Assessing the North: Defensive linemen
Starters – DLE Israel Idonije, DT Henry Melton, NT Matt Toeaina, DRE Julius Peppers. Backups – NT Anthony Adams, DT Amobi Okoye, Stephen Paea, Corey Wootton.
This group was supposed to be a team strength and a possible area of dominance. It was good but did not live up to expectations. Idonije was very good against the run all season but had just five sacks. Melton had seven sacks, but his play was inconsistent at times. Toeaina is solid against the run but no factor as a pass rusher. Peppers led the team with 11 sacks and was also the group's best all-around player but was not selected to a seventh Pro Bowl, somewhat of a disappointment for the team's highest-paid defender. Adams lost playing time to Okoye and the rookie Paea, who filled in at both tackle spots and flashed some quickness and ability to disrupt to go along with his strength and stoutness. Okoye can play the three-technique and sometimes moves outside to end. Wootton failed to show much improvement in his second season as he dealt with injuries.
Starters – DE Cliff Avril, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Corey Williams, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups – DEs Willie Young, Lawrence Jackson, DTs Sammie Hill, Nick Fairley, Andre Fluellen.
The Lions have put a premium on signing Avril, an unrestricted free agent who is coming off the best season of his career. Although Young was one of the most improved players on the team this season, there is still a big gap between him and Avril.
Suh said the words "sophomore slump" were not in his vocabulary, but that's exactly what he had. His sacks went from 10 to 4, his tackles from 66 to 34 and his reputation went from exciting young talent to dirty player. He still demanded a double-team every game and had an impact on the games, but he will be looking for a redemptive season in 2012.
Fairley, though he battled the foot injury all season, had his moments. He was explosive off the ball, even with the injury. He should be a force next season.
Williams and Hill were both steady and dependable. Hill would start for a lot of teams.
Vanden Bosch, coming off neck surgery and 34 years old, had eight sacks and four forced fumbles. Jackson, despite missing five games with a thigh injury, had 4.5 sacks. So the Lions produced 12.5 sacks off the right end.
Fluellen, who filled in at both tackle and end, is a free agent.
Green Bay Packers
Starters - DLE Ryan Pickett, NT B.J. Raji, DRE Howard Green. Backups - DE C.J. Wilson, DE Jarius Wynn, DE Mike Neal. Injured reserve: DE Lawrence Guy.
The Packers never overcame the loss of versatile and effective pass-rushing end Cullen Jenkins, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency after the lockout ended last summer. Neal, the heir apparent at right end, was at the heart of the problem. The 2010 second-round draft pick suffered a knee injury in training camp and didn't make his season debut until Nov. 20. Thereafter, he was next to invisible on the field with nary a sack and only five tackles in the last seven regular-season games. Green Bay's season-long struggles to generate a pass rush included a dropoff by Raji, who had only three sacks after having 6½ in 2010. Raji still received a first-time nod for the Pro Bowl, although his contributions in other areas (just 43 tackles after 66 in 2010) went down despite being a more rested player this season. Pickett, an 11th-year pro, was productive against the run when he was healthy – he missed two games late in the season because of a concussion but led the linemen with 54 tackles. Green provided little more than being a big body on early downs. Young ends Wilson and Wynn played a lot in a rotation but mustered just three sacks between them.
Starters – DLE Brian Robison, NT Remi Ayodele, UT Kevin Williams, DRE Jared Allen. Backups – DL Christian Ballard, NT Fred Evans, UT Letroy Guion, DE Everson Griffen, DE D'Aundre Reed.
With a team-record 22 sacks, Allen came within half a sack of the NFL record set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen turns 30 before next season, but he's got a few more All-Pro caliber seasons left in him. On the other side, Robison had a career-high eight sacks in his first season as a starter. He has proven he can be an every-down end in the NFL.
Williams looked old at times at the under tackle position. He'll be 32 next season and his All-Pro days are behind him. But he still has at least one more year left in him. He ended up with five sacks and some impressive games despite battling foot and knee problems all season. Nose tackle was a major weakness as Ayodele never panned out after leaving New Orleans for Minnesota via free agency.
Ballard, a rookie, is big and strong enough to possibly defense tackle. He also can play the left end position. Evans doesn't stand out. Guion has promise as Williams' eventual replacement, but might leave via free agency. Griffen can play either end position and under tackle or as a linebacker in passing situations. He's one of the most athletic and physical defenders on the team and needs to be given a consistent role somewhere. Reed, a rookie seventh-round draft pick, was inactive for all 16 games. He showed natural pass-rushing skills in the preseason.
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