Defensive line has big competition

After 972 pounds of Raji, Pickett and Jenkins, several talented players will be vying for the final three roster spots on the defensive line. D-line coach Mike Trgovac helps break down what he predicts will be a good competition.

Big.

That three-letter word sums up the size of the Packers' projected starting defensive line as well as the decisions that await the front office and coaches at the end of training camp.

"I can tell by these two days that we had practice, we will have very good competition at these positions in training camp," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said on Thursday after the second day of organized team activities.

When the starting defensive line trotted onto the field on Thursday, the trio consisted of 330-pound Ryan Pickett at nose tackle, flanked by 337-pound B.J. Raji at left defensive end and 320-pound Justin Harrell at right end.

That's big. That's a total of 987 pounds, and that figure won't decrease by much when 305-pound Cullen Jenkins is healthy enough to move ahead of Harrell.

Dynamite might come in small packages, but the Packers are hoping improved run defense comes in one mammoth package. Green Bay ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed per attempt. Those figures go a long way toward explaining why the Packers finished 22nd in points allowed despite a ballhawking secondary that boasted three of the league's interception leaders.

The size of the linemen should help the Packers' undersized linebackers stay clean. If that translates into improved run defense, that will allow coordinator Dom Capers to turn loose his bag of tricks on passing downs.

With the switch to the 3-4, the Packers likely will keep only six defensive linemen instead of the typical nine. That means some interesting battles, with only Pickett, Raji and Jenkins being locks to make the final roster.

That leaves Johnny Jolly, who started all 16 games last year; Michael Montgomery, who started eight games; Harrell, a first-round pick in 2007 who says he's finally healthy; Jarius Wynn, a sixth-round pick who was selected with the 3-4 in mind; and undrafted Ronald Talley, another player hand-picked for the new scheme, as the five prime contenders for the other three spots.

Based on experience, Jolly and Montgomery would seem to be next in line to earn roster spots. Jolly (6-foot-3, 320 pounds) seems well-suited for end and would add depth at nose tackle. Montgomery (6-5, 273) lacks the ideal bulk to play end but the Packers thought enough of him to sign him to a two-year contract.

But if they're favorites to earn roster spots, they're not overwhelming favorites. Trgovac is impressed by the maligned Harrell's intelligence and eagerness to learn the scheme, calling him "naturally bright," and he likes Wynn's ability to slip blocks and Talley's strength against the run. Wynn (6-3, 277) and Talley (6-3, 282) both flashed those skills during Thursday's practice.

"I look at it like a fresh start," Harrell said of the new defense.

But the competition doesn't end there. Holdover Alfred Malone (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) has perfect size to play end and showed some ability last year in training camp; and holdover Anthony Toribio (6-1, 304), undrafted rookie Dean Muhtadi (6-3, 295) and Brian Soi (6-3, 334) will be given opportunities.

"Right now, and it's kind of the standard that Mike (McCarthy) set around here, I think the guys sense the competition in this room," Trogvac said. "There's going to be some football players that are going to be battling for jobs this year."

Barring an injury, the starting trio will be Raji, Pickett and Jenkins.

"We're going to put our three best guys on the field," Trgovac said.

While Trgovac hinted that Pickett will not be getting snaps at defensive end, as McCarthy indicated after the draft, it will be important for a few of the linemen to multitask because there will be only six of them on the roster. That's why Raji figures to start at end but will be the primary backup at nose tackle, and it will be important for Jolly and Harrell to show they can take snaps in the middle, too.

"The 3-4 end and the nose tackle is pretty much the same position besides gap responsibility," Raji said. "There's not much difference for me. Maybe a little bit here and there depending on passing situations, but most of the time on run situations, it's the same technique. You're kind of reading, you're not penetrating."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, 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.


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