We continue our training camp positional series with the defensive line.
Starters: DE Mike Daniels, NT B.J. Raji, DE Letroy Guion. Daniels is a terrific young player. In 2014, he led the defensive line with 69 tackles (including seven for losses) while adding 5.5 sacks and posting a team-high 19 quarterback hits. He’s the best player on the unit. He’s never needed motivation but has a little extra as he enters his contract year. It’s make-or-break Part 2 for Raji. After a disappointing 2013, Raji agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal and was moved back to nose tackle. He had a dominant training camp until tearing a biceps tendon in the preseason. He spent the year on injured reserve and is back on another one-year contract, this time worth $2.75 million. Without Raji, Guion did a nice job at nose tackle. He recorded 63 tackles (including six for losses) and added surprising pass rush with a career-high 3.5 sacks. His offseason arrest ruined his free-agent potential and he returned on a one-year deal worth $2.75 million.
Top backups: DE Datone Jones, DE Josh Boyd. Jones has been a tremendous disappointment. He started the first three games of last season before playing as a reserve the rest of the season. He had 1.5 sacks in 13 games. Boyd started four games and had more tackles (34) than Jones (30). Both players had three tackles for losses.
Contenders: Khyri Thornton, Mike Pennel, Bruce Gaston, Christian Ringo, Lavon Hooks. Thornton, a third-round pick last year, has plenty to prove after being stashed on injured reserve after being Mr. Invisible during training camp. Pennel took advantage, making the roster and playing in 13 games and registering 18 tackles. However, his playing time evaporated as the season progressed. Over the last six regular-season games, he never played more than seven snaps. He played in at least 20 snaps between Week 4 and Week 10. Gaston was grabbed off the Cardinals’ practice squad on Dec. 8 but didn’t play. Ringo is an intriguing sixth-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a one-man wrecking ball as a senior, tallying 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for losses, good for seventh and 12th nationally, respectively. Hooks started only two games in two seasons at Ole Miss. As a senior, he didn’t start any games and registered two sacks and 6.5 tackles for losses among 17 total stops. Despite that limited pedigree, he’s a player to watch.
How many make it (for now)?: That’s the short-term question. With Guion receiving a three-game suspension on Thursday for his February arrest and Jones appealing his way down to a one-game suspension after being arrested for possession of marijuana after the NFC title game, the Packers will be without two defensive linemen for the Week 1 game at Chicago. What will be the impact on general manager Ted Thompson as he picks the 53-man roster? Will he have to keep seven defensive linemen, knowing only five will be available for the Bears? Week 2 is against Seattle and Week 3 is against Kansas City, two run-first teams. Guion’s presence would be sorely missed if he has to miss one or both of those games once the appeals process is complete. If guys like Boyd and Pennel are on the bubble, Guion’s early absence could give them an early reprieve.
What’s next for Daniels?: A big payday is what’s next.
In 2013, Daniels made his impact mostly as a situational pass rusher with 6.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits; both figures ranked second on the team. In 2014, Daniels played mostly on first and second down. Whatever the situation, he was productive. Among 3-4 defensive ends, he finished ninth in the league with 25 run stops and seventh in total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. (PFF defines a run stop as an offensive failure — such as a first-and-10 play that holds the gain to 3 yards or less).
“When you first come in as a young player, you’re worried about what you’re doing,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “You’re worried about your assignments. Then you start to learn about how to beat people, you actually learn the technique of how to beat people. Then the next step is learning the defensive scheme around you to make you a better player. I don’t care if you’re a two-year player or 10-year vet, you can always learn something on the field, and I think that’s just Mike’s step. Mike’s a hard-working guy and football means a lot to him but I think that’s just the next step, of learning what’s going on around you and that’ll help you make more plays. Because as a coach, you don’t want to give a young player too much because then you have guys thinking out there, and that’s not what you want. You want guys playing on their natural skill. We still want Mike playing off his natural skill, but now he’s starting to learn what’s going on around him – what the linebacker’s doing, where’s the safety on this play, all that stuff matters. You can’t give him too much of that too early or you have too many guys thinking out there.”
Can Raji turn back the clock?: Raji was the playmaking man in the middle of the defense during the Packers’ Super Bowl run in 2010. However, he was moved to end for most of the next three seasons because aging Ryan Pickett was better suited at nose. The move hurt Raji. Back at nose tackle last season, he seemed poised for a strong season until the injury. If Raji can return to form, he’d be a huge asset against power running teams like Seattle.
Can he be the guy he was in 2010?
“No, I actually want to exceed that,” Raji said. “That’s the parameter for what this kid can do when he’s locked in. And I plan on displaying that I can do that and more. But more than anything, just helping this unit be what we can be if we’re locked in.”
Will Jones boom or bust?: He’s certainly trending in the wrong direction. After starting the first three games of last season, Jones took a seat on the bench in the base defense. There’s no spinning this number: Jones, a first-round pick in 2013, played 323 snaps. Boyd, a fifth-round pick in that same draft, played 392 snaps. The Packers could live with that if Jones were excelling in his role as situational pass rusher. But he didn’t. He had 1.5 sacks last season to give him five for his career. Being arrested for marijuana possession not long after the plane landed in Green Bay following the NFC Championship Game isn’t a good sign, either.
What’s Thornton’s future?: Here are Thompson’s defensive line picks since the move to the 3-4 in 2009: Raji (first round) and Jarius Wynn (sixth) in 2009, Mike Neal (second) and C.J. Wilson (seventh) in 2010, Lawrence Guy (seventh) in 2011, Jerel Worthy (second) and Daniels (fourth) in 2012, Jones (first) and Boyd (fifth) in 2013 and Thornton (third) in 2014. Of that group, only Daniels has exceeded expectations.
It’s obviously too early to lump Thornton in with players like Worthy and Jones but he didn’t leave a favorable impression as a rookie. He did nothing to merit a roster spot, and a hamstring injury banished him to injured reserve for the season. The Packers’ defensive line might not be great but it is deep. Even if the suspensions force Thompson to keep seven defensive linemen, there’s no guarantee that Thornton is among them.
“It’s as big as it can get,” Thornton said. “I have to show up and do what I’ve got to do. Hit the weight room hard, hit the playbook hard. I’m not going home for the break. I’m going to stay here and try and hit it because I feel like I’m lagging behind. I’m going to stay here when everybody goes home and get some extra work in so I can be on the field next year and make an impact.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.