This is the sixth in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to the 2015 draft. The series continues with the defensive line.
GREEN BAY – Had free agents B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion not been re-signed, the Packers would have been heading into the draft dangerously out of balance, with far more promising youth than proven commodities on the defensive line.
Bringing back Raji and Guion on one-year deals gives the Packers two seasoned veterans on the defensive front to pair with rising star and leader Mike Daniels.
“I would have been the oldest guy in the meeting room, and I have no problem with that at all, but it’s always good to have two older guys that have been around and played a lot of football,” Daniels said.
The young players behind them will continue to develop and sort out the depth chart, and that stockpile of youth is likely to grow in this draft.
Ted Thompson has selected either one or two defensive linemen in each of his 10 drafts as Packers GM. Eight times in those 10 drafts, Thompson has used a pick or picks within the first four rounds on the defensive line, so significant competition at the position group is likely on its way.
Last year’s additions included third-round pick Khyri Thornton, who was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury at the end of training camp and sat out his rookie season.
Undrafted rookies Mike Pennel and Luther Robinson both played as reserves and had their impactful moments, while Bruce Gaston was brought in late in the season from Arizona’s practice squad when Robinson went on IR.
The growth of all four in their second seasons will be watched closely.
Same goes for 2013 draft picks Datone Jones (first round) and Josh Boyd (fifth round), who enter a crucial year. Both played as rotational players and occasional starters in 2014, recording at least 30 tackles apiece. They’ll be out to prove in their third seasons they are long-term answers up front.
The three previously mentioned veteran mainstays are plenty motivated as well.
Daniels successfully made the transition from sub-package to every-down lineman last year, recording a career-best 69 tackles in the regular season, while adding 5½ sacks. The 2012 fourth-round pick enters the final year of his rookie contract looking to keep his career on the upward arc.
Vocal, boisterous and occasionally brash, Daniels brings a leadership style that seems to work for his position group, and he has never hesitated to publicly criticize himself after rough games, which only adds credibility to his status as group spokesman.
Daniels emerged as a bigger leader last season in part due to Raji’s season-ending bicep injury. After signing a one-year, prove-it contract when he didn’t find the free-agent market to his liking, Raji was an early star of training camp until the injury. Now the 2009 first-round pick is back on another one-year deal needing to stay healthy and produce at nose tackle.
Guion was a quiet but key free-agent signing a year ago who gave the Packers everything they could have hoped for, with career highs in both tackles (62) and sacks (3½) in his seventh NFL season. He quickly became a well-liked teammate and was probably in line for a larger, longer-term contract before off-the-field legal troubles this offseason. He still could be subject to league discipline in 2015.