Looking Back/Ahead: Defensive Line

We review 2013 with our good, bad, surprise and grade, plus take a look at what's ahead in 2014. Only four of the eight players are under contract. Will the Packers bring back mainstays Raji, Pickett and Jolly? The only sure thing seems to be Daniels, who had a big second season.

In Part 6 of our season-ending review of the Green Bay Packers, we look back and ahead at the defensive line.

DEPTH CHART: 2013

Mike Daniels, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Josh Boyd, Datone Jones, C.J. Wilson and Jerel Worthy. (Johnny Jolly on injured reserve).

UNDER CONTRACT: 2014

Daniels, Boyd, Jones and Worthy. (Pickett, Raji, Wilson and Jolly are free agents.)

2013 REVIEW

The grade: D-plus. This is far and away the team's most disappointing unit. Raji and Pickett, two longtime and highly paid mainstays, did little more than take up space for most of the season. That's especially true of Raji, who did just about the opposite of what you'd expect from a player in his contract season. Jolly was a great story and certainly flashed more than anyone could have expected, but he frequently looked like a 30-year-old player who hadn't played in three seasons. Jolly's return meant less playing time for Wilson, who had been one of the unit's best run defenders over the previous couple seasons.

Those four should have been pillars of the Packers' run defense. And they typically were during the first half of the season. But on the night when Aaron Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone, the Packers' run defense was broken, too. Rodgers returned; the run defense did not. While the defensive line isn't solely to blame, it is the starting point in trying to pinpoint how the Packers allowed 83.8 rushing yards per game in the first seven games but 158.2 in the final 10.

The good: Really, the only saving grace was Daniels. Daniels, a fourth-round pick in 2012, outplayed 2012 second-rounder Worthy during his rookie season, and he outplayed 2013 first-rounder Jones this season.

From the first day of training camp to the final game of the season, Daniels showed a combination of muscle and hustle that made him the unit's only consistent impact performer. At 6-foot and 300 pounds, he might never be big enough to be a three-down player, but he played a lot in the base defense during the second half of the season. As a pass rusher, he ranked second on the team with 6.5 sacks and third with 15 quarterback hits, according to the coaches' count. That's more than Raji and Jones combined this season, and more than Raji had during his breakout 2010 season.

Daniels finished with nine tackles for losses. Other than Jolly's six, that was as many as the rest of the team's defensive linemen combined.

The bad: Raji's breakout 2010 helped the Packers win the Super Bowl. After a disappointing 2011, Raji bounced back in a big way in 2012 as one of the NFL's better run-stopping defensive linemen. The career yo-yo continued in 2013. With a big payday at stake, Raji played the role of the 340-pound Invisible Man.

He's gone 35 consecutive games without a sack, and he was almost never used in nickel pass-rushing situations this season. Against the run, Raji ranked 38th among 45 qualifying 3-4 defensive ends in ProFootballFocus.com's run stop percentage. (A run stop is defined as a solo tackle resulting in an offensive failure, such as a first-and-10 run of 3 yards or less or any third-down tackle which prevents a first down.) Raji ranked 12th out of 34 qualifying ends last season. The coaches had Raji down for 32 tackles. He had 66 in 2010.

The surprise: The Packers took a deep defensive line into training camp. It seemed like the numbers were against Jolly, given his three-year layoff. But Jolly made the team and, all things considered, had a decent season.

Jolly had 38 tackles, or one in every 7.74 snaps. When he last played in 2009, he had 75 tackles, or one in every 10.76 snaps. However, he batted down 11 passes in 2009 — tops among all NFL defensive linemen — compared to just one in 2013.

Jolly played in 24 snaps per game until going down early against Dallas with a neck injury. Given the nature of the injury (reportedly a bulging disc in C-5 section of spine) and his age (Jolly will turn 31 on Feb. 21), it's possible his career is over.

The coach says: "I don't know what the end is. I don't know what's been said or what they tell you but Johnny means a lot to us, not only as a good football player. I think we have some good football players in our room but Jolly brings a lot of intangibles to the room, as well. One of the things that amazed me about Johnny is when I had him here in 2009 I thought he was one of the most instinctive players that I've ever had and then he was out of football for '10, '11, '12 and then the first or second practice, he came out there and I watched him and he still hasn't lost his instincts. Johnny's instincts, those are hard to replace." — defensive line coach Mike Trgovac

2014 LOOKAHEAD

The Packers have some big decisions to make with Raji, Pickett, Jolly and Wilson slated for free agency.

In the case of Raji, some of the decision is out of the Packers' hands. With Raji almost never used in pass-rushing situations, he's essentially a two-down player. Will some other team — such as one that runs an attacking 4-3 scheme — blow the Packers' budgeted price out of the water by paying him like a three-down player? While Raji didn't make much of an impact this season, he's still a big, strong, athletic and intelligent player. Those don't exactly grow on trees.

Pickett might return if the price is right — and that price is a lot less than his 2013 cap number of $6.7 million. The decision on Jolly likely will come from the medical staff. The Packers need to bring back Wilson, especially if Jolly isn't coming back.

However it shakes out among the free agents, the Packers badly need Jones and Worthy to take a Daniels-like jump next season. Listening to Jones talk after the playoff game, he sounded like he was God's gift to football. He dominated the start of training camp but never quite got back to form after spraining an ankle during the first preseason game. Fellow rookie Boyd played more than Jones over the final four games. Worthy's 2013 was a washout as he battled back from a torn ACL sustained in the finale of his lackluster 2012 rookie season.


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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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