But the Packers feel they can develop some quality depth within that unit with the number of young players battling for roster spots. And it’s not just that they can, but they must.
“There’s going to be a couple new faces on the D-line this year that are going to make big contributions,” starting right end Cullen Jenkins said. “Everybody just has to take it one day at a time, one practice at a time, and just keep getting better.”
It’s imperative that be the approach, because there’s a dramatic difference experience-wise between the Packers’ starters up front and the guys playing behind them.
Jenkins, left end Ryan Pickett and nose tackle B.J. Raji compose a formidable, solid starting unit in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 alignment with a combined 230 regular-season games under their belts. Raji is no seasoned veteran by any means, having played in just 14 games as a rookie last year as the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, but he’s in position to ramp up his impact the most after a contract holdout and preseason ankle injury limited him considerably for the first half of 2009.
Behind them, however, the drop-off in experience is startling, with six linemen – oft-injured fourth-year pro Justin Harrell, second-year man Jarius Wynn, rookie draft picks Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson and former practice-squad players Anthony Toribio and Ronald Talley – having played a combined 25 NFL games among them.
The concern is, without Jolly as one of the top four linemen, that’s not a lot of comfort should one of the starters go down. Jolly, who led the defensive line in tackles and the NFL in batted passes at his position in 2009, was suspended indefinitely by the NFL last month for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and then reached a plea deal in a criminal drug case in Houston on Tuesday.
But the upside is there’s so much youth in the ranks that there’s an opportunity to develop quality, contributing players, and the hope is the competition within the unit will accomplish that.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys that are ready to play, we’ve got a lot of veteran guys that are showing us the way, and we just have to fill in,” Harrell said. “There’s a lot of competition going on in that room, and that’s always good, because everybody is pushing everybody.”
Those six players are fighting for probably three roster spots, with the Packers carrying six defensive linemen (five active on gamedays) most of 2009. Depth at the position is important because Capers needs players he can call upon to spell the starters and limit their snaps to keep them fresh for the fourth quarter of games, and to add beef up front in short-yardage situations.
It’s especially important to have additional rushers in the nickel package, when only two down linemen are on the field and line up like defensive tackles on the inside. Raji and Jenkins are the nickel starters, but they can’t be expected to play every single snap in base and nickel or they won’t be effective for a full game, let alone last a full season.
“We’ve got to continue to keep our eye on that and continue to develop the depth,” Capers said. “They have to be able to play some multiple positions for us.”
The keys to that depth could be Harrell, a former first-round draft pick, and Neal, a second-rounder this year. Both are big, strong guys who can hold their ground against the run and potentially push or collapse the pocket as pass rushers.
Harrell has lost essentially the first three years of his career to various injuries, the last two seasons to a back problem that required multiple surgeries. No one has ever questioned his talent or ability when he’s been on the field, and the hope is that his injury troubles are finally behind him.
It’s been so far, so good for Harrell during the first week of training camp, though he did drop out of Monday afternoon’s practice with heat-related sickness. He confirmed Tuesday that he received some IV fluids but that his absence had nothing to do with his back.
“I think he’s been off to a good start,” Capers said. “I think he has the physical tools that he can play left end for us, and we need for him just to be able to stay out here and continue to take that step-by-step progress that we need to see out of him over a period of time.”
The same can be said for Neal, a rookie from Purdue whom the Packers thought highly enough of to select with the 56th overall pick in the draft. Brutishly strong, Neal is working to settle into a role in a defensive scheme that’s new to him, but he feels he’s making steady improvement in the earlygoing in camp.
As for the rest of the defensive ends, Wilson is a seventh-round draft pick and an intriguing prospect who piled up 27 sacks in four seasons at East Carolina; Wynn, a 2009 sixth-rounder from Georgia, has the athletic ability and long arms suited to be a nickel rusher but got only limited opportunities from scrimmage his rookie season; and Talley is coming back from offseason knee surgery and is sitting out one practice when there are two in a day.
Toribio is the lone nose tackle in the group and finished 2009 on the active roster when Pickett was injured, but whether there’s another roster spot for a pure nose tackle is unclear. Pickett played the nose last year and is essentially Raji’s primary backup, but as has always been the case under General Manager Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy, it won’t be position numbers that decide the final roster spots but the overall quality of the players being evaluated.
“It’s real competitive,” Neal said. “We’ve got a lot of athletes in our room. Everybody goes (all) out every play. You see a lot of athletes, a lot of strong guys, what we’re looking for in the 3-4 defense. It’s definitely a lot of competition, but I think we help each other more than we look at it as a competition.”
However they view it, the value of the guys up front in Capers’ scheme is unquestioned. The Packers ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season defending the run, which Capers feels correlated directly to the defense leading the league in takeaways, because favorable down-and-distance situations allow the defense to aggressively attack and go after the ball.
Capers has said many times he likes the size and athletic ability of his linemen. Now he just needs to find out who all can contribute in 2010.
“We’ve got great competition,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got a lot of players on the D-line who are capable of playing.
“Jolly’s loss is huge for this year for us. He brings a lot of experience. He played well, there’s no doubt about how he played on the other side. But we’ve got a lot of younger players now on the D-line who are going to have to start learning fast and stepping up.”