One thing the season long suspension of Green Bay Packers DE Johnny Jolly did was solidify the starting lineup for the defensive line. When OTAs were underway in June, DE Ryan Pickett was surprisingly at defensive end while NT B.J. Raji was starting at nose tackle. Now instead of wondering about Jolly's new role as a backup, or whether this new alignment was a good idea, we can be pretty sure that starting the top 3 returning defensive linemen are going to start. And this only relates to starting on 1st down when pass rushing is not at a premium.
Left DE: Ryan Pickett. He started there last month, and their franchise player has to start somewhere, right?
NT: B.J. Raji. It's hard to argue against finding a starting position for your previous year's top 10 draft pick. Plus he did improve as the 2010 season went on. If any defensive player is going to make the jump in 2010, he's on the short list.
Right DE: Cullen Jenkins. He remains their best defensive lineman.
When the Packers went to a nickel formation, generally (not always because Dom Capers did unveil some unusual formations last season) Pickett came out. Jolly usually remained in the game as a pass rushing tackle, which accounts for one of the reasons why he ranked first in snaps and tackles among defensive lineman last season. Another reason why Jolly played so much was because of an early season ankle injury to Raji and a late season hamstring injury to Pickett. Interesting point: while Jolly wasn't much of a pass rusher he had 10 pass defenses in 2009 which made him arguably the best lineman in pass coverage and an asset on pass defense.
So the question isn't about whether they can replace Jolly as a run defender, but whether they can replace him against the pass.
There's also the minor question of who will backup Pickett and Raji against the run in case of an injury. Since that backup player would probably play less time then anyone else on defense, he would be the first player to go when they switch to the nickel, I'm not too worried about the backup to the least used position on defense.
They aren't going to replace Jolly as a coverage player, so it's more likely his replacement is going to have get after the quarterback. Here are the candidates:
DE Mike Neal. The 2nd round draft choice is going to have a lot of eyes (including mine) on him this preseason. GM Ted Thompson already gave his seal of approval by using a 2nd round pick on him, and fans as Purdue watched as every opponent focused their attention on stopping him. He's still an unknown as a pass rusher, but he appears to have the most potential.
DEs Ronald Talley/Jarius Wynn/C.J. Wilson. I'm not expecting much from Talley, but Wynn proved he could play a little last preseason. It's hard to say about Wilson until I see him play this preseason. It's not a bad thing if all they get out of this group is another season of Wynn sitting deep on the bench.
NTs Anthony Toribio and Aleric Mullins. Just as Wynn looked good last preseason, so did Toribio. Mullins falls into the same category as Wilson: I want to see him first. If anyone got a leg up on a roster spot with Jolly's suspension, it's these two guys. At 315 and 319, respectively, they would be more likely to fill the 300+ lb. roster spot vacated by the 325 lb. Jolly.
DE Justin Harrell. Normally a healthy, former 1st round selection, would rank higher. But I'm not considering him until I see him on the field. From the absence of negative reports about his health, this appears to be the healthiest he's been since joining the Packers. We'll have to see how he holds up next month.
And that's it. That doesn't seem like a lot, but that was why they tendered a contract to Jolly in the first place. Still, I've mentioned two high draft choices and a few interesting late round picks, so the cupboard isn't bare. What do you think of this group so far?