Examining the 2011 Green Bay Packers: Defensive Line

One of the longest-running cliches in football is that "the games are won in the trenches".  Sure, you can come up with some valid points that make this true, but look at how Green Bay used its defensive linemen during the playoffs.  In non-goal line situations, there were more instances of the defense using 2 or 1 down linemen than 3 or more.  Capers' ability to use multiple linebackers and defensive backs helped compensate for the relative shortage of healthy linemen, and it worked well enough to win a championship.  The Packers won plenty of battles away from the trenches, to be sure.

Next season?  If nothing else, Capers will at least have the option of using 3 or 4 down linemen.  Let's break them down: 

Defensive Ends (6): Justin Harrell, Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, Jarius Wynn

Defensive Tackles (4): Howard Green, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Jay Ross (practice squad)

 

#77 Cullen Jenkins

Player Progression (progress/stagnate/regress from 2010)stagnate

Team Standing (expanded/same/diminshed role)same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: poor

If/when the labor agreement is settled, the preamble to all our 2011 articles will change from "If there's a 2011 season" to "If Cullen Jenkins stays".  He's a crucially important part of this defense, and articles like this hint at his departure.  

It's borderline depressing, since Jenkins' transition from above average 4-3 DT to very good 3-4 DE was as important to the defense's success as Charles Woodson.  He posted a career high in sacks (7.0) despite missing serious playing time with injuries to his hand and calf.  He's probably the best DE on the roster in terms of run support, and his pass rush ability makes him one of two possible 3-down linemen on the roster. 

Still, he's past 30, and there's a lot of young talent on the depth chart (most notably Mike Neal).  Letting Jenkins walk is a predictable Thompson move: get the same production from a younger player for a fraction of the cost.  And Thompson deserves to be trusted...but it'd be nice to keep Cullen around.

#91 Justin Harrell

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: expanded role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: poor

Now, hear me out.  Harrell has natural talent.  He just does; you don't get to be a first rounder without talent (unless of course you're Ahmad Carroll).  He's had worse luck with injuries than Greg Oden, and was originally drafted as a 4-3 DT, but he at least has the ability to contribute.  Without the expectation of doing, well, anything, he might be a surprise rotation guy, especially if Jenkins leaves and Jolly can't play.  He has the size and strength to control space and get penetration, and if he has learned anything from watching his teammates and listening to Mike Trgovac, who knows?  And hey, if Justin Harrell is the worst of your D-linemen, there's worse problems to have.

Brandon's comment: "
He played fewer snaps on the defensive line (three) than T.J. Lang (five snaps on defense) in 2010. I've written him off."  Well played, Brandon.  

#97 Johnny Jolly

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: expanded role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average to high

Opposite the Jenkins situation, I'm very excited to hear about Johnny Jolly start his journey back into the NFL.  With his ongoing legal issues getting resolved, he should be able to focus on football 100%, which could be just what the defense needs.  Jolly is a big DE (even by 3-4 standards) at 6'3" and 325 lbs, but a remarkable athlete.  One of the better tacklers on the defensive line, he's outstanding in run support, but what's most impressive is his impact on the passing game.  Registering 2 sacks in 4 years is usually laughable from a starter, but 17 passes defensed from a lineman is unheard of.  In certain cases, a player like Jolly can be even more valuable than a pass rusher; he's able to disrupt the QB's rhythm and timing (not to mention morale) by batting balls down, and the defense doesn't need to bring an extra pass rusher.  

So put all that together, plus the fact that he's only 27 and should be hungry to prove himself on an already championship-caliber defense.  Not a bad backup plan, not at all.

#96 Mike Neal

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: expanded role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: high

The 2nd round pick only played in 2 games before going down with an injury, but showed the strength and athleticism demanded from a 3-4 DE.  He already was one of the strongest players in the 2010 draft, and the double teams he commanded at Purdue were a testament to his power.  Going down with a rib injury was disappointing, but he can hopefully avoid his infamous teammate's fate and stay healthy.  If that happens, he's got an excellent chance to reach his potential.

#98 C.J. Wilson

Player Progression: stagnate

Team Standing: same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average

Wilson was exactly who we thought he would be: a rookie prospect who might get the chance to contribute if injuries hit.  And when the injuries hit, Wilson saw his playing time increase.  He managed 18 tackles and a sack in limited minutes, and didn't necessarily have many bad plays.  True, he disappeared against more skilled offensive lineman, but what else would you expect from a 7th round pick in his first season?  He'll stick around for a while as a member of the rotation, and who knows?  Maybe he'll get promoted to a greater role.

#94 Jarius Wynn

Player Progression: stagnate

Team Standing: diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: poor

Like Wilson, Wynn was a young prospect who would only see significant playing time when injuries created opportunities for him.  He was actually one of the players who was released during the final round of roster cuts, and was only brought back when Justin Harrell was placed on IR.  Wynn's playing time was sporadic during the season, but in the three games where he was called on to contribute (week 7 vs. MIN, week 16 vs. NYG, week 17 vs. CHI), he answered.  Wynn's career has already been successful by most standards (having a baby the same day as winning the Super Bowl is pretty great), and although he had a relatively anonymous college career, he still has the size and agility to play DE well.

#95 Howard Green

Player Progression: stagnate

Team Standing: diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average to poor

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, Howard Green is big.  Really, really big.  And no play was bigger than the 1st quarter interception Green helped create when he bullied his way through the Pittsburgh line and hit Roethlisberger's arm as the ball was being released.  On a larger scale, though, Green was a street free agent picked up mid-season in response to the injury plague that hit the team in 2010.  While he played well in a larger role against the New York Jets (his old team) in a run-stopping scheme, his size (6'2", 365 lbs.) limits his effectiveness and durability in the base defense.  He's a better athlete than a man his size should be, and might make the team next year, but he will struggle to find playing time with Raji, Pickett, Neal, and (hopefully) Jolly ahead of him.

#79 Ryan Pickett

Player Progression: regress

Team Standing: diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: poor

Pickett is a durable player in a position that usually struggles with injuries, having played between 13-16 games a season for 9 straight years.  He remains productive, and knows his role as a space eating 3-4 lineman.  He is stout in run support, has average pass rushing skills, and is a veteran leader among the d-line unit.  However, Pickett's age (31) and Raji's rise to prominence are the writing on the wall, and Pickett projects to take a step back in 2011.  He will likely play out the remainder of his contract (signed through 2013), but his role as a starter is definitely questionable going forward.

#90 B.J. Raji

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: high

The Freezer had his breakout campaign in 2010, registering 39 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and a postseason pick-six that led to a thoroughly humorous dance.  He's one of the best 3-4 nose tackles in the league, and the best interior lineman in the division not named Ndamukong.  He barrels through lineman and lead blockers alike, has excellent pass rush skills, superb tackling technique, and the versatility and conditioning to play as many snaps as his body (or coaches) will allow.  The only way he could be better is if he created a rivalry against his Detroit counterpart and strove to outplay the boy named Suh.  And that's not completely out of the question.

Jay Ross

Player Progression: who?

Team Standing: huh?

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: Maybe if everybody else on this list gets hurt.

* * *

Defensive line was the position on defense with the least amount of focus on it going into 2010.  Everyone was unsure of the depth at cornerback and linebacker, but we regularly lauded the fact that the team collected a deep group of versatile linemen.  After the injuries and suspensions hit, the unit was saved by two things: Raji's breakout year and Capers' continued schematic creativity.  

Now?  The group looks even deeper than before.  With Mike Neal, Johnny Jolly, and even Justin Harrell making comebacks, it's like we're getting three fresh draftees just by getting them out of the trainer's room or off probation.

The biggest question is the status of Cullen Jenkins.  If he stays, then this line goes from merely good to great and one of the deepest units in the entire league.  Retaining Jenkins allows the team to play their base set more than just 25% of the time without losing the threat of a pass rush.  It would allow the line to rotate Neal and Jolly in whenever the situation called for it, keeping all five top linemen fresher.  Our goal-line defense would be absolutely stacked, with Jenkins-Raji-Green-Pickett-Jolly up front.  

On the flip side, his departure would create a huge question mark as to which end will be asked to step up the most.  It would influence Capers towards running more of the hybrid 2-down linemen schemes, which is vulnerable to the run.  When they do run the base defense, my money is on a starting trio of Raji-Pickett-Neal, at least until Jolly is back and in football shape.

All things considered, the APC staff assigned the defensive line a grade of not particularly important to address.  The line is already going to be solid with who's guaranteed to be on the roster in 2011; this article from Pro Football Focus doles out high praise to Raji and Neal particularly.  The only real choice to make is whether or not to re-sign Jenkins.  If he walks, it's probable that Thompson looks at a late-round player to add to the rotation.  But that'll be the extent of it.

Or will it?  Poll!

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