If defense wins championships and games are won in the trenches, then the Packers' defensive line is a large concern.
While the Packers have plenty of options along the defensive line — highlighted by first-round pick B.J. Raji — there aren't many clear-cut answers.
That in a nutshell is the good news and the bad news for Justin Harrell.
The Packers' first-round pick in 2007, Harrell should be entering the prime of his career. He should be one of those answers. But in his two seasons, he's had as many back surgeries as starts (two). He's sat out 19 of 32 games, and has had neither a sack, quarterback pressure, forced fumble or fumble recovery in that time.
That is obviously the bad news.
The good news is the Packers are starting from scratch on defense, with new coordinator Dom Capers implementing the 3-4. Harrell, at 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, will line up at defensive end, where the Packers don't have an obvious starter to put opposite Cullen Jenkins.
"This will be an interesting offseason and training camp for Justin," Capers said shortly after the Packers used the ninth overall pick on Raji. "We're going to take them from what we see in Day 1 and everybody is forming their own identity in our mind in terms of moving forward."
Harrell's injury history has been well-documented.
While Harrell's detractors have accused him of being soft, he was nothing of the sort at Tennessee. He played in all 24 games with 22 starts as a sophomore and junior (and was Cotton Bowl defensive MVP off the bench against Texas A&M as a junior). During his senior season, Harrell tore the biceps tendon in his left arm in an early-season game against Air Force. After the injury, Harrell lobbied team trainers to play in one more game, against rival Florida. Battling through intense pain against the eventual national champions, Harrell recorded three tackles.
The ensuing surgery kept him off the field during minicamps and organized team activities, and he wasn't nearly good enough to get on the field to start his rookie season. He played in two games in October before an ankle injury sustained at practice sidelined him for five more games.
Coach Mike McCarthy frequently talks about the growth made during the offseason program. Instead, Harrell showed up out of shape last year and ruptured a disc in his back while lifting weights. The injury required not one but two surgeries, including one as the final roster was being formulated in late August. He started the season on the physically unable to perform list and missed the first seven games. He made little impact in his six games before sitting out the final three with a hip injury related to the back problem.
McCarthy said Harrell is looking "better and better" at offseason workouts this spring, and Capers said he's "pleased" with Harrell's progress. Just getting on the field regularly would be an accomplishment, and anything resembling production would be an added bonus.
Harrell's future on the roster will be a focal point when training camp starts. The Packers figure to keep six defensive linemen in their revamped defense. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Jenkins are the only sure things. Johnny Jolly and Michael Montgomery would be next in line, followed by Harrell, rookie sixth-round pick Jarius Wynn and intriguing undrafted rookie Ronald Talley.
Harrell already has pocketed the bulk of the money on his six-year, $14.5 million contract. He has a base salary of $460,000 with a roster bonus of $186,625 for the upcoming season. His only hefty salary would come in 2012, when he's scheduled to make $1.54 million. So, there's little financial reason to release Harrell this fall — assuming he's healthy and can provide some depth.
And, who knows, maybe this new scheme will mean a new start. At least that's the hope of Capers, who was defensive coordinator with the Dolphins during Harrell's senior season.
"I can't speak for the last couple years here with Justin," Capers said. "I know the injury factor has been a factor. I can tell you this: I went into his workout at Tennessee and I came away from there (and) felt he had a chance to be a 3-4 defensive end. He looked kind of like the build and the classic what you look for in a 3-4 defensive end."
Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine 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 Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.