For all the focus on linebacker, the Green Bay Packers’ overwhelming need entering this week’s draft is on the defensive line, a unit dealt a haymaker with B.J. Raji’s decision to not play in 2016 and a body blow with Mike Pennel’s season-opening suspension.
With Datone Jones now a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, the Packers head into the offseason with this paper-thin depth chart: Mike Daniels at defensive end, Letroy Guion at nose tackle and Josh Boyd, who missed almost all of last season due to injury, at the other end. The backups? Not a single regular-season snap among them.
Fortunately, depth meets need in a loaded class of defensive linemen. That should benefit the Packers in two ways. First, the depth alone will set up the Packers to land a quality player in the first round or two. Two, that depth might have other defensive line-hungry teams thinking they can wait to get their man, further pushing talent into Green Bay’s lap.
Here was our Elite 5 preview of the 3-4-scheme defensive linemen. Now, we dig deeper. Stats are from STATS via Real Football. These incredible production charts are our contribution.
VERNON BUTLER, Louisiana Tech (6-3 5/8, 323)
Position rank: 6
Notes: Butler was first-team all-Conference USA and first-team all-Louisiana as a senior. He registered 51 tackles, with three sacks and 10 tackles for losses to anchor one of the top run defenses in the nation. In our statistical breakdown of the top 30 3-4-scheme defensive linemen, Butler tied for sixth with 33 run disruptions and 12 stuffs (a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run) and was fifth with 27 quarterback pressures. “I have yet to see any blocker, or blockers, capable of riding him out once he anchors and establishes position in the trenches,” longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas said. “He might not use his violent hand punch as much as he should, but he can easily obliterate any blocker once he gets his hands into their body.” Butler is big and long with 35-inch arms. He ran his 40 in 5.33 seconds with 26 reps on the bench. He showed well at the Senior Bowl, alleviating concerns about competition. “His game at the Senior Bowl was better than his practices,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. “Sometimes, you say, ‘OK, he learned some stuff during the week and then was able to apply it during his play time.’ Or, he happened to go against a lesser player in the game vs. what he faced in the practices. I think Vernon has got a lot of growth, a lot of potential in front of him. To me, ideally, he would go to a team where he would be part of a rotation and a year from now be a legit starter. Jarran Reed can go in and play today. Vernon Butler, I’m not certain about that. But a year from now, Vernon Butler might be the better player. It depends on the timeline of your position.”
CHRIS JONES, Mississippi State (6-5 3/4, 310)
Position rank: 7
Notes: Jones was a Freshman All-American in 2013 but didn’t become a starter until 2015. His goal entering this season was to be “unblockable.” He didn’t earn any all-SEC accolades but he was a second-team All-American by Pro Football Focus. He had 40 tackles and 2.5 sacks and missed just one tackle. In our group of 30, Jones ranked 18th with 27 run defenses but an impressive fourth with 30 pressures and tied for sixth with 12 stuffs. “He’s the three-down player you’re looking for,” a scout said. “He’s just got to get his (crap) together. I see why you all (in the media) like him but it’s buyer beware, for sure.” Jones, who has 34.5-inch arms, ran in an impressive 5.03 and put up 26 reps on the bench. “Just when you look at where he is now and where he could be, he's just got tremendous upside and talent,” said NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout. “He hasn't put it all together yet. When the coaches get involved in the process, they're going to look at this guy and say, ‘Man, this is a pretty special, physical presence we have here. Let's see if we can get it out of him.’ At Houston (Miss.) High School, he was a five-year letterman in basketball. During his recruitment, he said he received death threats. By contrast, the draft process is a snap.
JONATHAN BULLARD, Florida (6-3, 285)
Position rank: 8
Notes: Bullard, a former five-star recruit, had a monster senior season to earn first-team all-SEC. He had 63 tackles, 17.5 tackles for losses and 6.5 sacks; among FBS-level linemen, only Oregon’s DeForest Buckner had more sacks. Where he dominated, though, was against the run. His 55 run disruptions were one fewer than Baylor’s Andrew Billings for head of the class and his 16.5 stuffs ranked third. He didn’t miss a single tackle. “He has those outstanding, long arms and the strength to control his side of the football, and can hold ground at the point of attack and clog rush lanes,” Thomas said. “He shows good ability to stymie double teams, with a strong base to anchor.” He ran in 4.95 but put up only 23 reps on the bench. He has 33 5/8-inch arms. “Julius Peppers is my favorite player,” Bullard said. “My oldest brother actually wore No. 90 because of Julius and I wore No. 90 because of my brother but it was actually Julius. Don’t tell him that. We all watched him play growing up. My brother also played at a D-1 school and I wore 90 in high school.”
KENNY CLARK, UCLA (6-2 5/8, 314)
Position rank: 9
Notes: Clark was a two-year starter who was first-team all-Pac-12 and earned some All-America recognition this past season. As a junior in 2015, Clark set career highs with 73 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 11 tackles for losses and five passes defensed. Only Buckner and Penn State’s Austin Johnson had more tackles and only Baylor’s Andrew Billings and Bullard had more run disruptions than Clark’s 43. He tied for 16th with 18 pressures. However, his stats read a bit like the complaint about former Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk — a lot of tackles too far down field. Despite the big tackle count, Clark tied for 19th with 6.5 stuffs. He lists Mike Daniels among his favorite players because of height (or lack of height). Both win with leverage, due to their wrestling backgrounds. “Some people wrestle differently, but I think every wrestler has an attack mentality,” he said. “It’s about using your hands, being able to snap people down.” He ran in 5.06 and put up 29 reps on the bench. Clark has 32 1/8-inch arms.
ROBERT NKEMDICHE, Ole Miss (6-3 1/2, 294)
Position rank: 10
Notes: Nkemdiche is the wild card at this position. A couple weeks before the Sugar Bowl, he fell 15 feet to a concrete walkway after crawling out a fourth-floor window. He was charged with possession of marijuana and suspended for the game. Nkemdiche then declared for the draft. “I was drunk,” Nkemdiche said at the Combine. “That’s not who I am. That’s not what I stand for. That’s not what my family stands for. It was embarrassing for me and my whole family, the Ole Miss family. I tell them that’s not the kind of player they’re getting. They’re getting a straight-forward player. I’m never going to return to that. I’m just moving forward and embracing this moment.” The incident put a sour note on a tremendous season, with Nkemdiche earning All-America honors. In 11 games, he had 28 tackles, including three sacks and seven for losses. He ranked 14th with 29 run disruptions, 15th with 7.5 stuffs and sixth with 26 pressures. “He hasn't totally put it together yet,” Jeremiah said. “He is a physical freak, so athletic. But my line on him has kind of stood the same in that he's a top-10 talent but he has pedestrian production, and that concerns you a little bit.” He scored three touchdowns on offense (two rushing, one receiving) and blocked a field goal. With that, he became the first defensive lineman to ever be named a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile player. He’s a gifted athlete, with a 4.87 in the 40 — tied for fastest among the big guys — and a 35-inch vertical. He put up 28 reps on the bench and has 33 7/8-inch arms. “There is no questioning the athletic ability of Robert Nkemdiche, but the Ole Miss prospect has more skeletons in his closet that a haunted house at an amusement park,” Thomas said.
AUSTIN JOHNSON, Penn State (6-4 3/8, 314)
Position rank: 11
Notes: Johnson was second-team all-Big Ten after a tremendous season. His 75 tackles ranked third among defensive tackles in FBS, and he added 6.5 sacks, 15 tackles for losses and a 71-yard touchdown on a fumble return. “Probably the most athletic 315-pound guy I’ve been around,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. Johnson tied for 11th with 30 run disruptions and tied for 10th with 9.5 stuffs. Despite the big sack count, he was only 22nd with 14 pressures. Johnson earned his degree in journalism in just three-and-a-half years, so he was eligible to play in the Senior Bowl. “He is a big body,” Savage said. “I didn’t think he showed as much rush potential as what maybe people were hoping for but that was just one week. I think he’s going to be one of those value picks. No one’s talking about him so I don’t think he’s going in the first round but he may end up going second or third round and being as good as some of these other guys.” Because he was too big to play youth football, basketball was his first love. There were long hours shooting hoops in the driveway with his father and his sister, Kennedy, who plays at Michigan State. He ran in 5.32 and put up 25 reps on the bench. For his size, he’s got short-ish arms at 32 3/4 inches.
JIHAD WARD, Illinois (6-5 1/8, 297)
Position rank: 12
Notes: After spending two years at junior college, Ward was an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten team as a junior and senior. During his final season, Ward posted 54 tackles and 1.5 sacks. This is something of a projection pick, given Ward’s combination of size (33 7/8-inch arms) and athleticism (5.11 in the 40). With 20 reps on the bench, he’ll need to get stronger. That showed in our production charts. Ward finished 24th with 22 run disruptions, tied for 15th with 7.5 stuffs and 23rd with 13 pressures. “Our (position) coach loved him after the Iowa and Ohio State games,” a scout said. Ward had 11 tackles vs. Iowa and eight vs. Ohio State. Six of his pressures came vs. Nebraska and Penn State, so Ward delivered in bigger games. Thomas noted that Ward played four positions on the Illini defensive front. He’s a former high school receiver. “I just got big,” Ward explained of his transformation. “I was playing wide receiver and defensive back. As I went to JUCO I blew up through the technology. I kept getting bigger and bigger and they figured out a position for me. They just said, ‘Here, you a defensive end.’” Ward will have earned his shot at the NFL. At Globe Tech junior college in New York, he woke up at 5 a.m. and didn’t get home until 11 p.m. His commute included a couple of lengthy walks and a ferry ride to and from his dorm on State Island. All told, his trek might take him four-plus hours a day. “He has great size and fits the profile of a 3-4 defensive end because of his ability to play in a five-technique on base downs and as an inside tackle in sub situations,” Savage said.
SHELDON DAY, Notre Dame (6-0 5/8, 293)
Position rank: 13
Notes: Day emerged as a big-time playmaker as a senior — his third year in the starting lineup — with his 45 tackles highlighted by four sacks and 15 tackles for losses. He added two forced fumbles and five passes defensed to earn All-America accolades. Day lived in the backfield. He tied for first with 17.5 stuffs, ranked fifth with 35 run disruptions and was second with 38 pressures. Two of his best games came against two of the best opponents, Clemson and Stanford, with five run disruptions in each of those games. It was a remarkable season after a combined 3.5 sacks and 16.5 TFLs in his first three seasons. The two-time captain graduated in October. He ran in 5.07. He’s undersized and needs to get stronger (21 reps). Has 32 5/8-inch arms.
ADOLPHUS WASHINGTON, Ohio State (6-3 3/8, 301)
Position rank: 14
Notes: As a senior, Washington delivered 51 tackles, with four sacks, seven tackles for losses, one forced fumble and a 20-yard pick-six. He was second-team all-conference but earned some first-team All-America accolades. Washington ranked only 19th with 26 run disruptions and tied for 22nd with five run disruptions. Where he’ll have an immediate impact is on passing downs, as he tied for seventh with 25 pressures. His career ended in disappointing fashion, however, after he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute and suspended for the Fiesta Bowl. “That was the first thing that ran through my mind – that maybe my career was over,” Washington said, adding, “(People) can think whatever they want to think. But up until that point, I’d never been in trouble, never failed any drug tests, never did anything. But if people want to think of me as a different person, that’s just what they’re going to think.” He resumed his career at the Senior Bowl. “I thought Adolphus had a really impressive week in our game,” Savage said. “He ran like 5.17 or something like that at the Combine. I’m not sure if that really matters a whole lot. He’s a former basketball player. I like Adolphus. I thought that he might have a chance to slip into the first round but now he’s more of a second-rounder choice. I think he’s got a chance to be a good player.” Washington indeed ran in 5.17 and put up 21 reps on the bench. He brings length to the table with 34 1/2-inch arms.
JAVON HARGRAVE, South Carolina State (6-1 3/8, 309)
Position rank: 15
Notes: Hargrave is the MEAC’s two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time first-team FCS All-American. As a senior, he tallied 13.5 sacks, 22 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles. As a junior, he led the MEAC with 16 sacks and 24 tackles for losses and was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the best defender in the FCS ranks. In a game against 13th-ranked Bethune-Cookman in 2014, Hargrave broke the FCS record with six sacks. (STATS does not keep stats for FCS players so he does not fit on our comparison charts.) Hargrave’s production isn’t solely a byproduct of playing a bunch of bad teams. How’s this for athleticism: He ran in 4.90 with a 34.5-inch vertical leap and put up the bar 29 times on the bench. He’s got 32-inch arms.
DEAN LOWRY, Northwestern (6-5 3/4, 296)
Position rank: 16
Notes: Lowry, a three-year starter, was second-team all-Big Ten as a senior with 51 tackles, 13.5 tackles for losses and three sacks. Somehow, he hasn’t gotten much buzz. In a star-studded group of defensive linemen, Lowry led the way with 17.5 stuffs. He tied for ninth with 31 run disruptions and tied for 10th with 23 quarterback pressures. Of his 13.5 TFLs, a whopping six came against Nebraska. That was the most by a Big Ten player in 10 years. He had a strong Combine, as well, with a sizzling 4.87 in the 40 (tied with Nkemdiche for fastest among the big guys) and 30 reps on the bench. So what’s the problem? He’s got incredibly short arms (31 inches) and small hands (9 3/8 inches), leading scouts to believe his big-time college production won’t hold up in the NFL. “How’s he going to beat a guy like (Josh) Sitton?” asked a scout. “If we ran your defense, I might try him outside (as an elephant).” He’s grown up — no, he’s grown bigger — since being a 225-pound, two-star recruit. “Dean has worked himself to be 286 pounds and hasn’t lost any speed,” defensive line coach Marty Long said. “That makes him very unique. He had to play as a true freshman without any strength, just length. He was a string bean of a kid who went out and survived because he moved a lot and made plans, and now he is seeing the benefit of a great couple of offseasons.”
MATT IOANNIDIS, Temple (6-3 1/2, 299)
Position rank: 17
Notes: Ioannidis was a two-year starter and two-year team captain for the Owls. As a senior, he was first-team all-conference and earned some All-America recognition. He tallied 41 tackles, with 3.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for losses and two fumble recoveries. Ioannidis ranked 24th with 19 run disruptions but tied for 10th with 9.5 stuffs and tied for 16th with 18 pressures. He ran in 5.04 with an impressive 32 reps on the bench. Arm length (32 3/8) is a bit of an issue. As a junior, he was awarded No. 9 — the single-digit jerseys are given to the toughest players on the team. He also was one of the smartest. It took him three-and-a-half years to get his degree in communications. “Don’t be surprised if he goes in the third,” a scout said. “I like everything about him other than he can’t rush (the passer).
HASSAN RIDGEWAY, Texas (6-3 3/8, 303)
Position rank: 18
Notes: Ridgeway started the final eight games of his junior (and final) season and was named an honorable mention on the all-Big 12 team with his 39 tackles including 3.5 sacks and 6.5 for losses. He added two fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He was better as a sophomore, when he started 10 games and had 43 tackles and six sacks. He tied for 16th with 28 run disruptions, tied for 22nd with five stuffs and tied for 16th with 18 pressures. Ridgeway ran in 5.02 with 24 reps on the bench. He’s got 33-inch arms but smallish hands (9 3/8). He said he received a second-round grade from the NFL’s advisory committee.
WILLIE HENRY, Michigan (6-2 3/4, 303)
Position rank: 19
Notes: Henry was an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten team in 2015 with career-high totals of 35 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 10 tackles for losses and two passes defensed. He shows up in our production charts, tying for sixth with 33 run disrutpions and tying for seventh with 25 pressures. He needs to finish more, though, as he tied for 22nd with five stuffs. Like with Ridgeway, scouts want to see Henry play with more of a mean streak. He ran in 5.00 with 28 reps on the bench. He’s got 33 3/8-inch arms and big hands (10 7/8).
MALIEK COLLINS, Nebraska (6-1 7/8, 311)
Position rank: 20
Notes: Collins was all-Big Ten as a sophomore and junior before exiting for the NFL. He tallied 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2015. How hard is he to block? He drew six penalties — tied with Billings for most in the defensive line class. Collins tied for 20th with 25 run disruptions and 22nd with five stuffs. Collins listed the Packers’ Mike Daniels among his favorite players, and showed that same pass-rushing potential by by tying for seventh with 25 pressures. Like Daniels, Collins is a former wrestler. As a senior at Kansas City (Mo.) Center HIgh School, he won the state heavyweight championship with a perfect 48-0 record. The back of his jersey read “Collins Sr.” He has a 2-year-old son. "My main goal is to set my son up for the rest of his life. I want to make sure he has all the things that I didn't have growing up. Whether I get that done through education or through playing in the NFL, I feel like I'll be setting him up.” He ran in 5.03 with 25 reps on the bench. He’s got 33 1/8-inch arms and small hands (9 1/2).
D.J. READER, Clemson (6-2 5/8, 327)
Position rank: 21
Notes: Reader stepped away from the team for the first six games of the season to deal with what he called a “mental issue.” In June 2014, his father died from kidney failure. That explains his minimal production (15 tackles, one-half sack) and poor showing on our charts (tied for 25th with 16 run disruptions, tied for 22nd with five stuffs, last with four pressures). He is a run-stopping nose tackle with no pass-rush ability. He ran in 5.33 and put up 30 reps on the bench. He’s got 33-inch arms.
QUINTON JEFFERSON, Maryland (6-3 7/8, 291)
Position rank: 22
Notes: After missing most of the 2014 season with a knee injury, Jefferson tallied 39 tackles and 6.5 sacks as a junior. He tied for 16th with 28 run disruptions, was 18th with seven stuffs and 12th with 21 pressures. He performed well at the Combine with a 4.95 in the 40. With 33 3/8-inch arms, he had 24 reps on the bench. His 8 7/8-inch hands were the smallest of the D-linemen. Jefferson has three children, a 4-year-old and twins with his wife, Nadia. “Now when I'm making a decision, it's not just affecting myself. I have to think about how it's going to affect my children and my wife,” he said.
ADAM GOTSIS, Georgia Tech (6-4 1/2, 287)
Position rank: 23
Notes: Gotsis suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 31. In nine games, he had 31 tackles, with three sacks, five tackles for losses and two fumble recoveries. Due in part to the injury, Gotsis ranked just 25th with 16 run disruptions, 21st with 5.5 stuffs and 21st with 16 pressures. His biggest season came as a sophomore, with 5.5 sacks and 14.5 TFLs in 2013. Gotsis was born in Melbourne, Australia. He played Australian Rules Football for eight years. His introduction to American football came when he was 13 when he watched the 2005 Rose Bowl between USC and Texas. He played for Team Australia. That opened the door at Georgia Tech, with Tech coach Paul Johnson working at coaching clinics Down Under. On signing day in 2012, Johnson said: "I will match him up against almost anybody. He's 6-foot-5, 300 pounds and can run." He didn’t test at the Combine and he’s hopeful that he’ll be fully recovered for training camp. “I think I have a lot of upside. That’s a big thing for me. I’ve only played four years of really high level football. I came in as a true freshman and ended up playing 12 games. That was a big thing and showed how quickly that I developed into a player. I think just my upside is huge. Hopefully a team can see that in me. They can see that the production that I put (out there) for a guy who is still really learning a lot of ins and outs of this game.” A big man with a big personality, he enjoyed a hearty laugh when I asked him if Outback Steakhouse is his favorite restaurant. He’s got 34 1/8-inch arms and 10 3/4-inch hands.
DARIUS LATHAM, Indiana (6-4 1/4, 311)
Position rank: 25
Notes: By size and production, Latham ranks much higher on this list — and does by most media pundits. First, the good: He recorded 34 tackles with four sacks as a junior in 2015, tying for 21st with 23 run disruptions, ranking 12th with nine stuffs and tying for 10th with 23 pressures. However, he missed three games due to a pair of suspensions — the second for the Ohio State game — and was penalized seven times. “He’s a hell of a player,” a scout said. “He kicked the kid’s ass from Duke (center Matt Skura) in the bowl game and he’s pretty good. But how do you get suspended — twice! — when you’re trying to show you’re worthy of a paycheck?” Still, he was one of Thomas’ draft sleepers, noting Latham “has become a productive pass rusher and a dominant playmaker vs. the ground game.” He ran in 5.32 and put up only 19 reps on the bench. He’s got 34 3/4-inch arms.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.