The defensive line figures to be an area of the team the Packers would like to address in the draft and, possibly, in free agency, too. Otherwise, the Packers are confronted by several questions, especially at the two end positions:
- Can Mike Neal stay healthy?
- After 11 seasons, how much football does Ryan Pickett have left in him?
- Might a young player emerge from the depth chart at defensive end?
Nose tackle B.J. Raji is the nucleus of the Packers’ defensive line of the future. Statistically, Raji didn’t enjoy the same success in 2011 that he did in the previous season, but he remains the team’s one young, proven talent on the defensive line. Raji’s sacks fell from 6.5 in ’10 to 3.0 in ’11, but that might largely have been a product of an overall decline in sacks by the Packers.
The concerns are at end, where reserve Jarius Wynn is the only player to have recorded a sack this past season. Wynn got three of them and that offers hope for the second-year player’s future, but Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers is looking for a lot more pass-rush potential from the end positions than the three total sacks he got from that group this past season.
Pickett has been a dependable run-stuffer, but he turns 33 next October and the Packers clearly need to complement him with youth at the position.
C.J. Wilson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2010, offers hope for the future in the Packers’ draft-and-develop system.
Neal remains the mystery man. After two seasons spoiled by injury, the Packers still aren’t sure of the level of contribution to which the former second-round pick is capable. Should he stay healthy and deliver on his promise, Neal could be a game-changer in 2012.
Veteran Howard Green backs up Raji at nose tackle, and ends Lawrence Guy (injured reserve) and Johnny Jones (practice squad) were rookies in 2011.
Another question is: What is the Packers’ base defensive alignment, a 3-4 with three down linemen and four linebackers, or a “nickel” alignment that employs two down linemen and four linebackers. The Packers used the latter extensively in 2011, which begs the question: Why? Should they fortify the end position in the offseason, the Packers might return to using their 3-4 alignment more often.
Summary—The Packers are desperate to repair a defense that fell to last in the league in total yards allowed, passing yards allowed and sacks per pass play. Of the three categories, the pass-rush weakness might be the most critical, as it would seem to be driving the drop in the other two categories. An end with some pass rush in him would be a welcome addition in this offseason.
Position by Position Series: Tight ends