Packers undergo makeover on defensive line
The Green Bay Packers will be younger, smaller and perhaps altogether different in the defensive line from a year ago.
Whether or not the unit can show marked improvement might be the difference if it's a good or great season for the Packers.
Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, formidable run stuffers and locker-room leaders for much of the Mike McCarthy administration, weren't re-signed. Hard-trying C.J. Wilson had no offer and departed for Oakland.
It was status quo one year ago when 98.5 percent of the D-line snaps from 2012 returned. This offseason exodus left just 63.1 percent of the 2013 snaps present and accounted for.
“This is a great opportunity for a lot of young players,” position coach Mike Trgovac said. “Just like at some point Johnny's role increased when he was a young player, and same thing with Pickett. It's just the natural evolution of guys playing in the NFL.”
GM Ted Thompson added five D-linemen in the first five rounds of the last three drafts. In March, he made a rare veteran free-agent acquisition by signing nose tackle Letroy Guion 11 days after he was cut by the Minnesota Vikings.
So, at age 28, B.J. Raji will be facing all the questions from the young guys that forever were directed to Pickett, 34, and Jolly, 31.
“When we played a team like Minnesota, they were a pound-'em team and you like those big bodies in there,” Trgovac said. “They played a lot of good football for us. There's still a place for those guys.”
It just was no longer in Green Bay, which on paper still would be among the 16 teams using the 3-4 as its base defense but in actuality might join Bill Belichick's New England Patriots with a defense multiple enough to use both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts.
In the first five seasons under coordinator Dom Capers, Trgovac coached more of a read-and-react than penetrating style of line play.
Will the Packers employ more of an up-the-field, one-gap scheme than its more common two-gap look?
“Maybe a little bit,” said Trgovac. “But we still have that (two-gap) in our system. And we didn't two-gap as much as people think we two-gapped. We'll have to see what (Capers) gravitates to more.”
Late last season, Trgovac praised the point-of-attack play of the 340-pound Pickett, the 330-pound Jolly and the 307-pound Wilson.
On the down side, none of the three could rush the passer or offer much in pursuit.
Run defense is an 11-man affair, but the D-line deserved its share of the blame for why resistance too often collapsed. After being pierced for 13 runs of 20 yards or more in the last seven games of 2012, the Packers yielded 18 more in '13.
That was more than a Green Bay defense had allowed in a season in more than two decades.
Capers hasn't had a run defense rank better than 14th since a No. 1 finish in 2009. It's probably why Thompson and McCarthy were so ready to get rid of some people and try somebody else.
“That's going to be a hard focus for us,” Trgovac said. “We just need to cut those big plays out.”
Pickett undoubtedly would have been re-signed if Raji's first 72 hours of free agency hadn't been so disappointing.
Considering Raji turned down in the neighborhood of $20 million guaranteed last fall from the Packers, he couldn't have been thrilled by his one-year, $4 million deal to return. The Packers were thrilled; they've always appreciated his total game.
Minus Pickett, Raji is back at nose tackle. In 2010, his finest season, he was the nose for every snap (264) of the 3-4 defense. Last season, when the Packers were in the 3-4, he played 85 snaps at nose and 180 as a three-technique (67 on the left side, 113 on the right) defensive tackle/end.
“I love B.J.'s attitude,” said Trgovac. “He's really embraced the fact he's going to be a nose. B.J. had a lot of really good games last year. Probably could get more consistent.”
Raji had his worst year rushing the passer and ranked last on the unit in tackles per snap. It remains to be seen whether Raji has the physical makeup and mindset in Year 6 to fight the reach and angle blocks that come from both sides down after down over center.
“You just didn't see the same type of effort and competitiveness that you'd like to see out of a guy with his talent,” an NFC North personnel man said. “I saw him give up on a lot of plays. I think he wore down late in games.”
Added another NFL executive: “If he's not better that means he can't play. He'll then play for a million (in 2015) and be out of football.”
It's conceivable that if Raji doesn't rebound he could lose significant playing time to Guion. He's two inches taller than Raji, a good athlete and, at 315, has the strength to anchor a 3-4.
“It was a good bargain for Green Bay,” an AFC personnel director said. “He'd be a lower-level NFL starter. He gives you base, he gives you some sub and he probably can go out and play a little five-(technique).”
Hardly a quick study, Guion's focus in Green Bay early was strictly nose tackle.
Based on the order of the 2013 draft, Datone Jones (No. 26) should be head and shoulders ahead of Josh Boyd (No. 167) at defensive end. But late last season Boyd was outperforming Jones, and now Trgovac says Boyd is capable of starting.
“He's got the physical ability to be a very good player in this league,” he said. “Josh is 315. We're not just lacking big guys.”
Jones has the prototypical height (6 feet 4 inches) and range the Packers have been seeking at five-technique since the arrival of Capers.
The UCLA product and Mike Neal project as the top candidates to join Mike Daniels as the two interior rushers in the nickel and dime. To start in base, Jones must play with more toughness and power than a year ago.
“He's got to step up his game is what he's got to do,” an NFC scout said. “(Toughness) was kind of his issue in college. He didn't do anything until his senior year. Looks pretty, but something's missing.”
The Packers' best D-lineman and most productive overall rusher was Daniels. He's at least adequate as a base end, too.
“I just want him to take the next step where he's maybe a little more consistent,” Trgovac said. “Mike's a power rusher more than a finesse rusher. He's an ex-wrestler who likes to get in there with his hands and pull and tug.”
Rookie Khyri Thornton, a third-round choice, isn't quite as heavy as Boyd but ran a better 40 (5.04 to 5.14). He lacks ideal height (6-2½) for base end, but the Packers saw outstanding interior quickness that fits well with their scheme alterations.
“He's a big kid,” said Trgovac, who views Thornton as both a five- and three-technique. “And he can move.”
Jerel Worthy, another premium-round pick, is 18 months removed from reconstructive knee surgery but had another abbreviated offseason and is in danger of getting lost in the shuffle.
Suspect against double teams in the run game, Worthy will have to flash early to make the club let alone see the field on passing downs.