Offseason Battle Lines: Defensive Breakdown

Here's a look at where the big battles will be waged, with rookie camp starting Friday and OTAs in two weeks. The defensive line is in flux, the depth is overflowing at inside linebacker but runs thin at outside linebacker, and major clashes loom in the secondary.

Eleven draft picks, who-knows-how-many college free agents and some street free agents have been added to the mix for the Green Bay Packers, a team two years removed from a Super Bowl championship and coming off an 11-win season.

Coach Mike McCarthy likes competition and competition he shall get.

The interesting position battles on the defensive side of the ball will be on the line, where two draft picks were spent and Johnny Jolly returns, at linebacker, where the Packers are overflowing on the inside and thin on the outside, and in the secondary, where marquee roles are up for grabs.

Here's where things stand, with the rookie camp starting on Friday and organized team activities in two weeks:

Defensive line

DE Josh Boyd; DE Mike Daniels; DE Datone Jones; DE Mike Neal; DE C.J. Wilson; DE Jerel Worthy; DT Johnny Jolly; DT Jordan Miller; DT Ryan Pickett; DT B.J. Raji.

Battle lines: Neal, Wilson, Pickett and Raji will be free agents at the end of the season. Jolly, who also will be a free agent at season's end, hasn't played since 2009. Worthy could miss most or all of the season after tearing his ACL in Week 17.

With that as a backdrop, it's no wonder the Packers used their first-round pick on Jones and a fifth-rounder on Boyd. With Worthy's season in limbo, the Packers will need Jones to make an immediate splash as one of their nickel rushers.

"He's very quick off the ball," general manager Ted Thompson said. "He's got the ability to accelerate his feet to close on a quarterback. I think it's impressive the way an athlete like that can play with his hands and play square along the line of scrimmage. I think he does a good job of that."

As for Jolly, he was never a dominant player. Now, he's 30 and has a lot of rust to shake off. For what it's worth, his biography at is empty. He's a long shot to make the team since he's battling younger and cheaper players Daniels and Boyd for the same role.

The Packers had seven defensive linemen on their season-ending roster last year, a big number considering they use two linemen on about 70 percent of the snaps.


ILB Sam Barrington; ILB Desmond Bishop; ILB Robert Francois; ILB A.J. Hawk; ILB Brad Jones; ILB Jamari Lattimore; ILB Terrell Manning; OLB Micah Johnson; OLB Clay Matthews; OLB Dezman Moses; OLB Nate Palmer; OLB Nick Perry.

Battle lines: Of the nine linebackers on last year's season-ending roster, five played on the inside (Francois, Hawk, Jones, Lattimore and Manning). With Bishop presumably returning from a torn hamstring that cost him all of 2012 and the addition of Barrington, this is a position group bursting at the seams with talent.

A source told Packer Report during the draft that Bishop was on the trade block. That ship has sailed, though it could be revisited if Manning has a strong offseason and training camp. Remember, the Packers gave up three picks in 2012 to move up in the fifth round to get the North Carolina State playmaker. His shot to help on defense last year was sunk when he lost about 15 pounds due to a virus early in training camp.

"He got off to the slow start but was able to settle down and really get comfortable," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said at the end of last season. "I saw it in his practice habits, I saw it in the meeting room. From a special teams contribution, that picked up at the end of the season, as well. There is an anticipation of him really being able to get comfortable, being able to get back on track and being able to compete this offseason to see where he's at and throw him in the mix and see what happens."

Outside linebacker, on the other hand, is short on numbers — though at least one undrafted rookie probably will be added to the mix. Outside of the big-name players, an argument could be made that there isn't a more important player on the team than Perry. This is Dom Capers' fifth season as defensive coordinator, and his scheme is predicated on the outside linebackers making plays. Yet the Packers still haven't found a reliable sidekick to Matthews.

Moses had a decent rookie season, and don't sleep on Palmer. His college coach, Brock Spack, was Purdue's defensive coordinator for more than a decade, and he compared Palmer favorably to Cliff Avril and Anthony Spencer.

"I think he's got real big upside," Spack said.

Defensive backs

CB Jarrett Bush; CB Casey Hayward; CB Davon House; CB Micah Hyde; CB Loyce Means; CB James Nixon; CB Sam Shields; CB Tramon Williams; S Morgan Burnett; S M.D. Jennings; S Jerron McMillian; S Chaz Powell; S Sean Richardson.

Battle lines: Even with 11 draft picks, not every need can be addressed, but it was a surprise the Packers didn't tap into a deep class of safeties during the first three or four rounds. It's clearly a vote of confidence for Jennings (undrafted, 2011) and McMillian (fourth round, 2012), who will battle it out for the starting position opposite Burnett. The wild card is Richardson, an undrafted free agent last year. At 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, he's bigger than Jennings (6-0, 195) and McMillian (5-11, 203) and slightly faster (4.43 in the 40 compared to 4.47 for McMillian and 4.48 for Jennings). However, does Richardson have the ball skills and instincts to play in deep coverage?

At corner, the competition for playing time will be fierce. House hasn't been able to stay healthy long enough to challenge for a marquee role on the defense. If he has a strong camp, things will get interesting. Hayward is a lock for the nickel role, at the very least, but who will man the outside positions? It will be hard to keep Hayward off the field in the base defense after he posted six interceptions as a rookie. Williams, for his lack of physicality, remains one of the better cover men in the league. However, his only two interceptions of last season came in Week 2 against Chicago, he recently turned 30 and he has cap numbers of $8.5 million in 2013 and $9.5 million in 2014. Shields, who is tied for the franchise record with four career postseason interceptions, took a huge step forward last season and could become one of the league's premier corners if he can stay healthy. Assuming he maintains the same mind-set, he could take some of the burden off Williams in matching the opponents' No. 1 receiver and would be a likely a target for an in-season extension.

Hyde will have to impress on special teams and Means has elite speed as they'll push special-teams heart and soul Bush for a roster spot.

"It's going to be fun," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "Competition breeds great play in my opinion. I love bringing talent to the room, I love bringing talent to the team. So bringing this young man in, everybody knows, ‘Hey. The best players will play. The other guys will watch.'"


K Mason Crosby; K Giorgio Tavecchio; P Tim Masthay; LS Brett Goode.

Battle lines: Crosby is coming off a horrendous season, though he finished the year on a high note by making his last six attempts. One observer assumed Crosby was battling some sort of injury and changed his fundamentals to compensate, then kicked himself into an ugly funk. "A couple of those misses, I swear, I've never seen a professional kicker miss that badly." Another laughed when Tavecchio was brought in as the challenger. "You've got to be kidding. Does Mason have some blackmail photos? I'd probably take 10 kickers in this class over (Tavecchio)."

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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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