Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2015 season. Today, we examine the defensive line. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.
The Green Bay Packers' defensive line is a tough group to assess. Part of that is due to the Packers' 3-4 scheme; the linemen often are not the ones making the tackles or sacking the quarterback, but their contributions in holding the point of attack and collapsing the pocket allow the linebackers to flow to the football. As such, the linemen's numbers typically do not stand out.
Adding to the difficulty is the frequency with which the Packers line up in two-lineman sets - saying that Green Bay runs a 3-4 is misleading if only because they are in the 2-4-5 nickel so often, which takes them out of their traditional 3-4 roles.
Still, we'll look at the 2015 Packers defensive line today, a unit which had a handful of solid contributors and a single true star player.
Right end: Mike Daniels
Before he signed his big contract extension in December, we at Acme Packing Company regularly joked that Daniels was earning more and more money with every big play. As an interior pass-rusher, Daniels has no equal on the Packers' roster, and he earned every bit of that $41 million contract.
Daniels still has some wrinkles in his game to iron out, but he is the defense's vocal leader and possesses elite functional strength in his "smaller" 6-foot frame. Daniels should continue to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines for years to come, and though he is still searching for his first Pro Bowl or All-Pro honor, that should come in no time.
Nose tackle: B.J. Raji
In 2015, Raji finally got to play full-time at his nose tackle position for the first time since 2010 this season, and he showed flashes of why he was viewed as such a disruptive force on the interior during that year's Super Bowl run. He is inconsistent at the point of attack, but when he's good, he's still really good. He remains more effective in rushing the passer than being a true two-gapping nose guard, but nobody else on the roster can fill that position quite like him.
Left end: Letroy Guion
After serving a three-game suspension stemming from his offseason arrest, Guion returned to the lineup and played fairly well in a rotation at the 5-technique position, nose tackle, and interior nickel rusher. Guion made his share of highlight-reel plays, which help to balance out the occasional washout in the run game. And although he did not record a sack this year after posting 3.5 in 2014 as the starting nose tackle, that was due in part to a reduction in snaps, especially rushing the passer.
Backup: Datone Jones
Jones rotated in with Guion at the 5-tech and nickel tackle packages for the first part of the 2015 season, but by year's end he had actually shifted into more of a hybrid lineman/outside linebacker role, similar to Mike Neal's a few years ago before he fully made the transition. Jones appears poised to stand up even more in 2016, perhaps with the goal of putting his pass-rushing skills to better use. He recorded three sacks in 2015, but two of those came in week 11's win in Minnesota.
Backup: Mike Pennel
Perhaps Pennel is the heir apparent at nose tackle, perhaps not. What we do know is that he can be effective in spot duty as a 5-technique end and in the nickel, and he had a handful of splash plays both in pass rush and run support. Expect Pennel to be in line for an expanded role in 2016, regardless of whether the Packers bring back either of the two linemen slated to hit free agency.
IR: Josh Boyd
Boyd was lost for the season early on, as he suffered a broken ankle during the Packers' week two win over the Seahawks.
Overall Grade: B
All told, the defensive line was one of the better position groups on the team this year. Every member of the group showed flashes of brilliance at one point or another, and they helped to hold some of the NFL's best running backs in check. Critically, the coaches were able to keep all of the players fresh by rotating their snaps regularly, which helped keep everyone fresh and effective throughout much of the season.
Each player has his weaknesses, but the defensive coaching staff did an effective job of utilizing each player well according to their strengths and putting them in positions to succeed.