Leader of the Pack
B.J. Raji: The unit's best player is Ryan Pickett but its most important is Raji. In a position group filled with a bunch of specialists, Raji has been a three-down player the last two seasons. Combined in 2010 and 2011, Raji played 82.3 percent of the defensive snaps.
"B.J. probably played more than we'd hoped the last couple years," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "But that was more out of necessity. I just think if you can have a group of guys to where you can keep guys fresh heading into that stretch towards the end of the season, and big guys like that, if you're playing them every play, they're not going to be as effective for a higher percentage of those plays."
It's not like the Packers had a choice. Capers relies on his nickel defense as an answer to today's pass-happy offenses. However, going with two defensive linemen and five defensive backs invites the opponent to run the ball. That's why Raji is so important: He can command a double team against the run, which frees up the linebackers to make the tackle, but get after the quarterback against the pass.
At least he did in 2010, when the Packers finished second in points allowed en route to winning the Super Bowl. They'll need him to get back to that level this season.
"There's always things you can work on because the margin for error is so small," Raji said. "You take one false step and the guy has you blocked. If you don't come off as hard, you're going to get pushed back. So, you can always do things better. We watch film every day and there's always little things you can do better. My goal is to keep the energy up."
Jerel Worthy: Raji's production would get a boost – and he might be allowed more than an occasional breather – if Worthy is, well, worthy of his second-round status.
At 308 pounds, Worthy is about 30 pounds lighter than Raji, but the Packers see him filling the same kind of role as a run-stopping, quarterback-harassing defensive lineman in nickel. Then again, they figured Mike Neal would fill that job description when they drafted him in the second round in 2010.
"We liked his quickness off the ball and stuff like that," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "We thought he played the run pretty well. We thought he was a complete player and he had some rare movement that's of his size."
Added Capers: "I see a big athlete in Jerel Worthy and I think he can probably do whatever we ask him to do. It'll be a little bit of a transition because the techniques he'll be using here are different than what he did at Michigan State because he'd shoot the gap and jump that ball, and that's where you'd see his quickness because he was off quick. There'll be certain things where we'll have him do that, but there's certain times when he'll have to play blocks and cross the face and control gap and all that."
The coaches frequently have cited Worthy's "juice" coming off the ball. He had 12 sacks in three seasons at Michigan State. They'll need that pass rush, especially at the start of the season with Neal and Anthony Hargrove serving suspensions.
Mike Daniels: It's easy to get excited about Worthy and first-round pick Nick Perry because their athletic ability was as-advertised during the offseason practices. Daniels, however, was held out of organized team activities and the minicamp because of surgery for a torn labrum sustained before Iowa's bowl game.
Daniels, at 291 pounds, was drafted for one reason: to rush the passer. He collected 15.5 sacks at Iowa. Nine of those came as a senior, including two in the bowl game against Oklahoma, when he played through the injury. From the team's perspective, there might not be a single player facing a more important training camp than Daniels. Limited to just the classroom work during the offseason, Daniels has a lot of catching up to do. The Packers need Daniels to catch up in a hurry due to the aforementioned suspensions and the dire need to upgrade the league's worst pass rush.
On the bubble
Jarius Wynn: Wynn got three sacks in the first three games of last season but none in 241 pass-rushing snaps over the final 14 games (including playoffs). Because Wynn couldn't deliver, the Packers signed Hargrove in free agency and drafted Worthy and Daniels to fortify the position. Wynn will need a strong training camp to make the team, and he'll need a strong start to the season to stay on the team after Neal (four games) and Hargrove (eight games) return to action.
6: The Packers' defensive line recorded just six sacks last season — three by Raji and three by Wynn — after piling up 19.5 in 2010. Just how bad that number is can't be overstated. Remember, because of the high-flying theatrics of the Packers' offense, opponents were forced to throw the ball again and again. Yet, even with the predictable offensive play-calling, the defensive linemen basically spun their wheels all season. It's apples to oranges in a way, but 33 defensive linemen posted more sacks than the Packers' entire line.
"It was a big deal bringing in guys that we feel like are going to help us be better at pass rushing, getting to quarterbacks, getting the quarterback off the spot," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "It works hand in hand. To have some guys up front that can make a difference for us on the back end, we'll play even more aggressive and make plays."
Ted Thompson has done a superb job in building a perennial champion but he's done a lousy job drafting defensive linemen. Here's the rundown: 2005, Michael Montgomery (sixth round); 2006, Johnny Jolly (sixth) and Dave Tollefson (seventh); 2007, Justin Harrell (first); 2008, Jeremy Thompson (fourth); 2009, Raji (first) and Wynn (sixth); 2010, Neal (second) and C.J. Wilson (seventh); 2011, Lawrence Guy (seventh); 2012, Worthy (second) and Daniels (fourth). All told, that's 12 picks used on defensive linemen. Of them, four are out of the league. A fifth, Neal, is suspended and has been a major disappointment. Raji has been excellent (2010) and disappointing (2009 and 2011). Tollefson, Wynn and Wilson are role players, and the jury's out on Guy, Worthy and Daniels.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.