Recently, unrestricted free agent and former Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji chose to take a "hiatus" from football, further muddling the picture for the interior front of Green Bay's defense. The Packers are unquestionably thin up front. And this doesn't take into account the concerns that exist at inside linebacker. Green Bay has nine defensive linemen currently on the roster, but four players - B.J. McBryde, William Campbell, Christian Ringo, and Ray Drew - are practice squad players with no game experience. Backups Datone Jones, Mike Pennel and Josh Boyd return. However, Pennel is suspended for the first four games of the season and Josh Boyd spent most of 2015 on the injured reserve following a week-two ankle injury. The upside is that starters Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion are back after signing four-year and three-year contracts, respectively.
Pennel and Boyd will need to take a step up. Regardless, the Packers still have options to bolster the defensive line. They can do so via free agency and/or the draft.
Two solid interior linemen are still available via free agency: Nick Fairley and Terrance Knighton. Either would be nice additions to a Packer defense that struggled at times to stop the run between the tackles. The likelihood that Ted Thompson signs either is remote because of the expected price tags. There are numerous "project" and role player free agents available that Thompson could add similar to his recent Ray Drew signing.
Another free agent option that could still factor in is former Packer Mike Neal. Although he plays primarily linebacker now, the hulking, high-effort Neal knows Dom Capers' system and has played everywhere on the line as a rotational player. Even last season, he was still contributing as an interior rusher on occasion. Unfortunately, Green Bay needs more than rotational players. And if Thompson doesn't want to foot the bill for Fairley or Knighton, the draft is where Thompson must look to add an impact player or two.
Fortunately for Green Bay, defensive line is the deepest and most talented position in this year's draft. There are 10 to 12 linemen who grade out as potential first-rounders. In all, two dozen or more defensive linemen grade out in the third-round or better.
Not surprisingly, numerous mock drafts have Green Bay selecting a defensive lineman in the first round. Those mocks that don't have the Packers taking a DL generally predict a linebacker. A solid run-stuffing linebacker like Alabama's Reggie Ragland would actually help alleviate some of the inside need on the D-line. Unfortunately, Ragland is the only ILB that grades as a first-round pick. It is possible that Thompson reaches a bit (i.e. Eli Apple, CB) or even bucks trend and goes offensive (i.e. Cody Whitehair, OG) with the Packers' first selection, knowing he can come back in the second round and still snag a first-round quality D-lineman.
Green Bay could stand to improve at both nose tackle and 5-technique defensive end, and there are plenty of options at both if Green Bay does indeed go defensive line with its first pick. If the pick is for the nose, Jarran Reed, A'Shawn Robinson, Andrew Billings, Vernon Butler, and Kenny Clark could all fill the need. All are run-stuffers. Billings is best suited to play nose tackle, though Reed, Robinson, Billings, Butler, and Clark all have the versatility to play anywhere on the line. None of them are refined pass-rushers, but, in Capers defense, "down lineman" usually means eating up blockers so the linebackers can make plays. All of the above are first-round possibilities. Billings, Butler, and Clark are possible second-round options as well.
The Packers could also look to the edge in round one to help with the pass rush. If that is the choice, many believe Kevin Dodd or Noah Spence would be the pick. Either could step in immediately and ultimately replace Julius Peppers, while forming a nice rushing tandem on the edge with Clay Matthews.
Considering Capers and Thompson's recent history, expect size over speed with the defensive line pick or picks. But with the success of Denver's pass rush still fresh in our minds, maybe Thompson will surprise and grab another linebacker, like Georgia's Leonard Floyd, to pair opposite Matthews.