Defensive Line Should Be Fine

Despite Johnny Jolly's legal troubles, which may sideline him for good, and the likely loss of Cullen Jenkins to free agency, the Packers' defensive line should be able to overcome what's been a tough offseason thus far.

The reports about Johnny Jolly's arrest two weeks ago were deflating to a Packers team that by all indications was going to give the defensive lineman a chance to return after a one-year suspension from the NFL.

Throw in the good chance that Cullen Jenkins will depart via free agency — if and when the NFL labor situation is solved — and the defensive line will be left without two of its top players and biggest playmakers.

Fortunately, the situation may not be as bad as it seems.

Consider first that the Packers' defense was good enough to win a Super Bowl without Jolly last season, and that it clinched a playoff spot without Jenkins late in the regular season, and perhaps there is hope.

Then look at the depth the team has coming back and the draft prospects available, and the thought of losing two solid starters is much less daunting.

The Packers have eight defensive linemen on their offseason roster (not counting Jenkins). Five — Howard Green, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, C.J. Wilson, and Jarius Wynn — made significant contributions in 2010. Two more players — former first-round pick Justin Harrell and 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal — are coming off injured reserve.

The Packers have in their favor as well a 3-4 base defense, which means one less spot is needed along the defensive line compared to a 4-3 scheme. When the Packers go to their nickel defense, which they have done for the majority of the snaps the past two seasons, they employ only two defensive lineman.

Therefore, based on numbers, the depth and talent appear to be in decent shape. And in the draft, general manager Ted Thompson loves defensive linemen. He has taken at least one such player in each of his six drafts with the Packers and figures to do at least as much this year with arguably the deepest position group coming out of college.

That gives the Packers a good chance of adding an impact defensive linemen in the early rounds should they choose to go that way. While top picks Da'Quan Bowers (Clemson), Nick Fairley (Auburn), Marcell Dareus (Alabama), J.J. Watt (Wisconsin) and Cameron Jordan (California) figure to be gone by the No. 32 pick, there should be plenty of others to choose from.'s draft rankings have 23 defensive linemen rated as four- or five-star prospects — far more than any other position. Those who might be of interest to the Packers include Temple's Muhammad Wilkerson, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward (see the upcoming Draft Preview issue of Packer Report Magazine for a complete listing).

Raji was the Packers' do-everything player along the defensive line last season, playing nose in the base and playing inside in nearly every sub package. He was the only defensive lineman to start all 20 games for the Packers and rarely spent time on the sideline. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel account said that in 2010, he played 85 percent of the defensive snaps, an astounding number considering he is nearly 340 pounds and playing one of the most grueling positions on the field.

Outside of Raji, seven other linemen on the roster combined to miss 52 games (including the playoffs). Of the non-injured reserve guys, Jenkins missed the most games (five) due to injury.

Though he is one of the best interior pass rushers in the league and a team leader, Jenkins has seen potential Pro Bowl seasons derailed by injury in two of the past three seasons. In 2008, he was off to a great start — 18 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble in four games — before a pectoral tear ended his season. And last season, a calf problem kept him out of the Minnesota game (Oct. 24) and then the final four games of the regular season, though he still posted a career-high seven sacks.

As was the theme, however, for the Packers in 2010, they were able to survive and even thrive without one of their best players. They put together two of their best defensive performances of the season in the final two regular-season games — which they needed to win to get into the playoffs — without Jenkins. Against the Giants (Dec. 26) and Bears (Jan. 2), the defense combined for seven sacks and 19 quarterback hits while yielding just 100 yards on the ground (below its season average of 114.9).

And despite Jolly's absence a year ago — after his first arrest for possession of codeine — the Packers' defense increased its sack total (from 30 to 47) and found creative ways to use its personnel. Jolly had been a two-year starter for the Packers. He had a career-high 82 tackles in 2008 and a career-high 11 passes defended in 2009.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at

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