Packers.com is taking a look at the Packers’ roster, position by position. The fifth installment focuses on the defensive line.
GREEN BAY—It could be a year of transition for the Packers’ defense up front.
With four veterans heading for free agency – B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson – the Packers might have more turnover on the defensive line than anywhere else on their roster in 2014.
Since Dom Capers brought his 3-4 to Green Bay in 2009, his base three-man line has been anchored primarily by Pickett and Raji, with Jolly taking a lot of Wilson’s run-stopping snaps this past season.
All four have issues that bring into question their futures as they approach free agency – Raji’s possible contract demands, Pickett’s age (34), Jolly’s season-ending neck injury and Wilson’s diminished role. Bringing all four back seems next to impossible for the Packers. The more relevant question might be if any of the four will return.
If the answer is no, the Packers will be practically starting over with their run defense, which plummeted from a top-five unit at midseason to the bottom third of the league.
Last year’s first-round pick from UCLA, Datone Jones, was drafted to become an every-down defender in the 3-4, playing the “Okie” end in base and inside in rush packages. His rookie year showed it’s going to take some time to reach that point, but the Packers may need him to get there sooner than later.
A beast early on in his rookie training camp, Jones injured an ankle in the first preseason game and that derailed his progress. As the season wore on he played very little base defense and was used almost exclusively as an inside rusher on passing downs, recording 3½ sacks, but by season’s end he was hardly seeing the field.
The line’s best inside rusher was Mike Daniels, the fourth-round pick in 2012 out of Iowa. Daniels finished second on the team in sacks behind only Clay Matthews, with 6½ (plus another in the playoffs), and was a consistent disruptive force.
Daniels’ energy and passion are always on display, perhaps a reflection of being undersized, but also a sign he sees himself as a future leader of the unit. Year No. 3 for Daniels could determine whether, at 6-0, 300, he can play “Okie” end against the run, or if he’s best suited to stay fresh as a situational pass rusher.
The same could be said for Jerel Worthy, the Michigan State product drafted two rounds ahead of Daniels in 2012. Worthy’s second season was basically lost to a knee injury from Week 17 of his rookie year. He didn’t return to practice until Week 11 this past year and eventually appeared in only two games for a total of a dozen snaps. Given his draft status and a pedestrian rookie season, this could be a prove-it year for Worthy.
Like Jones, entering his second season in 2014 will be Josh Boyd, a fifth-round pick out of Mississippi State last year. At 6-3, 310, Boyd looks the part of a run-stuffer, and he was definitely making an impression on the coaching staff as his rookie season progressed.
Inactive for seven of the first nine games in 2013, Boyd’s playing time steadily increased and then jumped considerably following Jolly’s injury. He showed up the most during the second-half comeback in Dallas in Week 15, and as he continues to make the transition from one-gap responsibility in college to two-gap in Capers’ scheme, he could become an anchor against the run in the future and might even get a look at nose tackle.
Jones, Daniels, Worthy and Boyd have all been drafted in the last two years, and the Packers will be looking for that considerable investment of picks to pay off soon. The free-agency fallout with the four veterans will determine how strongly the Packers look to the free-agent market and/or target more defensive linemen in the draft in the coming months.