Coming off their victory in Super Bowl XLV, the Packers’ three positions along the defensive line can be considered either among the team’s strengths, a youth movement still in progress or a group of veterans in need of some fresh troops in the trenches.
As usual, the reality is somewhere in between, but defensive line is likely one of the targets for the Packers in the upcoming NFL draft.
Big people that can move are always at a premium, and Green Bay will likely select at least one defensive lineman. Since Ted Thompson became executive vice president, general manager and director of football operations in 2005, the Packers have drafted nine defensive linemen and at least one each year.
Among the returning veterans up front there is quality and youth. Nose tackle B.J. Raji, a first-round pick in 2009, emerged as one of the NFL’s best young defensive linemen last season. Often clashing with a pair of blockers, Raji still held the point for the interior of the defense, recorded a career best 6.5 sacks and even added an interception for a touchdown in the NFC Championship at Chicago. He is one of the team’s most indispensable players.
Mike Neal, a second-round pick last season, was sidelined with a shoulder injury after playing two games. The powerful end gave a glimpse of immense potential, including a sack and a forced fumble. Despite the promise of his performances, he remains a wait-and-see type of player.
C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn, late picks the last two years, stepped in when needed and were able reserves.
Much hinges on the more grizzled veterans, primarily Cullen Jenkins, whose contract expired following a 2010 season in which he recorded seven sacks. He is the Packers’ top pass-rushing defensive lineman and also steadfast against the run.
Last season, Jenkins missed five games with a calf injury but, when healthy, he is a disruptive force. He’ll be entering his eighth season in 2011.
With Jenkins’ return unclear and Neal remaining unproven, there’s little doubt end ranks among the Packers’ needs. Over the last two regular-season games, however, when the Packers were fighting for a playoff berth, neither was in the lineup and Green Bay held the Giants and Bears to a combined 200 yards rushing and posted seven sacks. Again, that was just two contests.
Ryan Pickett, who will enter his 11th season in 2011, has been a solid performer since arriving in Green Bay in 2006. At 340 pounds, he ties up blockers and is part of the underneath push that crowds the line of scrimmage and allows linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop to fly to the ball. Pickett was slowed by a balky ankle at midseason, participating in only 16 plays over a five-game stretch, but he was one of the defense’s most consistent performers when healthy.
Pickett’s health woes brought in Howard Green, an NFL vagabond who proved to be an important addition when he was claimed off waivers. His contributions were rarely evident on the stat sheet, but he was a battler on the inside and bolstered the run-defense. Green ended up starting the NFC divisional-round playoff at Atlanta, the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl, and distinguished himself with his play.
Also on the roster is Justin Harrell, the club’s first-round pick in 2007 and whose career has been derailed by injuries. Harrell suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Philadelphia in 2010. Because of his inability to remain healthy, his future is uncertain.
That game against the Eagles, in particular, is evidence of the value of a deep corps of defensive linemen. Jenkins suffered a broken hand in the second quarter and Harrell was lost for the season. Jenkins would return to the contest with his hand heavily bandaged, and he, Raji and Pickett were forced to take all the reps up front.
With Raji and a combination of Jenkins, Green, Neal, Pickett and the young duo of Wilson and Wynn, the Packers have a strong, versatile platoon up front, but this year’s draft class is deep with defensive linemen and it will no doubt tempt the Packers.
Without Jenkins factored in, it might become even more inviting.
Ricky Zeller is a contributing writer for packers.com. He has covered the NFL for several publications.