From the Magazine: Defensive Line Preview

Here is a sneak peek at one of the position previews in the upcoming training camp edition of Packer Report Magazine. Beyond the top-tier players that highlight the roster, a case can be made that no player is more important than Mike Neal.

There are no shortage of stars on the Green Bay Packers.

On NFL Network's list of the league's top 100 players, as selected by the players themselves, Aaron Rodgers ranked 11th, Charles Woodson 16th, Clay Matthews 19th, Greg Jennings 74th, B.J. Raji 81st, Nick Collins 96th and Chad Clifton 99th.

And that doesn't include guard Josh Sitton and cornerback Tramon Williams.

Beyond that list of top-tier talent, a case could be made that second-year defensive end Mike Neal is the Packers' most important player.

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With Cullen Jenkins expected to depart in free agency, it will be up to Neal to fill the role as the quarterback-sackng, mayhem-producing defensive lineman.

How good is Jenkins? Despite missing 17 games over the last three seasons — including five games in 2010 — he has emerged as one of the NFL's premier interior pass rushers. He had seven sacks last season and finished second on the team with 21 quarterback hits.

According to research conducted by Pro Football Focus, Jenkins wound up with 46 pressures on 411 pass-rushing snaps (including playoffs), making him the third-most-productive interior rusher in the league. Moreover, over the last three seasons, Jenkins' 14 sacks and 111 pressures in 1,058 pass-rushing snaps make him the best interior rusher in the league.

Contrast that with Washington and Dallas, both of which run 3-4 defenses. Jenkins had more sacks last season than those teams' defensive ends combined.

Those are some big shoes to fill, Mr. Neal.

"(Jenkins is) a big mentor and a big part of my game, just helping me learn football and use all my assets," Neal said back in June. "If he comes back, it would be great, but if he doesn't, hopefully they rely on me to be ready to play and I can come in and contribute like Cullen did."

Neal showed that kind of potential during a too-short rookie season. As a second-round pick, Neal was known mostly for setting weight-room records at Purdue. And while he played to that strength, he showed exciting quickness off the ball and dogged determination. After missing the first three games with an abdominal strain, Neal finally got on the field against Detroit and Washington in Weeks 4 and 5. He forced a fumble that set up a touchdown against the Lions. In 55 impactful snaps against the Redskins, he had one sack, one quarterback hit and one pressure and was mostly immovable against the run.

However, Neal sustained a shoulder injury in that game that required surgery to his rotator cuff. Thus, the Packers will be counting on a player with merely 79 snaps of regular-season experience to be a key player week after week after week.

"That was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life," Neal said. "I've never missed a season due to an injury. I've been through a lot of tough things, but to not be able to play the game of football and feel like I'm a disappointment to not only myself but to my team is probably one of the biggest things.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself. So, for me missing the season, truly has me feeling like an animal inside. Next year is going to be good."

Fortunately, Neal won't have to go it alone.

Down the stretch last season, Raji blossomed into the player the Packers expected when they used the ninth overall pick on him in 2009. Of his 6.5 sacks, four came in the final five games, and he added another in the playoffs — not to mention his stunning pick-six in the NFC Championship Game at Chicago. That late-season production is made more impressive when you consider he played a stunning 85.2 percent of the defensive snaps — at nose tackle in the base defense and tackle in nickel — because of the injuries to Jenkins, Neal and Ryan Pickett.

At right end, with Jenkins slowed by a calf injury in the playoffs, he essentially split time with beefy midseason addition Howard Green. Expect Green, who started three playoff games, to carry the water on running downs and Neal to play in passing situations.

Pickett, who will turn 32 a month into the season, will hold the fort at left end. As arguably one of the top five or six run defenders among the league's 3-4 ends, he'll continue to be used on a situational basis.

Third-year player Jarius Wynn, second-year player C.J. Wilson and seventh-round pick Lawrence Guy will fight for a roster spot. Wynn had a sack in the must-win season-finale against Chicago and Wilson had a sack in the playoff romp at Atlanta.

The Candidates

(Based on the current roster.)

Defensive ends: Howard Green, Lawrence Guy, Justin Harrell, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Neal, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Jarius Wynn.

Nose tackles: B.J. Raji, Jay Ross.

Total likely on roster: 6.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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