The Big Fellas - D-Line Edition
In the post-Cullen Jenkins era, the Green Bay defensive line is populated by mostly anonymous stopgap players with a couple notable exceptions in Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji. That was the story last year, at least. This year, several new additions could either change the unit into a productive strength of the team...or not change anything at all.
The Packers use almost all their lineman virtually interchangeably, which makes evaluating this group as "ends" and "tackles" almost irrelevant given how often they switch between personnel groupings and formations. But for the sake of simplicity, we'll take a look at the players that line up on the defensive line grouped by their traditional designations.
Jarius Wynn - No player more completely describes the lack of success of the 2011 Packers' defensive line than Jarius Wynn, a fourth year player with four career starts, 28 career tackles, and four career sacks. Despite these uniformly unimpressive stats, Wynn was the only Packer defender other than Clay Matthews to record a multi-sack game last year (Week 3 against Chicago). Fittingly, he didn't record a sack for the rest of the season. However, that doesn't mean that Wynn can't contribute to the Packers' defensive line rotation this year. Even though he hasn't been overwhelming, he'll still appear regularly along the line.
Jerel Worthy - If you believe pre-draft rankings (and you probably shouldn't), Worthy could be considered a big steal depending on how he pans out as a player. Some scouts had him ranked as a first round pick, yet when the Packers came up in the second, there he was. A big bodied, quick player, he should see solid playing time from day one.
C.J. Wilson - Another relatively anonymous player, Wilson will be rotational player. Considering the Packers only invested a seventh round pick in him, Wilson has probably already paid off in spades just by sticking around this long. Being a seventh round pick probably has paid off for him as well, since expectations are adjusted accordingly. Assuming he continues his solid (if unspectacular) play, he could probably be expected to stick around a little longer.
Mike Neal - Speaking of expectations, here's a player who has without a doubt not lived up to the ones foisted upon him. Expected to be an immediate replacement for Cullen Jenkins (which probably wasn't fair), Neal has responded by only managing to stay healthy for nine games in his career. Now, I reject the idea of players being "injury prone" because I think that seems to somehow imply that it's the player's fault that he gets injured. However, I do hold Neal fully responsible for already being out for four games this year due to a drug suspension. While it's possible that he could get the suspension reversed, putting himself in that position raises a bit of a red flag with me.
Lawrence Guy - A big guy with all the physical attributes to be a successful 3-4 defensive end, Neal hung around on the practice squad last year. Could push for playing time this year depending on how he's progressed in the offseason. Neal is a bit of a walking contradiction off the field: his favorite movie is The Notebook and his favorite author is Ernest Hemingway. I don't know how his brain lets him put those two things together, but I guess whatever floats your boat is fine with me.
Phillip Merling - The first of three notable free agent defensive linemen, Merling could be considered a similar player to C.J. Wilson or Jarius Wynn at this point in his career, albeit with a bit of a richer pedigree (a second round pick in 2008). Merling was entirely underwhelming in 2011, but if he can recapture the flashes of potential he showed earlier in his career, he could turn out to be a great free agent find for the Packers.
Anthony Hargrove - Depending on how training camp goes, Hargrove will be either a very easy player to release or an extremely tough guy to keep around. He's already facing an eight game suspension from the league for his role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal, so if he turns out to be a low value player in training camp, the Packers will likely to release him without a second thought. However, if he turns out to be a potentially valuable contributor, it's going to suddenly become a tough call for the Packers. Do you wait for eight weeks for a guy to contribute? How rusty will he be when he comes back? How quickly will he be able to reintegrate into the system? All these factors make Hargrove a potentially very long shot to make the roster. He does have an appeal in the works for his suspension, so it could be reduced (possible) or lifted entirely (not likely). How that plays out will probably have a big impact on Hargrove's roster prospects.
B.J. Raji - The one legitimate star on the defensive line, Raji is a force to be reckoned with. He made the Pro Bowl last year, despite not playing quite as well as he did the year before. Other than Clay Matthews, Raji might be the player that benefits the most from having solid defensive linemen on the field with him. Not being forced to carry the entire load up front by himself can only help the young tackle.
Ryan Pickett - One of the two marquee free agent signings of the Ted Thompson era, Pickett has been worth every penny the Packers have paid him because of his durability and versatility. So far in his Packer career, Pickett has played 4-3 defensive tackle, 3-4 nose tackle, and 3-4 defensive end. Having a player of his size play so consistently really eased the transition between defensive philosophies. The big question surrounding Pickett at this point is about his age: will he be able to sustain a consistent, high level of play despite his increasing age? God didn't make 340-pounders for long term endurance, and Pickett turns 33 in October.
Daniel Muir - Show of hands: how many of you actually remembered that Daniel Muir was actually a Packer back in 2007? I did, and I have to admit I was pretty excited when I saw they brought him back. Muir was a key role player for Peyton Manning's second trip to the Super Bowl in 2009, and while his play has dropped off since then, Muir could be a contributor on the interior line this year.
Mike Daniels - I imagine that blocking Mike Daniels is a lot like blocking a giant bowling ball: he's short and round and always rolling. For some reason, Daniels endeared himself to me when I first saw his highlights after the NFL Draft. I guess it's just fun to watch a guy who's (generously) listed at just six feet tall work around, over, and through players much bigger than him. I'm excited to see what he could bring to the defensive line.
Johnny Jones - I had to write this paragraph really quickly, because I don't know how much longer Johnny Jones is going to be around. Let's be honest: when the team doesn't even assign you an official position in your team bio, you're probably not going to be in town much longer. I hope this isn't the case and Jones goes on to have a long, productive NFL career, but it seems like he's fighting an uphill battle despite his relatively prodigious size.
Conclusion - As I see it, there are already a few spots locked up in this group. The Packers won't cut Raji, Pickett, Worthy, or Neal because of either their effectiveness or high profile draft status. They also probably won't cut Wilson or Wynn based on their experience in the system and relative productivity. That probably leaves another three or four spots open, with Mike Daniels probably leading the way for one of them based solely on his status as a recent draft pick. Who will fill the rest? Well, given that we're speculating about third string players at this point and we're not even into training camp yet, your guess is certainly as good as mine. Regardless of how the final roster ends up shaking out, I'm excited to see if the defensive line is able to contribute in a bigger way in 2012 than in 2011.