North breakdown: Defensive line

Our NFC North insiders go in depth to examine the defensive lines of the Packers and their rivals.

Green Bay Packers

Starters: LDE B.J. Raji, NT Ryan Pickett, RDE Cullen Jenkins. Backups: E Johnny Jolly, E Justin Harrell, E Michael Montgomery, E Jarius Wynn, E Alfred Malone, E Ronald Talley, NT Anthony Toribio, NT Dean Muhtadi.

Big things are expected out of the gate from the mammoth Raji (6-2, 337). The Packers drafted the former Boston College standout ninth overall this year as a nose tackle, but the combination of size, athleticism and playmaking ability convinced new defensive coordinator Dom Capers to get Raji on the field at the same time as incumbent nose tackle Pickett. Raji will spell Pickett at times on the inside and probably will work in tandem with Jenkins when the Packers go out of their 3-4 front with just two down linemen in nickel situations. Pickett continues to hold up after eight years in the league and is being counted on to anchor a refurbished line whose main responsibility is to hold up the blockers. The return of Jenkins to the lineup will be worth monitoring after he suffered a season-ending torn pectoral in Week 4 last year. He also had ankle surgery after the season and was held out the entire offseason. The wild card on the line will be Harrell, the team's 2007 first-round draft pick whose pro career thus far has been derailed by an assortment of injuries. Harrell was an offseason participant for the first time and swears the back and hip problems he incurred last year are history. He can be effective as an end in the new scheme and will have to be if the Packers lose Jolly, a starter at tackle in the old 4-3 system, for any length of time. Jolly was to be on trial in Houston before the start of camp to face a 2008 felony drug possession charge. That trial appears to be on hold until mid-2010, though.

Chicago Bears

Starters: LE Adewale Ogunleye, LT Tommie Harris, NT Dusty Dvoracek, RE Alex Brown. Backups: E Israel Idonije, T Marcus Harrison, T Anthony Adams, E Mark Anderson, T Jarron Gilbert, E Henry Melton.

The defense needs someone in this group to step up and become a pass rusher that the opposing offense must account for on every dropback. New D-line coach and assistant head coach Rod Marinelli should help this unit improve with his 24/7 enthusiasm and attention to detail. Ogunleye has had four seasons of nine or more sacks, the last as recently as 2007, but he'll turn 32 during training camp. Harris has 18 sacks over the past three seasons despite a nagging, chronic knee problem. If he can stay healthy for a full 16 games, he's a double-digit sack threat. Dvoracek has played well in spurts on the nose, but he has a lengthy injury history and faces stiff competition from Adams and Harrison, who can play both tackle spots. Brown is a solid player vs. the run and the pass. He led the team last year with six sacks but has never had more than seven in any of his seven seasons. Idonije is a late bloomer who continues to show progress and would benefit from playing either end or tackle exclusively. He has been utilized at both positions but is expected to focus on end this season. Anderson had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006 but just six in the two seasons since and only one last year. He's entering a make-or-break season. The rookies, third-rounder Gilbert and fourth-rounder Melton have potential, but they could get buried on a deep depth chart unless a veteran or two is cut.

Detroit Lions

Starters: LDE Dewayne White, DT Grady Jackson, DT Chuck Darby, RDE Cliff Avril. Backups: DE Ikaika Alama-Francis, DE Jared DeVries, DE Rudolph Hardie, DE Eric Hicks, DE Jason Hunter, DE Ryan Kees, DT Landon Cohen, DT Andre Fluellen, DT John Gill, DT Orien Harris, DT Sammie Hill.

Avril has the most upside in the group. He has the speed and versatility to be an impact player, and the Lions plan to move him around to take advantage of his skills. White and DeVries are solid veterans. Jackson can still plug the middle, but he missed the offseason with a knee injury. Several others were brought in by the previous regime to fit the Tampa Two: Alama-Francis, Cohen, Darby, Fluellen, Harris. Hill has the size the Lions want in the middle at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds, but he's raw, coming out of Stillman College.

Minnesota Vikings

Starters: LDE Ray Edwards, NT Pat Williams, DT Kevin Williams, RDE Jared Allen. Backups: DE Martail Burnett, DT Fred Evans, DT Letroy Guion, DE Otis Grigsby, DT Antoine Holmes, DT Tremaine Johnson, DT Jimmy Kennedy, DE Jayme Mitchell, DE Brian Robison, DE Kenechi Udeze.

The biggest concern here is whether the Williamses will have to eventually serve four-game suspensions for taking the banned diuretic that was contained in StarCaps. Their case against the NFL continues to work its way through the court system, meaning that for the time being they remain eligible. That gives the Vikings Pro Bowl players at three of the four positions on the line. Allen cost the Vikings both in terms of compensation that was sent to Kansas City to obtain his rights and the subsequent six-year, $74.5 million contract he got from Minnesota after being obtained. But he quickly proved to be worth the investment, finishing with 14.5 sacks in his first season with the Vikings despite playing injured much of the time. The Vikings had lacked this type of edge rusher for many seasons and adding him to a unit that already was outstanding against the run makes their defense potentially one of the best in the NFL. The fact the Vikings are so good against the run is due in large part of the presence of the Williams Wall in the middle. Pat Williams is a gigantic force and the ultra-athletic Kevin Williams is one of the league's best 3-technique tackles. Edwards is the only unproven member of this foursome and it wouldn't be surprising to see Robison push him for the job at left end. Robison was especially impressive in offseason workouts and clearly has his eye set on winning a starting role. Mitchell also could vie for time at left end after missing last season because of a knee injury. If the Williamses do end up being suspended, it's likely that Evans will move into the nose tackle role and Guion will start at the 3-technique. Guion, a fifth-round pick out of Florida State in 2008, spent most of last season watching and will have to show he learned from that experience. Kennedy, a seven-year veteran, also could end up contributing in the middle. Udeze should be one of the NFL's feel-good stories this season. He missed last season while battling leukemia but is making an excellent recovery and was able to take part in the offseason practices.


Packer Report Top Stories