Camp Clashes: Defensive Line

Ageless veteran nose tackle Ryan Pickett is the standout of the group. Beyond Pickett, the top five spots on the depth chart are secure, leaving a major battle for the final spot or two.

With the Green Bay Packers opening training camp on Friday, Packer Report takes a closer look at the defensive line.

The star

Ryan Pickett: B.J. Raji is younger and capable of more impact plays. It's the veteran Pickett, however, that is the steady stalwart of the unit.

For the first three seasons of Dom Capers' tenure as defensive coordinator, Pickett led the defensive line in tackles per snap. While he was edged out by C.J. Wilson last season, Pickett averages a tackle every 7.74 snaps over the past four seasons. Wilson is next at 9.63, followed by Johnny Jolly (10.76), Mike Daniels (12.16), Raji (14.57), Mike Neal (17.82) and Jerel Worthy (20.30).

By ProFootballFocus.com's count, he led the defensive line with 23 run stops, three more than Raji.

At 33, he's the oldest player on the team. He's entering the final year of a contract extension signed in March 2010 that was worth just shy of $25 million.

"I think he fits our defense and takes pride in what he does there," Trgovac said. "He fits the defense, he works hard at it and he played in all 18 games this year. I think it was big for him not to miss a practice; I can't remember one that he missed. He was able to stay healthy this year. He came into training camp in relatively good shape. I didn't see him fall off at all this year. I think he definitely has another good year left in him."

The big battle

Nos. 5, 6 (and 7?): The top of the roster is pretty well set. Raji, Pickett and first-round pick Datone Jones are locks. As the unit's top pass rusher with 4.5 sacks, Neal is practically a lock. So is Wilson; teams averaged 4.58 yards per carry overall but 3.67 with Wilson in the game.

Daniels, who had more quarterback hits (team count) and total pressures (PFF's count) than fellow 2012 rookie Worthy despite getting about half as many pass-rushing opportunities, is the obvious front-runner for the sixth spot.

With Worthy highly unlikely to be ready for Week 1 after tearing his ACL in Week 17, the Packers could stick with those six. To start and end last season, they had seven defensive linemen on the roster. The possibilities are Jolly, fifth-round pick Josh Boyd, holdover Jordan Miller and undrafted rookie Gilbert Pena.

The sleeper

Jordan Miller: Miller, an undrafted free agent in 2011 who broke in with Chicago, played in one game last season and did not record any stats. He tallied 18 sacks during his career at Southern. Trgovac is intrigued. "Jordan's got a really good punch," Trgovac said. "The thing I like about him is it looks to me like he can play some nose, as well. He's got a good body size for nose and we've been playing him there. He's done a nice job this camp. We'll find out when the pads come on."

The bubble

Johnny Jolly: With a three-year layoff, can the 30-year-old Jolly turn back the clock? He never was a dominant player but he played a lot of snaps, took up blocks and disrupted passing lanes. His 11 pass breakups in 2009 were four more than runner-up Julius Peppers among NFL defensive linemen.

"For what we do, where we try to keep people off linebackers, we try to stay square, we don't shoot and hit gaps and run up the field, Johnny was very good at that," Trgovac said.

Adding to Jolly's challenge is the addition of Boyd. Boyd has no dominant traits but could play end in the base defense and in run situations when the defense is in nickel. Under Ted Thompson, most personnel decisions have gone in favor of the draft pick.

The long shot

Gilbert Pena: The 26-year-old Pena gave up football for four years to help his mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. He's certainly a feel-good story but had relatively minimal production in two season at Ole Miss.

The bottom line

You can never have too many defensive linemen, so the Packers appear to be in good shape. The addition of Jones was critical, given Worthy's injury and rather ho-hum play as a rookie.

"I'm very confident that guys like Datone Jones are going to look even better in pads," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He's had a great spring, he's been everything we were hoping for, I think, and that's an exciting guy."

If Jones and Neal play to expectations as interior rushers, the Packers could have a tremendous pass rush. Raji, Pickett and Wilson will provide the run defenders in the base defense. And whoever makes it between Daniels, Boyd and Jolly will provide versatility.


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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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