June 12, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive end Phillip Merling (69) during the team's mandatory minicamp at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE
More often than not you hear about how football games are won in the trenches. Last year that battle was not won consistently on either side of the ball. So as much as the battle royale at safety will be interesting and cornerback competition will be important, the real show for me this training camp is going to be how the big men perform on the defensive line.
This group is an enigma to me right now, so I'm going start by talking about what was the defensive line last year. Last year the Packers had two legit linemen: B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. Unfortunately neither had stand out years, PIckett was okay and Raji was a bit disappointing. After that were a bunch of players who can be good enough in a rotation but not really starting caliber guys, such as C.J. Wilson, Jarius Wynn, and Howard Green. Mike Neal was injured most of the year, again, and for what little he was able to play he was rather ineffective, again. This left a gap in the interior pressure and big holes in the running game. As much as people love to pick on the Packers secondary (and not without good cause) really it was the failure of the defensive line that weakened the defense in 2011.
To fix this Ted Thompson has gambled on quantity, hoping that this will lead to better quality. He drafted Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, both known in the college ranks for their interior pass rush. He went through the free agent bargain bin and picked a high effort guy with a relatively low ceiling, Daniel Muir; a guy with a moderate ceiling but checkered past, Anthony Hargrove; and a guy with a high ceiling and reputation for low effort, Philip Meriing. That's five new players at a position where they keep six or maybe seven. Add in the fact that Lawrence Guy (who seems promising) is coming back from IR and there is a lot of bodies there.
Let's meet the competitors:
The Brave New Hope: Jerel Worthy
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He's probably the most talented of the bunch. Worthy might be one of the main reasons Packer fans are excited to see this new year come. He's probably the best hope the Packers have for finding an interior pass rush and may be the best value the Packers got in the 2012 draft (which is saying something). He is capable of pushing the pocket and has a great first step.
Biggest reason why he won't win the starting job: He is still a little too raw. From the various quotes I've read surrounding Worthy it seems the coaching staff is going to bring him along slow. This means using him in subpackages and sticking to his strengths an interior pass rusher. As a result he may not have the "starter" title to him in the base package, where the DE is playing the run as much or more and has to seal the edge. I have little doubt that Worthy will be there next year, but this year it may just be spot duty.
Duh, Wynning: Jarius Wynn
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He's consistently been the last man standing. Never underestimate a fighter. A guy who has been through the battles and always seems to be able to walk away. Wynn is that guy if you think about it. He has always been on the bubble and never quite had the talent but he has found a way to stick around and fill in when needed. This means he knows his role, he can reasonably perform it, and he can answer the bell when the time is needed. In light of the suspensions and injuries that always seem to occur at this position, that might just be the way to win a job, at least for the early part of the year.
Biggest reason he won't win the starting job: He's just not as talented as some of the other guys around him. He's not as good a pass rusher as Raji, Worthy, or Hargrove. He doesn't have as much potential as Daniels or Guy. He's just kinda there. Making the team when you are like that makes sense when the position group is thin on talent and bodies, but this year it appears that neither is the case.
The Invisible Man: C.J. Wilsion
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He can play the run. The Packers and their fans have been obsessed with increasing the pass rush this past offseason. Not surprising when you consider how bad the defense played the pass last year, but let's not forget that the Packers were also a rather middling run defense as well. In order to have a good rounded rotation on the line the Packers are going to need someone who can take on double teams and stuff the run. Sure Pickett can do that, but it's better if you have two guys who can do that well enough. Enter Wilson. Sure he can't get push, but he's also not pushed around too much. That might be enough to earn the starter title in the base defense.
Biggest reason he won't win the starting job: He doesn't do much. Wilson is good for about one tackle a game. He's a player who had some interesting qualities, but was a low round draft pick and can disappear for long periods of time. He's not a dynamic force and may have a tough time making the roster with the increased competition this year.
The Disappointment (Pt. 1): Mike Neal
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He FINALLY puts it together. I think Neal hurts me as a fan more than Justin Harrell. Harrell might of been a first round pick, but Neal has actually shown glimpses of why the Packers drafted him so high. It makes me more patient, but in the end his production has been about the same as Harrell. If Neal can put it together and keep his head straight then the defensive line could be pretty darn good.
Biggest reason he won't win the starting job. He is just too far behind. As camp plods along the reps for those suspended are probably going to decrease. The Packers need to get ready for the 49ers, and Neal is not going to be there whether he makes the roster or not. That doesn't give him much time to put it together and get the practice he needs, and in the end that may just put him too far behind to be a meaningful contributor this year....let alone win a starting job.
The Infamous: Anthony Hargrove
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He's probably the most balanced of all the competitors. I liked the Hargrove signing. I still like the Hargrove signing. He is probably the only starting caliber D-lineman of the lot that we have right now. He can stuff the run and push the pocket. He's not a replacement for Cullen Jenkins, but I don't think that's what's expected of him. He can be who the Packers need him to be, a fresh body and capable contributor. That's enough.
Biggest reason he won't win the starting job: He's going to be suspended eight games. Oh yeah....that.
The Disappointment (Pt. 2): Phillip Merling
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He FINALLY puts it together. Merling is a classic story of the NFL. He's a guy who seemed to coast through college ball on athletic talent and then faced with the harsh reality of the NFL has not risen to the occasion. The traditional ending to this tale is the guy washing out of the NFL once and for all. The Packers may be Merling's last chance to avoid this ending and write a new one. Many players that have stared into that cold abyss put it together for their second chance and have formed a nice career. It would be great for the Packers if Merling can do that.
Biggest reason he won't win the starting job: He's still overweight and not ready. It's not a good sign when you are on your second (and possibly last) chance and you show up overweight. We'll see how he shows up for camp, but let's just say I'm not holding my breath on this guy working out.
The Overachiever: Daniel Muir
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He can play the run and stuff the line. Muir may just be the poster child for why Harrell should of been cut sooner. The Packers cut him once upon a time and then he went to the Colts and had a decent, but consistent, career. The Packers kept Harrell and got basically nothing. Like I said earlier, the Pack aren't asking for much out of this other starter, stop the run and eat space. Muir is a high effort guy who can do that.
Biggest reason he won't win the starting job: Too many other talented players around him. I like high motor, high effort guys. I especially like high effort D-linemen. It's a position where having that work ethic can mean something even though there are more talented people around you. Despite that, teams are always looking for that edge here and I get that too. Muir may win his way on the job, may being the key word, but it's doubtful he'll be a starter. Probably rotational help is the best he can shoot for right now.
The Little Engine That Could: Mike Daniels
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He thinks he can. Okay, a bit sarcastic, but it's pretty true. Daniels is type of player who shows that it's not the size of dog that wins the fight but the amount of fight in the dog. Something tells me that Daniels as a lot of fight in him, and the day in and day out grind of camp is where that shines. If he can outperform some of the disappointments and make a name for himself then he may surprise some people.
Biggest reason he won't win the starting job: He's not built for it. Daniels is a guy who is probably going to fall into a niche, namely that of rotational and situational pass rusher. In other words, he's the guy who is going to help keep Raji fresh. He's not a guy who can seal the edge and anchor against the run. He's not a guy who is going to be there down in and down out. It means that he should get a position, but probably not the starting job.
The Forgotten Man: Lawrence Guy
Biggest reason he will win the starting job: He took the time on IR last year to improve technique and learn the defense. Guy seemed to have a ton of promise for a 7th round pick last year, but his season ended in camp with a severe concussion. Placed on IR at the start of the year he has basically been forgotten by those outside of 1265 Lomardi. If he took the time to learn the craft a bit more and the defense specifically then he may be able to surprise people and burst on the scene. With all the new faces and confusion surrounding the suspensions he may be able to get his foot in the door as a seat warmer for Neal or Hargrove. Make a few plays from there and he may become more than just a seatwarmer.
Biggest reason he wont' win the starting job: Not enough reps to go around. As much the Packers are just shy of having open try outs for the DL, it should be noted that there are only so many reps in camp to go around. This may mean that a guy low on the totem pole may not get enough reps to show himself off to the coaches. I have a hunch that Guy is one of those low men on the totem pole right now and so he may not get enough opportunities to showcase what he can do.
The Final Twist: Outside forces
There are three outside forces that will wildly affect this battle. First is going to be the suspensions as mentioned above. Only the coaching staff knows how they are going to deal with this situation, and no one really knows how all the suspensions are going to turn out. Neal and Hargrove are both promising prospects, but I also doubt that anyone would shed a tear if they are burred on the depth chart or don't make the team. Second is going to be the reps these players can get. The new 90 man roster is going to be interesting for positions groups like this one where there aren't many spots on the roster and a starting spot up for grabs. Who gets each snap and each rep is going to be important (and the suspensions once again muck this up as well). Finally the glut of talent the Packers have at other positions may cause them to go with an unbalanced approach. I doubt this is a position they will go lighter at, but you never know.
Previous Camp Battles
Who will win the starting DE spot opposite Raji and Pickett?
Jerel Worthy (484 votes)
Mike Daniels (20 votes)
Jarius Wynn (19 votes)
C.J. Wilsion (12 votes)
Lawrence Guy (18 votes)
Phillip Merling (16 votes)
Daniel Muir (11 votes)
Anthony Hargrove (24 votes)
Mike Neal (29 votes)
633 total votes