Positional Battlegrounds: Defensive Line

In Part 6 of our training camp preview, the decision to not re-sign Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly left a big — literally — void on the defensive line. Which young players will rise to the occasion to start alongside nose tackle B.J. Raji?

Packer Report previews the start of Green Bay Packers training camp with a positional series focused solely on the battles that will be won and lost during the dog days (and nights) of July and August. We continue with the defensive line.

Battle No. 1: Who are the ends?

Even though the Packers lined up in their base 3-4 alignment on only about one-fourth of the snaps last season, that is a weighty question.

Last season, the Packers went with the beefy trio of B.J. Raji (337 pounds) and Johnny Jolly (325 pounds) as the defensive ends and Ryan Pickett (338 pounds) as the nose tackle. With Pickett and Jolly unsigned and Raji back home to nose tackle, the Packers will be going with a slimmed-down starting tandem at end in hopes of finding answers for a run defense that yielded a woeful 4.6 yards per carry last season.

Datone Jones should be one of the starting ends, based solely on his draft pedigree as a first-round pick last year. At 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, he’s got the height and length to be a three-down player. However, is he sturdy enough and tough enough to do the dirty work? During a disappointing rookie season, he didn’t make a single noteworthy play against the run and barely played in the base defense.

“Datone came in as a rookie last year and, early on in training camp, he missed some very valuable time from the developmental standpoint, especially when a guy is switching positions from what he played in college,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s now had time. He’s had a while offseason doing the things we’re going to ask him to do. He’s much more familiar with those things. He has a great attitude. I think he’s a good athlete. He’s one of those guys I think can do a number of different things for you.”

Mike Daniels, the 2013 breakout star, was the best player on the defensive line last season. His relative lack of size (6-foot, 300 pounds) isn’t the issue as much as whether it’s worth having Daniels slug it out routinely on first and second down at risk of taking away what he does best — rushing the passer on third down.

“People were probably a little bit afraid of (drafting) him because of his size and his height and he doesn't have the NFL standard height and arm length,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “But we really loved him. He's an ex-wrestler who will get in there and grapple. He's not going to be a finesse guy. He's very tough, works hard, great leverage and very good hands.”

Josh Boyd, a fifth-round pick last year, wound up stealing playing time from Jones down the stretch. At 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, he’s got some of the size the Packers are losing with Pickett and Jolly.

“Josh needs to take his game (up),” Trgovac said. “Josh earned our playing time that we gave him last year. We didn’t just give it to him. Every time we put him in the deal, he was showing up. And that’s what he needs to keep doing.”

Khyri Thornton, a rookie third-round pick, could get into the mix, as well. At 6-foot-3 and 304 pounds, Thornton is an excellent athlete with the ability to use his quickness to shoot through gaps. As is the case with Raji, Jones, Daniels and Boyd, Thornton offers the versatility to play defensive tackle should the Packers go into a four-man front.

Battle No. 2: Big name on the bubble

Raji, Jones, Daniels, Boyd and Thornton are the locks to make the roster. At defensive end, Jerel Worthy and undrafted rookies Luther Robinson and Carlos Gray round out the depth chart. Letroy Guion, a street free agent who was released by the Vikings for financial reasons, will battle undrafted rookie Mike Pennel to be the backup nose tackle. Potentially, he’ll get in the mix at end, though he didn’t line up there during the offseason practices.

“He brings a big body that can move,” Trgovac said of Guion. “He’ll give us a good rotation in there. He’s a big kid that can move that’s got good fundamentals. He’s taller and he’s a longer-armed guy that can get that arm out there and keep guys away from him. He’s a good football player.”

With the additions of Guion and Thornton, Worthy, a second-round pick in 2012, is clearly on the bubble. A torn ACL sustained at the end of a disappointing rookie season helped limit his second season to a mere 12 snaps from scrimmage. He didn’t practice during the offseason and didn’t pass his physical to get on the field for Saturday’s first training camp practice.

The Packers have gone with seven defensive linemen in the past but with Julius Peppers and Mike Neal able to play multitasking roles as outside linebackers/defensive ends, do the Packers need seven? If six is the magic number, it probably will be Guion vs. Worthy for the final spot.

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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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