The defensive line position has been a position of weakness for the Green Bay Packers over the past few seasons. The Packers have struggled to replace Cullen Jenkins since his departure in 2011 to the Philadelphia "Dream Team" Eagles (now with the New York Giants). The Packers selected B.J. Raji ninth overall in the 2009 NFL draft and at the time it seemed like a perfect fit, however, over the last two seasons Raji has struggled to produce after a few seasons of heavy workloads. Johnny Jolly ran into trouble with the law after he had become a solid player for the Packers defensive line since being drafted in the sixth round out of Texas A&M by the Packers in 2006 — he hasn't played since the 2009 season.
The Packers selected Datone Jones with the No. 26 pick overall in the 2013 NFL Draft out of UCLA and he could be a player that gives the Packers an instant boost playing the 5 or 7-technique in Green Bay's 3-4 defense. The Packers return Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, C.J Wilson, Jordan Miller and Jerel Worthy. Pair that with draft selections Datone Jones and Josh Boyd and undrafted free agent Gilbert Pena and the return of Johnny Jolly, and the Packers' defensive line suddenly could be a strength for a defense which has struggled the last few seasons.
Locks To Start: Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji
Ryan Pickett is in the final year of his four-year, $25 million contract he signed in 2010 and, in all likelihood, 2013 will be his last season in Green Bay. Pickett has been one of the best free agent signings for General Manager Ted Thompson since he took over the position in 2005. Pickett isn't much of a pass rusher, however, his ability to stuff the run is what has kept him on the Packers' roster. Pickett will give it one more shot with the Packers in 2013 in hopes to raise another Lombardi Trophy.
Like Pickett, B.J. Raji is in the final year of his deal (five years, $22.9 million) and the Packers organization has been boisterous in proclaiming Raji must earn an extension. Raji has struggled the last two seasons being productive and his overall play has been down. It's tough to attribute Raji's production dip to one thing, however; some have pointed to the Packers over playing him early in his career which resulted in burn out, others dismiss this notion. Whatever the reason may be Raji better figure it out soon or he could see himself in a different jersey come 2014.
Contenders: Datone Jones, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels, C.J. Wilson
Datone Jones isn't an automatic starter yet in the NFL despite what my fellow APC writers may think. He will have to compete with C.J Wilson and Mike Neal to secure the starting spot, but at the end of the day we expect him to have a shot at the job for week 1 in San Francisco. Jones has a unique set of skills. He is very large (6'4" 285 lbs.) he has tremendous hands, and has a very quick step that shocks offensive linemen. At the end of the day, Jones is just more talented, even as a rookie, than Wilson and Neal.
Mike Neal has been an enigma in the NFL thus far in his career. Neal has all the tools to be a solid 3-4 defensive end, but he can't find a way to stay on the field — whether it be a four game suspension last year for prescription medication for his attention deficit disorder or a nagging knee injury which costed Neal eight games in the 2011 season. Neal finally appears healthy and the Packers have even taken a keen interest in Neal this offseason, moving him around the defensive including some time at outside linebacker. We think there is a near-zero percent chance that Neal plays outside linebacker this season, but it just shows how athletic and potentially valuable Neal could be to the Packers.
Mike Daniels appeared in 14 games in his rookie season last year and recorded just 12 tackles. Perhaps his career moment came in a Sunday night football game against the Detroit Lions in the snow at Lambeau Field when he recovered a Matthew Stafford fumble and returned 50 yards for a touchdown. Daniels has some tools, including great strength and leverage, to be a solid back up player in the NFL, and he could compete for some reps with the starting defensive line.
Out of the Running: Johnny Jolly, Josh Boyd, Jerel Worthy, Jordan Miller, Gilbert Pena
Like I previously mentioned, Johnny Jolly hasn't played a down in the NFL since 2009 so it remains to be seen if he can even effect a football game anymore. In his last season with the Packers, Jolly started all 16 games. In those 16 games Jolly tallied 24 tackles, one sack, an INT, 10 pass deflections and a forced fumble. Jolly brings a lot of different skills the Packers have been lacking. His strength and ability to swat balls at the line of scrimmage are the two most needed skills for the Packers defensive line. Jolly's first order of business is to make the 53-man roster, if he can prove he can still play, the Packers might have a pleasant surprise on their hands in Jolly.
Jerel Worthy will miss most of the 2013 NFL season as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings. At the very least Worthy will start the season on the PUP list and will not be eligible to play until after week six. After the six week period is up the team has three weeks to decide if the player can begin practicing and another three weeks to decide if the player can join the 53-man roster, which would result in another roster move to make room for the player. All in all, if the Packers take the whole lotted time with Worthy on the PUP list he would be out until week 16. Early bets are that Worthy will be placed on injury reserved.
Jordan Miller spent some time with the Chicago Bears practice squad in 2011 and played in just one game for the Packers a season ago. Miller has a very large hill to climb to make the Packers roster in 2013.
Finally, a practice squad spot may come down to Gilbert Pena and Josh Boyd. The Packers selected Boyd in the fifth round out of Mississippi State and signed Pena as an undrafted free agent. Both Boyd and Pena have turned heads early on in the rookie camp last month, however, Boyd has the slight upper hand over the 26-year-old Pena. Don't be surprised, however, if Jolly doesn't make the roster and both Boyd and Pena sneak on the team in some capacity.
Stay tuned for our roster predictions coming up later on this afternoon.