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Expectations higher in 2008 for defensive tackles Pickett, Jolly, says Packer Report's Tyler Dunne

One can only imagine what Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly are doing right now.

Running the three-cone shuttle drill? Cranking out 40s? Power cleaning? Or, inhaling No. 4s at Jimmy John's on Oneida Street?

Maybe it doesn't matter.

Last season the two defensive tackles showed up to training camp not in the best of shape – stomachs stretching the nylon of their practice jerseys to new limits, each individual thread clasping to the next for its life. The duo failed the team's opening running test (much to Mike McCarthy's dismay) and were relegated to conditioning drills instead of regular practice.

After a few days, Pickett and Jolly returned to the mainstream practice and quickly became two of the biggest highlights of training camp. Jolly, a 2006 sixth round pick, was suddenly starting ahead of a first round pick and another player fresh off a seven-sack season. He started 10 games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Carolina.

Next to Jolly, Pickett continued to be one of the best tackles $14 million can buy. His statistical production declined (25 less tackles than in '06), but Pickett swallowed blocks on a play-to-play basis, allowing Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk to combine for 235 tackles.

Solid, if unspectacular, the duo were quiet contributors to the Packers' resurgent 14-4, "one game away" season. Passengers, really. But not now. The defense starts with Pickett and Jolly. They need to bust out. Career years. Sixty tackles apiece, forced fumbles and constant penetration.

Why the spiked expectations? Forces have collided.

From least to most serious:

The Loss
It was pegged as a foregone conclusion months in advance, so give General Manager Ted Thompson props for parlaying free agent Corey Williams into a second round pick. Always two steps ahead, Thompson used a nifty tag-and-trade maneuver to reel in a top ten talent at the 56th overall pick in quarterback Brian Brohm. Thompson probably didn't want to get Cletidused (overpaying for a DT off of a sack-heavy season). So off Williams went for $38 million over six years.

Good move, but there will are distinctive repercussions. Such an interior pass rush is rare. For two seasons, Williams relished the cameo – the cherry on top of a strong defense – a sack or a pressure when you'd least expect it. You know, Will Ferrell screaming for meatloaf in Wedding Crashers. A sudden impact.

Williams leads all defensive tackles in sacks over the past two seasons. A luxury, yes. Every team loves to have a pass rusher somewhere other than defensive end, whether it's a blitzing linebacker or a cat-quick tackle. But the modern defensive tackle doesn't need to smash quarterbacks as Williams did to J.P. Losman three times in a game two years ago. The standard at the position (12-year veteran Pat Williams) eclipsed three sacks only once ... in a season.

Case in point: Though he is great at rushing quarterbacks and good at stopping the run, Corey Williams will not be severely missed. Something reeks of "bust" here, too. Browns' General Manager Phil Savage may have contracted a bad case of the Cletidus. Just in the last three years, defensive tackles Rocky Bernard (three years, $13 million), Cornelius Griffin (six years, $25.5 million) and most recently Cory Redding (seven years, $49 million) each cashed in after six-plus sack seasons and crashed into mediocrity the next season.

Thompson avoided this trend and squeezed a potential franchise quarterback out of it in the process. That's smart management.

The Question Mark
Here's where panic really begins to set in, and Thompson doesn't look so ingenious. The GM's master plan last year had Justin Harrell leapfrogging into a starting role this year.

Then Travis Leffew happened. You know, No. 61 on the Packers' training camp roster last year? Six-foot-4 offensive guard? The pride of Danville, Kentucky? Anyone ... anyone ... Bueller?

Well, the then-third string, street free agent-bound guard made Harrell his personal practice dummy last year. To the 16th overall pick's defense, he had just finished recovering from a torn biceps tendon suffered at Tennessee. But after getting pounded in camp and the preseason, missing the first four games as a healthy scratch, another five games with an ankle injury and never really flashing the explosiveness he showed in college, Harrell better feel the heat.

No doubt, he'll will be given a mulligan for his subpar rookie season. Injuries and a loaded defensive line worked against the Andre the Giant-built Harrell. Thompson knew he was a project when reaching for him so high in the draft. After all, three of Thompson's four first draft picks have been picked as long-term "projects."

But barring a sudden resurgence, Jolly should unquestionably be the starting DT over Harrell. He attacks gaps with more punch, has a mean streak and above all, plays with low leverage. Far too often last season, Harrell was lifted into a vulnerable, vertical stance and bench-pressed into the second level. Right now Harrell is hovering in Jamal Reynolds or Vonnie Holliday limbo (leaning left considerably). Harrell will be given every chance to prove he isn't a fluke, but his deficiencies seem fundamental. That is, too engrained to fix at this point. His success with the Vols may have been a product of pure athletic ability.

Jolly's success comes from his quickness to beat blockers to gaps, active arms and overall natural burst in tight spaces. He flashed that potential many times in games last season.

Green Bay needs him to flourish into an every-down starter primarily because Harrell isn't one (at least yet).

The Competition
The NFC North is going old school – back to a time of Brockington, Sims, Payton and Foreman.

It's going in that direction for three teams anyways.

-- Chicago drafted offensive tackle Chris Williams and running back Matt Forte 1-2 in the draft two weeks ago, while losing its top two receivers (Bernard Berrian and Mushin Muhammad).

-- Detroit officially axed the Mike Martz era, replacing the stubborn, pass-til-we-puke offensive coordinator with former offensive line coach Jim Colletto. Former Pro Bowl fullback Sam Gash is the new running backs coach. The Lions drafted OT Gosder Cherilus with the 17th overall pick, let Kevin Jones and T.J. Duckett walk and added running back Kevin Smith in the third round to pair with starter Tatum Bell.

-- Minnesota had the worst starting quarterback and best running back in the NFL last season, a Pro Bowl fullback, two Pro Bowl linemen and Bryant McKinnie. Yeah, they'll run.

And one common denominator: No viable quarterbacks. Rex Grossman, Tarvaris Jackson and Jon Kitna combined for 31 touchdowns, 39 interceptions last season, each finishing with a QB rating below 77 percent. Running the ball 60 percent of the time is an inevitability with such futile passing games. All three teams' front offices are conceding to this fact, and building their teams around running the football.

What does it mean for the Packers? Pickett and Jolly can't show up overweight this time. In each of its six divisional games, Green Bay will face smashmouth, three yards and a cloud of dust offenses that will try to keep the Packers' prolific passing game off the field. For Green Bay to remain atop of the NFC North, the two defensive tackles must anchor three-and-outs. Plug holes. Allow Barnett and Hawk to roam free. Make their Norris Division opponents pass. Get into backfields.

Jolly will probably be withheld from OTAs and maybe even minicamp to allow his shoulder ample recovery time. Smart thinking. The Packers will need him healthy for at least 16 games this season. Harrell's upside is in question, Colin Cole is an average rotation tackle and Daniel Muir is nothing more than an extra body for now. Jolly, however, has shown breakout potential.

Last season ended with Green Bay's front four getting plowed backward like a blocking sled. Count one touchdown called back and the New York Giants' Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 176 yards and three touchdowns in the NFC Championship.

Pickett and Jolly will be at the heart of avoiding such a collapse next season.


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