Packer Report continues its position-by-position training camp preview with a look at the defensive line. The list after "depth" includes all of the players on the current roster. The list after "final cut" is our prediction on who will make the final roster, with the number of players based on past seasons.
Review: The Packers went from strength to weakness by trading Corey Williams before the 2008 draft, losing Cullen Jenkins to a torn pectoral in Week 4 and giving up on Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Williams didn't do much of anything with the Browns, at least partially exonerating general manager Ted Thompson for refusing to give him the big contract handed to him by Cleveland (six years, $38 million, $16.3 million guaranteed). But without Williams and Jenkins, with 2007 first-round pick Justin Harrell unavailable for much of the season and with KGB unable to recover from offseason knee surgery, the Packers' defense suffered. In 2007, the Packers yielded 3.9 yards per carry and six touchdown runs. In 2008, they surrendered 4.6 yards per carry and a stunning 20 rushing touchdowns. Consistency was the biggest issue, with the line playing the run well for 15 or 20 snaps before allowing a big run. The Packers tied for the sixth-most 20-yard runs (15) and tied for the fourth-most 40-yard runs (four). They also fell from 36 sacks — including 9.5 from KGB and seven from Williams — to 27 (with only 0.5 from KGB). With nobody from the defensive line able to apply the slightest bit of pressure, the Packers blitzed more often — and failed miserably, which only exacerbated the problems.
Strength: With the change to the 3-4 defense and fewer bodies required to play the scheme, this group has the potential to go from weakness to strength. Jenkins ( 6-foot-2, 305 pounds), Ryan Pickett (6-2, 340) and rookie first-round pick B.J. Raji (6-2, 337) could form a superior and gigantic unit — assuming Jenkins stays healthy, Raji meets lofty expectations and Pickett is able to withstand the beating a nose tackle in the 3-4 has to take. In reserve would be two more big guys in Johnny Jolly (6-3, 325) and Justin Harrell (6-4, 320), with Raji moving to the nose when Pickett needs a breather. Considering the primary job of the defensive line will be to eat up blockers, those five players have the bulk to make life miserable for opposing linemen. Pickett seems to be a perfect match as a nose tackle, considering he got double-teamed on most running plays in the past and held up well. In passing situations, the Packers will use only two linemen, with the outside linebackers joining them for a four-man line. Jenkins has excelled as an inside rusher, and Raji had eight sacks as a senior at Boston College.
Weakness: The weakness is all of the ifs and unknowns. Can Jenkins stay healthy and recapture the magic that helped him bag 2.5 sacks and a stunning 19 quarterback pressures in four games last year? Is Raji the real deal? Can the Packers ever count on anything out of Harrell? How will all of the returning players adapt to their new roles? What looks like considerable depth now can be lost in a hurry if Harrell's back begins to bug him or Pickett gets too beat up. This group must be stout up front because neither of the inside linebackers, Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk, are big guys.
Quoteworthy: "He's an exceptional athlete for a guy his size — quickness, hands," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Raji. "I've been impressed by how fast he picks things up. There's obviously a lot to learn, but he normally doesn't repeat errors twice. He's a bright guy, which to me is encouraging."
Final cut (6): Pickett, Jenkins, Raji, Harrell, Jolly, Wynn.
The first five spots are pretty well cut and dried — assuming Harrell makes it through camp. The sixth spot figures to come down to veteran Montgomery, sixth-round pick Wynn, talented undrafted rookie Talley and holdover Alfred Malone. Malone (6-4, 312) has textbook size for the position but he hasn't done much of anything since entering the NFL in 2005. Montgomery (6-5, 282), who was productive last year in replacing Jenkins, has ideal height and the frame to add another 15 or 20 pounds over the next year or two. But can he hold up against the run this year with that frame? Wynn and Talley are both about 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, so they're not quite the ideal size, but both showed a knack for getting off blocks during offseason practices. It probably comes down to Montgomery and Wynn, with the potential weighing in Wynn's favor.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.