State of DL Without Jolly

Packer Report examines the impact of the NFL's season-long suspension of veteran defensive end Johnny Jolly, who was coming off his best season in the NFL. How will the Packers survive, what players will have to fill the void, and who is the big winner?

If there was one position group in which the Green Bay Packers could absorb the loss of a three-year starter, it's defensive end.

So, while Johnny Jolly was a vital cog on the league's top-ranked pass defense and had an uncanny knack for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage, the Packers shouldn't be devastated after losing Jolly for the entire 2010 season for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy.

Last season, the Packers kept six defensive linemen, with Jolly and Cullen Jenkins starting at ends, Ryan Pickett starting at nose tackle, and first-round pick B.J. Raji, sixth-round pick Jarius Wynn and veteran Michael Montgomery in reserve.

Knowing full well that Jolly could be suspended, the Packers planned accordingly. They drafted Mike Neal in the second round and C.J. Wilson in the seventh round. They shifted Pickett to defensive end, where he'll be paired with Jenkins, and installed Raji into the starting lineup at nose tackle. Before the first snap of organized team activities, Jolly had been demoted.

Had Jolly been suspended for only four or six games, as most people expected, the Packers might have been inclined to stick with seven defensive linemen because of the depth of the position. Without Jolly for all 16 games, the question of six defensive linemen or seven isn't as cut and dried.

Obviously, Jenkins, Pickett, Raji and Neal are locks to make the roster. Even with Jolly put on the suspended list, there are six more defensive linemen on the roster: holdovers Wynn, Justin Harrell (injured reserve), Ronald Talley (practice squad) and Anthony Toribio (practice squad), and rookies Wilson and Aleric Mullins (undrafted).

Barring a camp upset, the top contenders for the final two or three roster spots are Wynn, Wilson and Harrell.

Harrell might turn out to be the big winner in Jolly's suspension.

Even under the seven-lineman scenario, if Jolly had been on the roster, Harrell might have ranked eighth on the list. Even if Harrell's troublesome back could make it through the daily grind of training camp, could the Packers risk a roster spot — and risk losing, for example, Wilson — only to have Harrell's back flare up in Week 2 or Week 6?

Now, the Packers can keep Jenkins, Raji, Pickett, Neal, Wynn, Wilson and Harrell — under the seemingly laughable assumption that Harrell's back can survive the six weeks spanning the start of training camp to the start of the regular season.

Not that losing Jolly isn't a blow. He had started all 32 games over the last two seasons and had the most passes defensed by a defensive lineman in franchise history last year. You can never have enough proven football players, and Jolly was coming off his best season in the NFL. And because he would have been playing under a restricted free agent tender, he would have had ample incentive to play well again with unrestricted free agency looming in 2011 (assuming the old free agency rules apply under a new collective bargaining agreement).

Instead, the Packers will head into this season with a talented but unproven group of backups.

Neal has all the physical tools, but is he ready for the rigors of the NFL? As it stands, he's going to assume Jolly's role as the primary backup at both defensive end spots in the base defense and part of the rotation in the nickel and dime groupings. And now, if something happens to one of the starters, Neal figures to be elevated into the lineup.

Wynn was mostly invisible last season but is noticeably stronger and more confident. But until he proves he can do more than take up space, he's just a name.

Wilson was a tremendous pass rusher at East Carolina, a role the Packers are counting on him to reprise this year if he makes the roster. Rushing the passer wasn't Jolly's forte.

Harrell is, well, Harrell. Having played in only 13 of a possible 48 regular-season games in his career, it seems ludicrous to be counting on Harrell. But if something happens to one of the starters, Harrell's size would come in handy against teams that like to pound the ball.

"These guys have worked extremely hard," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said during the minicamp, when it appeared Jolly would still be a factor. "Mark Lovat's done a great job with them. We're going to cut a good football player. We're not going to be able to keep them all. The competition at this position is going to be extraordinary. I want to make sure I told them that. You need to come in here ready to go. The days of coming into training camp to get into shape are gone. You've got to come in here ready to go, ready to roll, and they've done a great job. The OTAs have been outstanding. We've put in a ton of defenses. There's going to be some good football players that won't be on our team.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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