State of the Packers: NTs

With Ryan Pickett manning the middle of the 3-4 defense, the Packers ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run for the first time. Pickett was extremely productive in his limited role, leading the defensive linemen in tackles per snap by a wide margin.

Our State of the Packers series continues with the nose tackles.

Roster

Starters: Ryan Pickett. Veteran backups: B.J. Raji, Anthony Toribio. Rookies: Aleric Mullins (undrafted).

The big picture

The Packers led the NFL in run defense for the first time in the 90-year history of the franchise, and a ton of credit has to go to Pickett, who assimilated himself into the new 3-4 scheme with no troubles at all. He is arguably just as good as the more-hyped Casey Hampton of Pittsburgh and Vince Wilfork of New England against the run.

A good-natured team leader, Pickett selflessly absorbed double-team block after double-team block, holding strong throughout the season as the Packers' soared to the top of the rankings against the run after a slow start. He has said he was made to play nose tackle.

Pickett, who will turn 31 on Oct. 8, was named the Packers' franchise player and then rewarded with a four-year, $24.925 million contract ($10 million in guarantees) in March. He started nine of the 13 games in which he played, with the four nonstarts coming when the Packers opened in their nickel package. He missed three late-season games with a hamstring injury. Pickett offers nothing as a pass rusher, with no sacks and four quarterback hits last season and 2.5 sacks in his four seasons in Green Bay. But his 47 tackles in 368 snaps blow away Johnny Jolly's 75 in 859, Cullen Jenkins' 50 in 844 and Raji's 36 in 380 (unofficial snap counts) among the key faces in the defensive line rotation.

Raji, the ninth overall pick of the 2009 draft, had a disappointing rookie season. A holdout and ankle sprain in the preseason, and an ankle sprain at midseason, conspired to take away a lot of his explosiveness and stoutness at the point of attack. Playing all of the defensive line positions, Raji wasn't as sturdy against double teams as Pickett and offered surprisingly little as a pass rusher with one sack and three quarterback hits. The Packers will need more, obviously, from such a talented player. If Raji delivers, there's no reason why the Packers won't be even tougher to run against.

Toribio and Mullins are long shots to make the roster and presumably will battle for a spot on the practice squad. That's where Toribio has spent most of his time since joining the Packers as a rookie in November 2008. Last year, he played a handful of snaps in his NFL debut in the regular-season finale at Arizona. He's seen as a young player (25) with some upside. Mullins, the 14th-ranked defensive lineman in the country by SuperPrep coming out of high school, started five games for North Carolina as a freshman in 2007 but was only a rotation player in his final two years. He could have played in 2010, but he had earned his degree and decided to turn pro. An admitted underachiever, Mullins earned a spot on the offseason roster with an impressive showing as a tryout player at the rookie camp.


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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. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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