Offseason Roster Analysis: Defensive Line

The Packers have plenty of quality performers, especially with two players coming off injured reserve and another added in the draft, but do they have one standout who can change a game?

Daniels photo by Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY

The Green Bay Packers will begin three weeks of organized team activities following Memorial Day weekend, with the first of those that’s open to the public set for Thursday, May 28. We get you ready with a positional look at the team, which continues with the defensive line.

Depth chart

Veterans: Mike Daniels, B.J. Raji, Datone Jones, Letroy Guion, Josh Boyd, Mike Pennel, Khyri Thornton.

Rookies and first-year players: Christian Ringo (sixth round), Lavon Hooks (undrafted), Bruce Gaston (undrafted, 2014; claimed off Arizona’s practice squad).

Noteworthy: From 2009, the Packers’ first year in a 3-4 scheme, through 2014, general manager Ted Thompson had used 10 draft picks on defensive linemen. Last season, only three of them lined up on the defensive line — Daniels, Jones and Boyd. With that said, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. With Guion re-signed, last year’s defensive line returns intact. Plus, Raji and Thornton are back after spending last season on injured reserve and Ringo was added in the sixth round. That should lead to a powerful competition in training camp. While there are plenty of decent players in this group, what it lacks is a dominant defender that can alter a game plan. Maybe Raji will be that guy. Last training camp, with Raji back at nose tackle and playing for a contract after settling for a one-year free-agent deal, he showed flashes of that dominance. But after missing the season with a torn biceps tendon, Raji settled for another one-year contract. He will not be lacking for motivation. And speaking of motivation, Daniels is entering the final year of his rookie deal and Guion was given a one-year contract, as well, so that’s three key players who will be looking to capitalize on a strong season.

Offseason outlook

The star: Justin Harrell (first round, 2007) was a disaster. Mike Neal (second round, 2010) couldn’t stay healthy so he shed about 40 pounds to morph into an outside linebacker. Jerel Worthy (second round, 2012) was a major bust. Thornton looked more like a tryout player than a premium pick last year before being stashed on IR. Thompson’s salvation is Daniels. After a breakout 2013 in which he had 6.5 sacks as a backup, Daniels started all 16 games and had 5.5 sacks and a team-high 19 quarterback hits. For what it’s worth, Daniels was ProFootballFocus.com’s eighth-ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. More than just a pass rusher, Daniels finished ninth among the 3-4 ends in PFF’s run-stop percentage, which measures impact tackles (such as a first-and-10 tackle that holds the play to 3 yards or less).

The battle: The starting lineup isn’t particularly relevant because so much of who’s on the field is determined by matchups and down-and-distance scenarios. Nonetheless, in the base defense, the Packers figure to go with Daniels and Guion at the ends and Raji on the nose, with Jones and Daniels likely to be the primary inside-rushing duo. That leaves Boyd, Pennel, Thornton and Ringo being the front-runners for what might be only two spots (or three spots to start the season, with Guion facing a potential suspension to start the season). That really puts the pressure on Thornton, the 85th pick of last year’s draft.

Rookie impact: Just based on numbers, Ringo faces an uphill battle to make the roster. However, given Daniels’ contract situation, he might be a valuable insurance policy should he show his tremendous protection at Louisiana-Lafayette (top 10 in the nation in sacks and tackles for losses) wasn’t just a byproduct of dominating a bunch of below-average offensive linemen.

Quoteworthy: “It’s huge, particularly how young we are,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said before the Dallas game when the healthy of his unit was mentioned. “Mike Daniels is a third-year guy (and) he’s the second senior guy on the D-line. You got everybody else. Josh is a two-year guy. Tone is a two-year guy. Mike Pennel is a young guy. That’s just huge to have them out on the practice field. They work extremely hard. It’s a really fun group to work with because they do work hard on the practice field. You don’t have a lot of guys missing a lot of time. They don’t ever count their reps in practice or anything like that. They want to be out there trying to get better. That’s what makes it fun as a coach.”

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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