The following is the fifth installment in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster position by position. The series continues with the defensive line.
GREEN BAY – For a draft-and-develop team, the Packers enter 2015 with an abundance of experience on their defensive line.
Beyond the top three of seven-year veteran B.J. Raji, fourth-year man Mike Daniels and eighth-year pro Letroy Guion, the Packers also have a host of big men with plenty of game snaps under their belts in Josh Boyd, Datone Jones and Mike Pennel.
Add in 2014 draft pick Khyri Thornton, late-season signee Bruce Gaston, 2015 draftee Christian Ringo and undrafted rookie Lavon Hooks and the combination of leadership, youth, experience and potential growth and development is intriguing for position coach Mike Trgovac.
“I think we’ve got a good mix of guys,” Trgovac said as the offseason program wrapped up. “Different play styles. I like the leadership we’ve received from the older guys. I think the young guys have looked up to them. Older guys can be selfish, but not these guys.”
Raji is coming back from a season-ending torn bicep, having signed a one-year “prove it” contract as a free agent for the second straight season. He began training camp last year like gangbusters before the injury, and he’s on track to do so again.
“He did a fantastic job of getting himself ready when he came back,” Trgovac said. “Part of B.J.’s game is being physical at the line of scrimmage, but he’s done everything you could do in non-padded days.”
Daniels is another leader of the group, having transitioned successfully from a rotational player in 2013 to an every-down presence last year. His sack numbers remained relatively flat, but he nearly doubled his total tackles.
Trgovac sees no reason to believe Daniels’ progress won’t continue, given his dedication and desire.
“He’s going to be involved in everything,” Trgovac said. “He’s been three years at his position, and he’s got it down pretty good, but now he’s starting to learn what’s going on around him more.
“You don’t want to give a young kid too much or you’ve got guys out there thinking, and he doesn’t need to play like that. He’s a physical player and that’s how he plays.”
The experienced depth of the unit will be needed, especially early in the season as the Packers await a potential disciplinary penalty for Guion following an offseason arrest. Jones also has been suspended for Week 1 for a substance-abuse violation.
That will place a larger burden on players such as Boyd and Pennel, who may be called upon to be more than rotational subs.
Boyd, a 2013 draft pick, sat out most of the spring with an undisclosed injury but knows the system now, while Pennel will be a key player to watch.
Having made the team last year as a small-school, undrafted rookie from Colorado State-Pueblo, the mammoth Pennel (6-4, 332) could be the Packers’ nose tackle of the future if he builds on some productive spot showings from last year.
“That’ll be up to Mike,” Trgovac said. “He’s a big man that has good movement. He’s got a lot to learn, and he’s an eager guy to learn.
“We’ll see when the pads get on. I never make predictions on guys making the first-to-second-year jump, because I’ve seen it go both ways.”
As for the youngest segment in the group, the one with the most to prove this year might be Thornton. A third-round draft pick, he returns from what became a redshirt season following a hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve.
Gaston was plucked from Arizona’s practice squad last December but was a gameday inactive the rest of the season. Ringo has been compared by some to Daniels, while Hooks worked his way up from community college to the SEC’s Ole Miss.
“The D-line, we’re going to have excellent competition,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “That’ll be a fun group to follow in training camp and the preseason games.”
Countdown to Camp: Position-by-position roster series