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Defensive line isn’t a glamor position in the Packers’ scheme, but Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji are keys.

DL: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
B.J. Raji
Boston College
Ryan Pickett
Ohio State
Mike Neal
C.J. Wilson
East Carolina
Jerel Worthy
Michigan State
Mike Daniels
Jordan Miller

The good news:  The Packers’ defensive linemen, almost to a man, will explain – and, in some cases, bemoan – the way they are used in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme. Seldom do they get what they call “Jet” calls, where they are allowed to rush upfield with abandon. More often than not, they are geared toward stopping the run, occupying blockers and setting up their teammates. On the rare occasions that they do get opportunities to get after the quarterback, they must capitalize. That’s one thing that Neal, after two fundamentally disappointing seasons after being taken in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, did. He proved to every doubting Thomas why the Packers stuck by him through two injury-riddled seasons and a four-game suspension to start the year for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Although he played only 323 snaps as situational pass rusher, he finished with 4.5 sacks – second only to Clay Matthews on the team –  along with four QB hits and 17 hurries. Meanwhile, Raji rebounded from a subpar 2011 – despite earning a Pro Bowl berth – and played more like his old self, even though he didn’t tally a sack. Alas, he played poorly in the team’s playoff loss to San Francisco, although he was hardly alone.

The bad news:  Packers general manager Ted Thompson made a significant investment in the defensive line during last year’s draft, trading up to take Worthy in the second round before picking Daniels in the fourth. While both flashed, only one was left standing at season’s end, as Worthy suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the regular-season finale at Minnesota on Dec. 30. While the guy he was trying to stop – Vikings running back Adrian Peterson – came back from a Dec. 24, 2011 torn ACL to play in every game and nearly break the NFL single-season rushing record, it’s hard to imaging Worthy being ready for the start of the 2013 season. In fact, he could face the same fate as Packers tight end Andrew Quarless, who tore his ACL on Dec. 4, 2011, opened the season on the physically unable to perform list and never played in a game, missing the entire season. On top of that, Worthy didn’t exactly set the world on fire as a rookie, playing 467 snaps and registering 2.5 sacks, one QB hit and five hurries while also committing three offsides/encroachment penalties.

“This will be a challenge for Jerel because he is transitioning from the defense he played to this defense. This would have been a big offseason for him,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “Depending on the rehab, I don’t know what exactly the time table is for him to come back, but obviously he’s going to miss a little bit of time. That’s going to be a challenge for him to come back and do it while looking mainly at tape depending on how much time he missed. Hopefully, he’ll get back a little bit sooner, but that’ll be a challenge for him. I think he can do it, but it’ll definitely make things a little tougher on him.”

The big question:  While Matthews and quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ contract extensions generate the most conversation, Raji, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, is entering the final year of his rookie deal, too. One year after getting his first Pro Bowl berth – something he should have received after the 2010 season instead – he was back to being a factor. Although his numbers didn’t show it (zero sacks, 45 tackles), he was a factor. He led the linemen in snaps (768) despite missing two games with an ankle injury, and had 25 quarterback hurries. The issue with Raji is that his level of play can be inconsistent. He isn’t as all-in on the dirty work as Pickett, and after putting up 6.5 sacks in 2010, you can tell he is less than thrilled with his limited pass-rush opportunities. The Packers now must decide what they want to do with him. Presumably, they will try to get an extension done with him during the offseason, but they could also let him play out his final season, then use the franchise tag on him in March 2014. Whatever the case, it certainly stands to reason that the Packers view him as an indispensable part of their defense, which is why they would rather part ways with a player like Charles Woodson or let wide receiver Greg Jennings walk in unrestricted free agency, so they can marshal the resources to pay Raji, Matthews and Rodgers.

Offseason outlook:  Trgovac expects Neal, Wilson and Daniels – if not for the injury, Worthy would’ve been in that mix, too – to battle for the third defensive lineman spot, as Raji and Pickett are the stalwarts. There may not be a more unsung player on the entire roster than Pickett. He’s now the team’s elder statesman at 33 in the wake of Woodson’s release, and he does the unpleasant job of taking on blockers and double-teams with verve and skill. The old vet played in all 18 games (653 snaps) and remained the unit’s leader. He saw action primarily in the base “Okie” defense and has value that goes beyond numbers. “I think Ryan has some more football left in him. I really do,” Trgovac said. That may be true, but the end is in sight. Throw in Worthy’s injury, and the defensive line is on the team’s list of needs as the NFL Scouting Combine begins.

Next: Linebackers.

– Jason Wilde