As we approach the start of the Green Bay Packers' Organized Team Activities next week, we continue our look at some of the key position battles on the roster. Today we will examine the left defensive end position, or 5-technique, which typically lines up on the outside shoulder of the right tackle.
At right end (3-technique), Mike Daniels is developing into a force. On the nose, B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion return on one-year deals to plug the middle. On the left side, however, the Packers have been unable to find a player who can contribute strongly in both the pass rush and run defense.
Still, with the Packers' propensity to pull a defensive lineman off the field and use the nickel and dime packages frequently, having a star at this position is less critical than it is at other spots on the front seven. Indeed, these players will often be rushing from a 3-technique alignment on passing downs, if they are on the field at all. Still, understanding who plays here when the team is in its base 3-4 defense will help us understand the Packers' approach to the position itself.
Third NFL season, UCLA
6'4", 285 pounds
In 2014, Jones did not take a massive step forward in role, but he did make progress in most phases of the game compared to his performance during his rookie year. Even though his sack numbers dipped from 3.5 to 1.5, Jones had a similar number of quarterback pressures (18 in 2013 vs. 19 in 2014) on similar numbers of pass rushing snaps (223 to 220), according to Pro Football Focus. Though he still was heavily used as an interior pass rusher, Jones also saw far more action on early downs, as shown by his participation on run plays increasing from 34 snaps to 92.
Jones' play against the run is probably the biggest reason he has not taken hold of the starting job in the base defense. He has earned negative grades in run defense from Pro Football Focus for both of his NFL seasons, coming in at -3.2 as a rookie and dropping to -7.1 a year ago. He did miss fewer tackles, though, cutting that number in half from four to two. In order to earn the starting job in the base, Jones will need to be more effective holding his blocks in the run game on early downs to supplement his production as a pass-rusher.
Third NFL season, Mississippi State
6'3", 310 pounds
As opposed to Jones, Josh Boyd saw much more action in the base defense, as shown by his snap breakdown (188 run, 204 pass). However, he was a slightly below-average player according to PFF grading. Whereas Jones is productive as a pass-rusher, Boyd is not, pitching in just eight combined pressures. He defends the run more effectively, however, which explains the playing time breakdown. Underscoring Boyd's limitations is the fact that he has not recorded a sack in either of his two seasons.
Second NFL season, Southern Mississippi
6'3", 304 pounds
Thornton is an unknown at this point, having lost his entire rookie season to a hamstring injury that landed him on Injured Reserve. However, the third-round pick failed to impress in the preseason a year ago, recording just three tackles and one quarterback hurry on 97 snaps (per PFF). His play last preseason even drove one beat writer to question if he will ever be a productive NFL player.
Based solely on his draft position in 2014, he will get a shot to show that he can contribute. However, if he does not flash any signs of life quickly, it could be a short training camp for Thornton. Still, he has decent size for the five-technique position and at least should have an opportunity to surprise.
All in all, the depth chart at the left end position looks like it will shake out similarly to how it did a year ago, with Boyd primarily manning that spot on early downs and Jones coming on the field in passing situations. Unless one player starts to show significant aptitude in the weaker aspect of his game, it should be a position that once again operates by committee in 2015.