Sunday, August 5, 2012

2012 Packers Training Camp, Volume 6: Defensive Line

One of the biggest disappointments for the Packers last season was the defensive line.   They posted just 6 QB sacks last year (3 by BJ Raji, 3 by Jarius Wynn) after having 11.5 in 2010.  Cullen Jenkins had 7 of those sacks and departed in free agency prior to the 2011 season.  There is no question, the Packers struggled to replace his production on the line.  Taking over for Jenkins was Jarius Wynn who was pedestrian most of last season at right Defensive End.  Wynn often had trouble getting to the QB and was average, at best, in run support.  Tackle BJ Raji seemed to be on the field on every snap and surely was worn down when playoff time came in January.  Left End Ryan Pickett struggled with some dings and while he was ample in run support, he provided no push on the QB.  It was apparent to GM Ted Thompson that a fresh influx of talent was needed on the defensive line both to backfill for the aging Pickett and boost production of the overall line by keeping the guys fresh.  Let’s take a look at this year’s D line vets and hopefuls.

BJ Raji was voted to his first Pro Bowl in 2011.  The stout DT has performed adequately for a 9th overall pick back in 2009.  He has moved between DE and DT in Dom Capers’ defense and for the most part, has held his own.   He’s an incredibly strong tackle who has the ability to take on double teams and clog up the middle.  But having to play every snap takes its toll on anyone and that was an issue in 2011.  With an unexpected injury to Mike Neal and Lawrence Guy in last year’s training camp, the team entered the season with just 5 healthy linemen.  Howard Green wasn’t an every-down tackle and CJ Wilson wasn’t ready to take on a heavy load just yet.  That meant Raji would become the work horse.  He managed 3 QB sacks but was largely unable to disrupt the opposition as he had the previous 2 years.  The loss of Cullen Jenkins probably had the biggest impact on Raji’s game.  Without a complimentary pass rushing threat next to him, offensive lines were able to slide help at Raji and keep him at bay.  Still, he’s young and despite his top-notch performance so far, he has some room to grow and develop into a more complete player.  Keep in mind that this is a very athletic player for the size frame he has.  Who could forget his incredible interception for a touchdown in the NFC championship game against the Bears?  And last season, Raji was seen as a blocker during offensive goal line opportunities.  It’s safe to say DT is set with Raji as starter. 

Ryan Pickett will return at LDE and the biggest question at this point in his career is how durable he can be and if he can continue with the same work load he has had in recent years.  Since joining the team as a free agent in 2006, Pickett has been a solid force on the left side of the line.  He originally came in as a left defensive tackle in the 4-3 set.  When Dom Capers installed the 3-4 in 2009, Pickett became an end.  He clearly did a solid job with that transition as the team placed the franchise tag on him prior to the 2010 season and then signed him to a 3 year deal.  Pickett is another whose play was affected by the loss of Cullen Jenkins.  He was solid in run support but struggled, much like Raji, to get a push on the line and disrupt the passing lanes.  My bet is that Pickett starts the year at LDE and will likely share some time with one of the younger guys who were brought in this year in order to keep him fresh.  His veteran savvy is invaluable and he is an important presence in the team’s locker room.  He will surely help develop some of this year’s draft crop. 

Mike Neal’s story could be a short one soon.  The 2010 2nd round pick had his early struggles with injuries and missed most of the 2010 (shoulder) and half of the 2011 (knee) seasons.  After being selected in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, Neal had high expectations placed on him to come in and compliment a stellar defensive line that featured Cullen Jenkins, Raji,  and Pickett.  After an impressive showing in a game vs. Detroit during his rookie year, Neal hurt his shoulder and was unable to return that season.  During a drill in last year’s training camp, Neal got his feet tangled with another player’s and he suffered what was initially classified as a knee sprain.  It was later decided that he needed surgery on the knee and the prognosis wasn’t immediately known.  The team did not place him on season-ending injured reserve in the hopes that he could return.  He did eventually return and played in 5 games, including the playoff game vs the Giants in January.  The most glaring stat that stands out for Neal is that in very brief seasons, he has posted a grand total of 6 tackles and 1 sack.  These numbers, coupled with his health, weren’t likely to keep him on the roster for long.  At the end of last season, Neal was already in a position where he had a lot to prove to the team and fans alike.  Patience was growing thin and the “injury-prone” whispers began.  Things got worse for Neal when, this past spring, he was hit with a 4 game suspension for a positive test for a banned performance enhancing drug.  Neal appealed his suspension and was denied by the NFL.  He stated, in early June, that he would appeal a second time but was told by the Player’s Union that he could not so the suspension will stand.  Those familiar with how Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy run their team know that these types of things are not well received.  While neither has said much about Neal to this point, it has to be evident that he’s on some very thin ice.  He will be allowed to participate in practices and preseason games but will not be allowed to participate in any football-related activities during the first 4 weeks of the season.  For a player who has a lot to show the team that invested such a high draft choice and their confidence in him, this is not an ideal situation for Neal.  I can’t say whether I think he will be on this year’s roster because there is a lot of camp left, but I’d put his chances at no more than 70% right now.  The team has made a clear statement that nothing is guaranteed for Neal by drafting 2 defensive linemen and signing free agent D linemen Anthony Hargrove and Daniel Muir during the offseason.  They won’t all be on this year’s roster and Neal could be a surprise cut if the others come on strong.  Thompson has shown that he doesn’t give up easily on high draft picks (see Justin Harrell) but Neal has made it very difficult for most anyone to get in his corner with his injury history and this latest suspension gaffe.

Jarius Wynn returns to camp after having started nearly every game at RDE last year.  Wynn was a backup in 2010 and emerged as the starter in 2011 when Neal went down with an injury.  The team had no other guy capable of stepping in and starting and Wynn got the nod.  He was nothing but a body on the field.  He did amass 3 sacks during the year but he did very little to contribute to the overall defensive effort.  He was often pushed out of the picture on both pass and rushing downs.  He does not have great speed and there is just nothing “special” about this player.  He’s likely in camp this year to provide competition to the others more than anything.  Due to suspensions by Neal and Hargrove, Wynn may survive the final cut and may even continue to start as the season beings.  If Neal returns and barring any issues with the development of rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, Wynn could be a roster casualty shortly after the season starts.

CJ Wilson has played very sparingly over the past 2 seasons but has youth on his side.  He could be a solid backup option as long as he has a good showing in training camp.  With a depth chart stocked with potential and talent, Wilson will likely hold serve and stick on this year’s roster due to his experience playing in the system the past 2 years.

Lawrence Guy is an interesting situation this year.  He lasted just one week in last year’s training camp before suffering a concussion during practice.  He returned a few days later but symptoms reoccurred and the decision was made to put Guy on IR.  He was not permitted to practice with the team but he did stay in Green Bay and attended daily meetings to help his learning of the defense.  Guy was a 7th round choice after leaving Arizona State University after his junior year.  Some say he should have stayed for his senior year but he felt he was ready for the NFL.  Guy enters camp with a stable full of defensive linemen vying for a spot on the roster.  With little risk to the team should Guy not be chosen to this year’s team, he will need to flash some of his best potential with the limited time he has in camp.  I see this as an uphill battle for Guy and his best chance to stick could be if an injury to another player occurs.  There are just too many guys who should make a bigger impact than what I see Guy making for me to stamp his ticket in 2012 just yet.   

Daniel Muir was signed this offseason to compete with the incumbents and push the newcomers during training camp.  Muir spent the 2007 season with the Packers as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State.  He played sparingly and was cut prior to the start of the 2008 season.  He spent 2 years with the Colts before being waived and picked up by the St. Louis Rams.  After a month, he was waived by the Rams and re-signed with the Colts.  He was waived about a month after that.  Clearly Muir is not starting material but can be an emergency backup if needed.  I don’t foresee him cracking the roster this year but if he develops well in the defensive system, he could be an option during the season if the team needs to bring in another body.  Had the team not been fortunate enough to draft Jerel Worthy (DT, Michigan State) and Mike Daniels (DT, Iowa), Muir may have had a better chance of making this year’s team.

The team’s 2nd round pick in the 2011 draft was Jerel Worthy.  Worthy slipped a bit in the draft and the Packers jumped in and snagged him to play at right defensive end and give Raji some support.  At 6’3” and 310 lbs, Worthy has the frame to be a solid end in the Pack’s 3-4 scheme.  The book on him is pretty positive.  He’s a fiery player who blends in well with the team concept.  He’s quick off the ball and has great hand technique.  He disengages his blocks well and has a strong upper body.   He has been able to push O lineman around when he gets under their pads.  On the downside, Worthy plays fast and hard and sometimes pushes too far upfield and takes himself out of plays.  He has also had some issues with stamina.  It’s not certain whether those were the result of conditioning or if he just plays with such intensity that it’s inevitable that he will need breaks throughout the game.  The Pack will need to ensure that they have a steady rotation in order to keep Worthy fresh and effective.  With Neal and Hargrove out for 4 and 8 weeks, respectively, expect Worthy to make a strong push to start at RDE when the season kicks off this year.  If he is not a starter, he will surely see reps early and often.

Mike Daniels was the Pack’s 4th round pick and is expected to help spell Raji at tackle.  A bit undersized to play tackle, Daniels is very strong with his hands and plays bigger than he is, at times.  He disengages blockers well with his swift hand use but his size sometimes is a hindrance.  Bigger interior lineman can get the upper hand and neutralize him out of the play.  Daniels posted  at team-high 13 tackles for loss at Iowa and had 10 during his junior year.  Daniels is not said to be an every-down player at his current stature.  He would need to put on some weight and show that it won’t hinder his athleticism in order to push for more playing time.  Daniels will certainly be on this year’s team and as a bit of a project, seems like a guy fans will see more of as the season goes along. 

Anthony Hargrove rounds out our discussion as he is ineligible to play until week 8 of the regular season.  Hargrove was signed as a free agent in late March after spending last season with the Seattle Seahawks and the 2 previous years with the New Orleans Saints, who won Super Bowl XLIV.  Shortly after his signing with the Pack, an NFL investigation into some current and former Saints players found that they had instituted a bounty system which paid players for targeting and trying to take opposing players out of games.  Hargrove was named as one of those players.  He received an 8 game suspension and unsuccessfully appealed.  While Thompson has not commented on what his exact plans are with Hargrove, he did get a great value when he signed the veteran D lineman to a 1 year deal worth $825K.  With little risk, it would seem wise for the team to keep him and insert him into the lineup when he is eligible to return.  He would be a veteran who has an understanding of the defense and would come in with a fresh set of legs.  It could provide a big boost to a team that needs this type of guy up front to create pressure and open up opportunities for others to make plays.  Unless one of the bubble players comes out of nowhere this camp, that’s exactly what I expect to happen with Hargrove.

No other position group has more improving to do than this group.  With a lot of guys competing for limited spots, expect to see their best during camp and a decision for the coaching staff that will probably come down to the very last day.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

 - Jason Perone (@WSB_Jason)

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