From 1 to 89: Stopping the Run

We get to No. 30 in our fifth-annual preseason player rankings. C.J. Wilson (No. 30) and A.J. Hawk (No. 31) are two of the most underrated run defenders on the team.

As we've done in past years, we're counting down the Green Bay Packers' roster, from No. 89 to No. 1.

These rankings are not simply based on skill. Players are ranked on their importance to the team. Skill, a player's position, the depth of his position group, the odds he contributes, salary and draft history all play a part in how a player is ranked. More than the ranking itself, hopefully you will learn a little something about each of the 89 players in the process.

No. 30: Run-stopping DL

A funny thing happened to C.J. Wilson.

A two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, Wilson tallied 27.5 sacks at East Carolina. In three seasons with Green Bay, however, Wilson has just 3.5 sacks but has become one of the better run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL.

For the first three seasons of Dom Capers' tenure as defensive coordinator, Ryan Pickett led the defensive line in tackles per play. Wilson unseated Pickett in 2012, with one tackle for every 7.57 plays.

In 2011, Wilson finished sixth out of 26 3-4 defensive ends in run-stop percentage, which ProFootballFocus.com defines as a solo tackle that results in a failed offensive play (such as a first-and-10 run of 3 yards or less or a third-down run stopped short of a first down). In 2012, he tied for 15th out of 34 3-4 ends.

Wilson is entering his final season under contract. There's little reason to believe he won't be a starting end in the base defense again.

"He's a real good run player, I think," Pickett said. "A lot of times, he doesn't get the credit he deserves."

No. 31: Run-stopping LB

If Wilson is one of the most anonymous players on the defense, then A.J. Hawk is one of the most maligned.

Some of that is understandable given his draft position (No. 5 in 2006), salary (his five-year extension signed in 2011 was worth $33.74 million), lack of big-play production (no forced fumbles in five seasons, no interceptions in two seasons) and diminished role (taken off the field in the dime package).

Hawk, however, is coming off arguably his best season as a run defender. After finishing 40th out of 46 3-4 inside linebackers with 17 run stops in 2011, Hawk finished eighth out of 50 with 43 run stops in 2012. Those are impact tackles — the kind of plays Hawk's critics like to say he hasn't made.

"Same position, same calls, same scheme," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said late last season. "He's letting go, he's having fun, he's enjoying it. I see that he's enjoying it more this year, for whatever reason. That's good to see."

"He's always been a very low-key guy," Moss continued. "He comes in, he does his work and he doesn't have much to say. (Now), there's just more interaction with his teammates. He's not different but it just seems like there's more of a comfort (level). That's good to see. If that contributes to him being more impactful, more power to him."

Hawk agreed to slash his pay by $7.5 million over the next three seasons. If he keeps up his impactful play against the run this summer, Hawk almost certainly will remain in the starting lineup.

No. 32: Safety battle

Jerron McMillian didn't start a single game as a rookie fourth-round pick last season but he did rank ninth on the defense with 609 snaps as the primary option as the dime defender. He was impactful from the get-go, with a Week 2 interception against Chicago and another that might have clinched the Week 3 game at Seattle if not for a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty. He fell out of favor by season's end, however, with just five snaps in the two playoff games.

"I think he has a lot of upside," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "He did a good job when he was in there taking the place of Woodson in the dime spot. He made some plays and he did some good things that get you excited. But, as with all young players, there's still room to grow."

McMillian isn't tall (5-11) but he's fast, confident and is the one member of the secondary who has the potential to be a big hitter. If he makes big strides with the nuances of the game, he's got a good shot of emerging as the starter alongside Morgan Burnett.

No. 33: House's health

Davon House was in position to be the No. 2 cornerback until separating a shoulder in the preseason opener. After missing the first six games, House replaced an injured Sam Shields and played extensively for the next seven games. Then, he fell off the face of the earth. In the final five games (including playoffs), he was inactive three times and got just one snap on defense.

He allowed 51.1 percent completions but a team-high four touchdowns, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

House sat out the offseason practices because of the shoulder. House could challenge for a major role on defense. Or, he could be sent packing, given the talent on the depth chart.

"Davon, before he got hurt, his temperament and his play speed was what we're looking for," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "The injury sort of set that back. He has to get back to playing with the temperament that I can take anybody away. He has a lot in his body, he's a very strong-handed man, a lot like Al Harris, but he has to consistently finish plays and do it with the temperament that we're looking for. He can do it. The No. 1 thing he has to do is get healthy. I tell you what, the group is going to be very competitive moving forward."

No. 34: The ‘Big Three' plus ...

Jarrett Boykin's five receptions for 27 yards represent all of the catches and yardage from the receivers behind the "Big Three" of Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Boykin lacks speed but he is a big receiver (6-2) with big hands and the strength to get open.

The No. 4 job is there for taking. If Boykin can show some ability with the ball in his hands — he had just 7 yards after the catch — the job will be his.

"You saw the ability to create some separation, you saw by way of his footwork, by way of his quickness, by way of being physical with his hands to get off of press and things like that," receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "You start to see it showing up more and more, and it's something we'll continue to emphasize. That kid can play."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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