Worthy, and Josh Boyd.
Previous Position Breakdowns: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Tight End, Offensive Line