The Green Bay Packers' defensive line went from strength in 2007 to weakness in 2008 to full-blown question mark heading into 2009.
Can Ryan Pickett hold up as the nose tackle in Dom Capers' new 3-4 defense? Will the Packers re-sign free agent Colin Cole to add depth at the nose? Can Cullen Jenkins (chest) and Justin Harrell (back) be healthy enough to play end? Can Johnny Jolly avoid jail and join them at that position?
If there's one position group that's sure to get plenty of attention from general manager Ted Thompson this offseason, it's the defensive line.
The importance of that group can't be overstated. The Vikings have had the league's top-ranked run defense for the last three seasons, and the addition of Jared Allen made that group even better. When the Bears went to the Super Bowl, it's because Tommie Harris and Co. were dominant forces.
Here is a rundown of the NFC North's defensive lines, with lineups based on how the 2008 season ended.
Packers: Starters — DLE Aaron Kampman, NT Ryan Pickett, DT Johnny Jolly, DRE Michael Montgomery. Backups — DT Colin Cole, DE Jeremy Thompson, DE Jason Hunter, DT Justin Harrell, DT Alfred Malone, DT Anthony Toribio. Injured reserve — DE/DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Kenny Pettway.
What was hailed as the strongest unit on the defense two seasons ago regressed to being its weakest link.
The offseason trade of Corey Williams to the Cleveland Browns and the season-ending loss of similarly versatile but more productive Jenkins to a torn pectoral muscle in Week 4 rendered the line ineffective in pressuring the passer and providing resistance against the run. Jenkins expects to be return to the field before training camp. His conspicuous absence left Kampman, who rarely came to the sideline, to consistently face double teams as the Packers' only formidable pass rusher. It was a credit to Kampman that he posted 9.5 sacks.
Montgomery and Thompson, a rookie who battled injuries, did some nice things but not enough as the replacements for Jenkins on the other side. Montgomery and Cole, who might have been the most effective interior lineman even in a part-time role, are due to become unrestricted free agents and probably will be re-signed.
Jolly and Pickett each had more than 80 tackles, but they weren't particularly stout in holding up blockers when playing against the run. Hanging over Jolly in the early part of the offseason will be court proceedings for felony drug possession charges he faces.
The vulnerability of the interior of the line was magnified by a second straight season of uselessness from Harrell, the team's 2007 first-round draft pick. A magnet to injury, Harrell underwent two surgeries last offseason for a herniated disk in his back and missed the first half of the season. Further complications with his back and hip kept Harrell out the last three games and raised the possibility for more surgery this offseason, though that seems unlikely at the moment.
The poster children for underachievement. Ogunleye and Brown are solid ends who can play the run and occasionally get after the quarterback, but neither of them are pass-rushing terrors capable of double-digit sacks, especially when Harris is just going through the motions as he appeared to do for much of the 2008 season. Harris is capable of being an elite player, but only if his mind and body are right, which they weren't for the first half of last season. No one knows if his knee injury will become a chronic problem or just something he learns to play through, but he's still young enough (25) to regain his Pro Bowl form.
Adams languished on the bench for unexplained reasons, until Dvoracek made his third trip to I.R. in as many seasons. But he did start 12 games at nose before suffering a torn biceps. When Adams finally got an opportunity, he played as well as any of the Bears' interior linemen.
Harrison had a solid rookie season and could contend for a starting spot. The 6-foot-6 Idonije is valuable because of his versatility but seems miscast inside where lack of leverage is a problem. Anderson's 12-sack rookie season of 2006 is a distant memory. He had five in '07 and just one last year.
Lions: Starters — LDE Jared DeVries, DT Cory Redding, DT Chuck Darby, RDE Dewayne White. Backups — DE Cliff Avril, DE Ikaika Alama-Francis, DT Shaun Cody, DT Andre Fluellen, DT Landon Cohen, DT Langston Moore, DE Corey Smith.
White is a solid end, but he is better suited to be a left end than a right end. Avril showed some promise, with five sacks. Redding didn't produce enough again. Darby didn't have much left. Young players like Cody, Alama-Francis, Fluellen and Cohen didn't develop enough to make an impact. DeVries gets everything out of his ability, but he shouldn't be a starting left end. He's should be a solid role player, like Smith.
Vikings: Starters — LE Ray Edwards, DT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RE Jared Allen. Backups — DT Fred Evans, DT Jimmy Kennedy, DT Ellis Wyms, DT Letroy Guion, DE Brian Robison, DE Otis Grigsby. Injured reserve — DT Kenderick Allen, DE Jayme Mitchell. Reserve/non-football illness — DE Kenechi Udeze.
Just as the Vikings made a big investment on receiver Bernard Berrian in an attempt to improve their receiver corps, they also spent heavily to obtain a Pro Bowl rush end in Allen. He did not disappoint. Acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs last April for a first- and two third-round draft picks and then signed to a six-year, $74.5 million contract, Allen led the Vikings with 14.5 sacks and played through knee and shoulder injuries that would have sidelined most. Allen's production and the fact other teams often had to double-team him helped Kevin Williams get 8.5 sacks. That was his highest total since he had 11.5 in 2004.
The Vikings finished with 45 sacks to rank fourth in the NFL. Getting consistent pressure on the quarterback helped Minnesota move from the bottom of the league in pass defense in 2007 to 18th this season. The Vikings also finished first against the run for the third consecutive season. This was in large part because of the continued dominance of Pro Bowl tackles Kevin and Pat Williams. The Vikings thought they might lose both for four games at one point after the NFL suspended them for violating its anti-doping policy but the pair sued to stop the suspensions and their case remains in court. Pat Williams, however, was lost late in the year because of a broken shoulder.
The only non-Pro Bowl starter on the line was left end Edwards, and he finished with five sacks to place fourth on the team. The key backups were Evans, who frequently spelled Pat Williams on passing downs, and Robison, who played both end spots and also moved inside in some passing situations. Kennedy and Wyms are veteran journeyman and it remains to be seen if they will return. Kennedy was signed as insurance late in the year when it appeared the Williamses might have to sit out. Both Kennedy and Wyms will be free agents. Guion, meanwhile, was more of project in his rookie year.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and 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 Lambeau Level forum.