State of the Packers: Harrell's Last Chance

With the addition of two draft picks, the Packers are extraordinarily deep at defensive end. Throw in an improved Jarius Wynn, and this figures to be a make-or-break training camp for the oft-injured Justin Harrell.

Our State of the Packers series continues with the defensive ends, a position group that will have some spirited competition when training camp begins.

Roster

Starters: Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly. Veteran backups: Justin Harrell, B.J. Raji, Ronald Talley, Jarius Wynn. Rookies: Mike Neal (second round), C.J. Wilson (seventh round).

The big picture

This has to be a do-or-die training camp for Harrell, who has missed 35 of a possible 48 regular-season games since being the Packers' infamous first-round pick in 2007.

Jenkins, Jolly, Raji and starting nose tackle Ryan Pickett are assured roster spots, and the same is almost certainly true for Neal, the second-round pick from Purdue. That's five roster spots, with the Packers keeping six defensive linemen on the 53-man roster last season.

That means it would be Harrell competing against Wynn, Wilson and Talley as well as nose tackles Anthony Toribio and Aleric Mullins for presumably one spot — though they could tinker with the roster breakdown to keep seven.

When Packer Report asked general manager Ted Thompson whether there's room on the roster for Harrell, he replied: "Sure, you bet. You can never have too many of those good big guys. From our reports, he's doing great."

The decision will be made based on health and productivity, not necessarily money. Harrell, who looked really good during his one healthy week of training camp last summer, is due the league-minimum $550,000 in 2010. But there's a roster bonus worth $408,375 and a workout bonus of $110,000, which bump his total payday to about $1.07 million. That's not that much money for a big, talented defensive lineman.

That's assuming, of course, his back problems are behind him. That is a gigantic "if," though it's important to note that Harrell did not need more surgery during the offseason.

Working in Harrell's favor, he has the big draft credentials and Thompson's obvious desire to make that pick work out. But he'll be facing some strong competition at the Packers' strongest position group.

Wynn, a sixth-round pick last year, shouldn't be discounted even after a mostly invisible rookie season. The Packers drafted him knowing that he'd need a year in the weight room to bulk up. It'll be interesting to see his development when training camp begins.

Wilson was the Packers' seventh-round pick this year. On paper, he's a major steal, with his 27 career sacks — including 10.5 as a junior, when he was Conference USA's player of the year.

Talley spent a year on the practice squad. The Packers like him but he might be the odd man out based on sheer numbers.

As for the starters, Jenkins' and Jolly's transition from tackles in the old scheme to ends in the new scheme is arguably the overriding reason why the Packers won five more games last year.

Jenkins was good but not great. In 2008, he was on pace to have a monster season (10 sacks, 72 tackles) until suffering a season-ending injury. In 2009, he was second on the team with 4.5 sacks and third with 25 quarterback hits while posting a career-high 50 tackles. Jenkins' best game came against Pittsburgh, but his inability to get Ben Roethlisberger to the ground on the final drive cost the Packers the game. Against the run, he bought into the scheme and played with more discipline. His three forced fumbles were a career high and he also had an interception.

Jolly clearly had his best season as a pro. Like Jenkins, Jolly bought into the scheme and played with unbridled passion and superb discipline and gap control. His 75 tackles were just off his career-high 82 from 2008. While he offers almost nothing as a pass rusher with one sack and nine quarterback hits, he batted down a team-record 11 passes. He had an interception, forced fumble and two recoveries. By now, his legal troubles are well-known, which is a big reason why the Packers targeted Neal and Wilson.

With the additions of Neal and Wilson, presumably a better Wynn and perhaps a healthy Harrell, this group figures to be far superior — and deeper — than last year's group, which counted on Jolly, Jenkins, Pickett and Raji to take the lion's share of the snaps.


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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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