Position Analysis: Defensive Line

One item that has caught my eye when I'm reading reports from practice is that NT B.J. Raji or NT Johnny Jolly are playing defensive end. Jolly is now even listed as a defensive end on the roster at the Packers' website! So is DT Justin "Bustin" Harrell. A 320 lb. defensive end. They are getting serious about adding some bulk on the defensive line to shape up the run defense. And occupy some blockers so the linebackers can make some plays.

These paragraphs on the Packers' awful run defense came straight from my analysis of the linebackers:

Now the Godfather, Dom Capers, is in town. He's brought with him the 3-4 defense, moved DE Aaron Kampman to outside linebacker, and GM Ted Thompson drafted OLB Clay Matthews to revamp the starting lineup around Hawk and Barnett.

Running defense in 2008. They were 7th worst last season allowing an awful 4.6 yards/carry. They also allowed a 1st down on 26.4% of opponent's rushing attempts; "good" for 3rd worst. They also seemed to collapse at key times last season, such as the overtime loss at Tennessee when the Titans just ran right at them on their first O.T. possession to set up the game losing FG.

The run defense was ranked 29th overall by Football Outsiders. The run defense was clearly bad and deserved the bad ranking, but it was good in 2007 (and great in 2006) so it can rebound.

Although I broke up the analysis of defensive line and linebackers, the entire front seven is part of the run defense. The cornerbacks and safeties should come up and help, but often something has gone wrong if someone in the secondary is making the stop on a running play.

The starters are probably set, but since I'm only expecting them to keep six defensive lineman, there should be a heck of a battle among the final six players for that one roster spot (and probably one more spot on the practice squad).

Starters:

NT B.J. Raji. He was drafted to anchor the new and improved run defense. We've got big expectations pinned on him, but he appears to have the talent to reach them. He should be starting on the strong side, over the right tackle. That would make him the left defensive end, but really he's just one of the two starting defensive tackles.

NT Ryan Pickett. If I had to give blame to one player for the bad run defense in 2008, although I do think the it was a group effort, I would blame ex-Packer DT Colin Cole. Good luck with that signing Seattle! But Pickett was M.I.A. for most of last season too. I've been a fan of his in the past, but 2008, for whatever reason, wasn't his year. Although he's a veteran and plays in the trenches, good defensive lineman can often have long NFL careers. Exhibit A: Teams keep signing DT Grady Jackson. Here's to hoping Pickett bounces back in 2009 as continues to anchor the middle of the line.

DE Cullen Jenkins. The only player under 330 lbs. expected to start on the defensive line. He's a great player. I was in shock when he was injured last season with a torn pectoral muscle. He should be able to recover from this injury, but we'll have to wait and see.

Backups:

NT Johnny Jolly. So far in practice, he's been playing a lot as Pickett has missed at least a couple practices. He should be the primary backup in a three-man rotation at NT and left-DE with Raji and Pickett. Assuming his June 26th trial goes in his favor.

DT Justin "Bustin" Harrell. I can't imagine they'll give up on the former 1st round pick unless he completely falls apart in the preseason. But I can't imagine he'll stay healthy for all 16 games either. I would expect he'll see limited time behind Jolly, Raji, and Pickett, which might become significant time if Jolly's legal problems keep him out.

The final backup spot should be someone to play behind Jenkins as the right-DE. Depending on how Jenkins' recovery is going, this player might even find himself as the starter.

  • DE Michael Montgomery. He was a 6th round pick in GM Ted Thompson's 1st draft (2005) and he's managed to hang on for four seasons. He even managed to start 8 games last season. He checked out the free agent market for a couple weeks before resigning in mid-March. He'd have to be considered the front runner.
  • DE Jarius Wynn. He might have an advantage as one of this April's 6th round draft choices. He's a talented player who never quite played up to it at Georgia.
  • DE Alfred Malone. He was listed as a tackle when they ran the 4-3, but now he's an end. He might have an advantage since he spent all of last season either on the Packers' practice squad or active roster.
  • DE Anthony Toribio. The undrafted free agent signed with Miami in 2008, was on the Dolphins' practice squad for most of the year, and then was signed to the Packers' practice squad last November. He even made it to the active roster in December, although he didn't make it into any games.
  • DE Ronald Talley and DE/NT Dean Muhtadi. The pair were undrafted in this April's draft. They are probably playing for a spot on the practice squad. The edge might go to Talley since he was signed immediately after the draft, while Muhtadi only received an invite and had to earn his contract during the rookie camp.

Raji's addition alone greatly improves this unit. Otherwise it's comprised mostly of the same players who struggled in 2008. They've got a lot to prove in 2009.

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