The Green Bay Packers’ defensive line has the potential to be really deep.
Can it be really good?
Not only are B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion back after re-signing in free agency, but several young defensive linemen — including fourth-year standout Mike Daniels and third-year pros Datone Jones and Josh Boyd — are a year more experienced. Plus, 2014 third-rounder Khyri Thornton could earn meaningful playing time after missing his rookie season with a hamstring injury and a sixth-round pick was used on playmaking Christian Ringo. Throw in second-year defenders Mike Pennel and Bruce Gaston and intriguing undrafted rookie Lavon Hooks, and the Packers will take plenty of bodies into training camp next month.
“The thing that makes you good is competition,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Tuesday. “One thing I know is you can never have too many big guys who can play. We were very fortunate last year when B.J. went down to have Letory, and Letroy stepped in and played very good football for us. I think starting out we’ll have more depth on the defensive line. I think we’ve got the right combination of big, physical guys and athletic guys. We’ll use a lot of different combinations and personnel groups. What those guys do up front kind of sets the tone for what you can do. Obviously, guys like B.J. and Letroy, they’re big and physical and can stop blocks and give you the ability to play physical run defense.”
The Packers got by without Raji last season. After a dismal season playing defensive end in 2013, Raji received tepid interested in free agency. He returned with a one-year deal — and returned to nose tackle, where he had played his best football. Raji appeared poised for a strong season until sustaining a season-ending torn biceps tendon during the third preseason game.
Raji’s pain became Guion’s gain. He missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury and appeared to be squarely on the roster bubble. But without Raji, the Packers had no choice but to stick with Guion. After a slow start to the season, Guion became an asset as a 16-game starter at nose tackle. With better range than the Packers had with Ryan Pickett, he led the team’s defensive line in tackles per snap and even had a career-high 3.5 sacks and finished fourth on the team with 10 quarterback hits.
With Raji back at nose tackle and Guion moving out to defensive end, where he’ll pair with Daniels, the Packers potentially will have their best starting trio since Raji joined Pickett and Cullen Jenkins for the Super Bowl season of 2010.
“I think we have a good chance this year to do some good things as a unit defensively,” Raji said.
That’s what Daniels believes, too. Daniels has blossomed into one of the NFL’s top young defensive linemen. After a breakout 2013 in which he had 6.5 sacks playing primarily as a third-down rusher, Daniels was used mostly on first and second down last season. Proving to be more than a situational rusher, Daniels recorded 69 tackles — 13 more than he had during his first two seasons combined — along with 5.5 sacks and a team-high 19 quarterback hits.
“It feels good to have two older guys, two established guys, two guys who know how to do things the right way back and playing on the defensive front,” Daniels said. “We’re setting the standard. We’re setting the tone for the younger guys and they’re following suit. It’s been nothing but good things having those two guys back.”
With Raji, Guion and Daniels solidified as the starting trio, Capers has plenty of options depending on the down-and-distance situation. Jones might never live up to his first-round billing but he has gotten to the quarterback. Boyd has been a solid run defender and the mammoth Pennel — he’s got calves bigger than most men’s thighs — is an intriguing long-term option as a run-stopper. Boyd, Pennel, Thornton, Ringo, Gaston and Hooks will battle for two or, maybe, three spots.
“I don’t really make predictions but it’s a good group to work with,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said on Tuesday. “I think there’s some talent in there and hopefully we can stay healthy. That will give us some options to do some different things.”
If Raji can bounce back and Guion can replicate last year’s success, and if the new inside linebacker tandem of Clay Matthews and Sam Barrington can provide the run-stopping prowess the defense so sorely lacked for the first half of last season, maybe, just maybe, there won’t be a repeat of the end of the NFC Championship Game, when Green Bay’s run defense collapsed at Seattle.
“We want to be as good as we have to be,” Raji said. “We know that we have the top offense in the league, but we don’t want to feel like they always have to do everything. We want to be able to hold some teams to a point where they don’t have a chance because we have the reigning MVP in the league.”email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.