Much has been made of the underproduction of B.J. Raji after a sub-par season in 2012. Since developing into a defensive anchor for the Packers during their Super Bowl run in 2010, in which Raji tallied 39 total tackles and 6.5 sacks, Raji's numbers have declined. In 2011, Raji was selected to the Pro Bowl, even though his numbers were almost halved at 22 tackles and 3 sacks. In 2012, Raji totaled 26 tackles and added zero sacks.
The Packers are hoping for a return of the 337-pound defensive force of 2010, but in order to do so the Packers need to find a replacement for Cullen Jenkins. According to ProFootballFocus.com, which grades players on a (+/-) scale with 0 being neutral, the Packers biggest problem lies within the supporting cast around Raji. The following is a list of the top 3 defensive linemen for the Packers in the past three regular seasons.
2010: Cullen Jenkins (15.3), BJ Raji (6.4), and Ryan Pickett (5.5)
2011: Ryan Pickett (0.2), Howard Green (-3.6), and CJ Wilson (-4.8), while Raji came in at (-19.6).
2012: BJ Raji (10.4), Mike Neal (5.1), and C.J. Wilson (3.8)
Note that playoff games were not taken into account; the entire Packers' defensive line received abysmal grades against the 49ers in the 2012 divisional round.
The PFF ratings are not an exact science, but they do lend some credence when fans decide to the play the blame game. Raji's 2012 numbers are skewed due to missing around 200 snaps due to injury, but the biggest issue seems to be the supporting cast and not solely Raji.
Enter Datone Jones.
The 6-foot-4, 285-pound UCLA product has all the tools to be the prototypical defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. He has the athleticism and speed off the edge to cause problems along the opposing offensive line, and take some pressure off of Raji.
The biggest problem within the Packers defensive line has been the lack of 3-4 scheme players. Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji would be an ideal defensive tackle tandem in a 4-3 scheme, but they lack the speed and agility to be forces off the edge in Don Capers' 3-4 scheme.
According to Zach Heilprin of ESPN Wisconsin, Capers has been experimenting with Mike Neal as an outside linebacker during OTAs.
As was the case last Tuesday, Mike Neal is working at OLB during the early portion of practice.— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) May 28, 2013
I believe Capers is simply trying to get the most out of any pass-rushing threat he has on the roster. Capers did this while in Jacksonville, and he continues to fine-tune the defense he has in Green Bay. It will be interesting to see how many snaps Neal gets at outside linebacker during the pre-season, and whether or not this may be a permanent move or not. Don't be surprised if it is only an adjustment Capers is making for nickel and dime packages.
I expect the defensive line rotation to play out something like this:
Right Defensive End: Datone Jones (65%), Mike Neal (25%), C.J. Wilson/Johnny Jolly/ Mike Daniels (10%)
Nose Tackle: B.J. Raji (70%), Ryan Pickett (25%), Josh Boyd (5%)
Left Defensive End: Ryan Pickett (50%), Mike Neal (40%), Wilson/Jolly/Daniels (10%)
As for a few other expectations I have for this season:
- I don't expect Jerel Worthy to be much of a contributor this season, after tearing his ACL against Minnesota late last season. If he does find his way onto the field, I expect him to take snaps away from Neal, and Neal to be used more as an outside linebacker in sub packages.
- Johnny Jolly might be the biggest question mark on this team. He could end up being a key reserve or he could be one of the first cuts. Time will tell if he gets his head on straight and back into game shape.
- C.J. Wilson has proven to be a marginal player, and lacks pass-rushing ability. He has been decent in stopping the run, which could help him get on the field against power-running teams like San Francisco and Chicago. I expect him to be between 200-250 snaps this season.
- Mike Daniels has shown flashes of pass-rushing ability, and has been dependable in stopping the run as well. He seems to have a bigger upside than Wilson or Jolly, but his lack of size (6-foot, 294 pounds) may be detrimental to his development. I expect him to end up with 300 snaps this season.
- Jordan Miller and Gilbert Pena will see limited action this season, but both are over 315 pounds and could be used as nose tackles. Barring injuries, it seems unlikely that either will see substantial time on the active roster, however.