ESPN Wisconsin

Sixth in a series.

Packers two-a-days: Defensive line

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – Shortly after coach Norman Dale arrives at Hickory High in the movie “Hoosiers,” the school holds a preseason pep rally for the Jimmy Chitwood-less Huskers.

“I would hope you would support who we are,” Gene Hackman’s character tells the crowd after it chants for the team’s absent star. “Not, who we are not.”

While you don’t get the sense that Green Bay Packers fans quite see defensive end Cullen Jenkins as a can’t-win-without-him player, Jenkins’ expected departure when unrestricted free agents are allowed to start signing contracts on Friday evening has been a popular topic throughout the offseason.

But even with Jenkins’ impending exit, the Packers have a bevy of talent on the line, especially for a team that played its nickel defense – with at most two defensive linemen on the field – nearly 70 percent of the defensive snaps last season.

From reliable old hand Ryan Pickett to emerging star B.J. Raji to surprisingly effective midseason pickup Howard Green to young up-and-comers Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson – not to mention the possible return of suspended defensive end Johnny Jolly – the Packers will miss Jenkins but have the talent to overcome losing him.

Neal, who played in just two games last season because of a preseason abdominal strain and a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5, will likely get the first crack at replacing Jenkins.

“Mike’s a guy that has a good combination of strength and athletic ability. What he lacks is experience,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Wednesday. “It’s too bad he got hurt when he got hurt.”

Capers said Neal must alter both his three-point stance and his mentality as a lineman in order to be effective against both the run and the pass. Missing the entire offseason program because of the lockout was not helpful, either.

“Typically the defensive linemen coming out now in college football, they get in a gap and they penetrate. Mike had been in more of an elongated stance so he could get upfield,” Capers explained. “The first thing when you’re playing in our defense, we’ve got to square you back up so you can play heavy on blocks. That’s harder for a guy who’s first step has been getting upfield.

“I think he can be a really good three-technique but the challenge for us with Mike is to be get him to be able to (play the run and the pass) off of calls. If we think it’s a pass situation and we make a certain call, he can get in that stance and get off and attack and play pass first, run second. But there’s times where we’re going to ask him to play run first and react to the pass second. He’s got to be able to differentiate so it’s not all the same thing. That comes from experience, but he’s certainly strong enough and has the physicality it takes to play blocks.”

The big move on the line last offseason was flip-flopping Pickett and Raji, moving Pickett out to end and putting Raji at his natural position on the nose. The move worked to perfection, as Raji, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, blossomed into who is now on the cusp of being one of the league’s elite 3-4 nose tackles. In 20 starts (including playoffs), Raji finished the season with 78 tackles, 7.5 sacks and an unforgettable interception that he returned 18 yards for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game in Chicago.

Green, meanwhile, was cut by the New York Jets in October for, to put it bluntly, being too fat. Green responded by playing solidly in his debut against his former team, ended up playing in 12 games (including playoffs) and delivered a colossal play in Super Bowl XLV, hitting Ben Roethlisberger as he threw, leading to Nick Collins’ 37-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Jenkins, meanwhile, ended up missing five regular-season games and played with a cast for the first half of the season after breaking his left hand in the opener, but he still managed seven regular-seasons sacks (he had another half-sack in the NFC title game) and figures to get a blockbuster payday this week. The Packers opted not to take him up on his preseason offer to sign an extension with a hometown discount, setting the table for his expected departure in the next day or two.

QUICK READ: DEFENSIVE LINE                                      

Depth chart

No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
90
B.J. Raji
NT
6-2
337
25
 3
Boston College
79
Ryan Pickett
DE
6-2
340
31
 11
Ohio State
77
Cullen Jenkins*
DE
6-2
305
30
 8
Cent. Michigan
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
96
Mike Neal
DE
6-3
294
24
 2
Purdue
95
Howard Green
DE
6-2
340
32
 7
Louisiana State
98
C.J. Wilson
DE
6-3
290
24
 2
East Carolina
94
Jarius Wynn
DE
6-3
285
24
 3
Georgia
 
Lawrence Guy
DE
6-4
304
21
 R
Arizona State
91
Justin Harrell
DE
6-4
315
27
 5
Tennessee
68
Jay Ross
DT
6-3
302
23
 1
East Carolina
97
Johnny Jolly
DE
6-3
325
28
5
Texas A&M
* -- Free agent
^ -- Serving NFL suspension
 
Burning Question
How much will Jenkins be missed?

There’s no question that the Packers would be a better team if Jenkins returned. The defensive coaching staff has been unanimous in its assessment that Jenkins was by far the team’s second-best pass-rusher behind Clay Matthews, and despite the emergence of Raji and the potential of Neal, the teams does not have a player quite like Jenkins, who is a gifted pass rusher but also has the bulk to be stout against the run. That said, given the price tag Jenkins carries on the open market and the number of key players headed toward free agency in the next year or two, it’s hard to blame GM Ted Thompson for not trying to re-sign him. The guess here is that Green continues to help the run defense and Neal, after a lost rookie year, emerges as a pass-rushing force who can also stop the run.

On the rise
Neal.

It’s hard to believe the second-round pick played in only two regular-season games as a rookie last year, given the coaching staff’s excitement level about him. Sidelined for the first three regular-season games by an abdominal strain suffered during his impressive training camp, Neal had five tackles, including a sack, in the team’s Oct. 10 loss at Washington – and did it with an injured shoulder that would require season-ending surgery to repair the rotator cuff and labrum. Given his off-the-charts intensity, he could be the defense’s breakout player in 2011, but he must stay on the field. He could be limited early in camp, which won’t help.

Stock falling
Harrell.

The 2007 first-round pick certainly never lived up to his draft status, with his career being derailed by a back injury that cost him the entire 2009 season and most of 2008. After a decent training camp last year, he blew out the ACL in his left knee during a field goal in the regular-season opener at Philadelphia. He has one year left on his contract, but the team is expected to release him when the waiver wire opens on Thursday.

The most interesting man (not in the world, but at the position)
Jolly.

Jolly missed the Super Bowl XLV run when he was suspended for at least the 2010 season by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and while he was eligible for reinstatement after the Packers’ victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in North Texas, the lockout – and Jolly’s arrest in his hometown of Houston – prevented Goodell from ruling on his status. Now that the lockout is over, it’s still unclear where Jolly stands. His spring arrest ended up being dismissed when it appeared he might be headed for prison for violating the terms of his plea agreement stemming from 2008 charges of felony codeine possession, and a new plea arrangement sent Jolly to drug rehabilitation rather than jail. With his one-year, $2.5 million contract having been tolled during his suspension, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Packers bring him back.

Key competition
Defensive end.

While Neal figures to be the biggest playing-time beneficiary from Jenkins’ presumed departure, there should be some interesting battles at end between Green, Neal, Wilson, Wynn and rookie seventh-round pick Lawrence Guy for playing time and a spot on the roster. Wilson, a seventh-round pick last year, beat out Wynn, a sixth-round pick in 2009, for the final defensive line spot in camp last year, but Wynn returned after Harrell’s season ended in Week 1. Both ended up contributing and gaining valuable experience when the line was depleted by injuries, and Wilson in particular pleased the coaches with his development over the course of the season. While Wilson would have benefitted from the offseason work that was wiped out by the lockout, he’s in position to compete for significant snaps.

Noteworthy

Late in the season in obvious running situations, the Packers began employing their three biggest linemen to stuff the run. Then, they went a step further by using a four-lineman alignment with Pickett, Raji, Wilson and Green, Combined, those four players’ listed weights – and we say listed because, well, some of them may be a bit heavier than the roster indicates – was a whopping 1,307 pounds.

Quoteworthy

“C.J.'s a guy that made tremendous strides during the course of the year in terms of doing what we asked him to do. We like Mike Neal's ability to move forward. Mike's still making that transition from the type of defense that he played at Purdue to what we asked him to do. But he certainly has the things that we look for in terms of size and strength. So we'll be anxious to get Mike back out there and go to work with him. C.J., same thing. And then, of course, we have the veterans in Ryan Pickett and Howard Green and B.J. Raji. The second half of the season, we put those three guys out there and probably nobody had any bigger front than what we had with those three guys. I think they give us some flexibility.” – Defensive coordinator Dom Capers, on something.

Next: Linebackers.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

ON AIR - LISTEN LIVE

540 AM: Listen
100.5 FM: Listen

Coming Up

5:00 a.m.-9:00 a.m.

Mike & Mike

Coming Up

5:00 a.m.-9:00 a.m.

Mike & Mike

ESPN WISCONSIN PHOTO GALLERIES

  • Milwaukee Recently Updated

    more

    • ESPN Milwaukee's Business of Sports 3-25-14

    • ESPN Milwaukee and Southern Comfort at Leff's Lucky Town 3-27-14

    • ESPN Milwaukee and Southern Comfort at Replay Sports Bar 3-27-14

  • Madison Recently Updated

    more

    • In the Trenches and Stella Wisconsin Sports Awards Ticket Giveaway @ Coliseum Bar 4/17/14

    • Badger Basketball Watch Party @ Majestic Theatre 3/29/14

    • UW Spring Game GameDay 4-12-14

WISCONSIN CALENDAR

There are no games scheduled for today.

An Ad has not been trafficed here..