In the sixth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Packers’ personnel entering the 2011 offseason, we analyze Green Bay’s defensive-line situation.
Overview: Despite DE Cullen Jenkins being hindered by a hand injury early in the season and sitting out the final month of the regular season with a calf injury, DE Ryan Pickett missing two games games with an ankle injury and backups Mike Neal and Justin Harrell suffering season-ending injuries, the Packers managed to more than hold their own up front.
Second-year NT B.J. Raji was a pillar of strength in the middle, and free-agent pickup Howard Green and young backups C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn did a great job of stepping up their games when injuries to others took their toll. Jenkins and Raji provided plenty of pressure, combining for 15 sacks, counting the playoffs. Although the run defense was ranked a below-average 18th, it got very stingy down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Here's a breakdown of each of the defensive linemen on the roster:
NT B.J. Raji: After being hampered by a high ankle sprain as a rookie, Raji, who played end his first year, just kept getting better and better at nose tackle, where he constantly took on double-teams and finished third on the team with 6½ regular-season sacks. Raji showed amazing stamina and was far from being a one-trick pony, displaying his rare athleticism and mobility for his size with a pivotal 18-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Bears in the NFC title game.
DE Ryan Pickett: Like Raji, Pickett also switched positions, moving from nose tackle to left end. He justified the hefty contract he signed last March despite some health problems around the season’s midpoint, doing a solid job holding his ground and always being around the ball. In addition, Pickett is considered a very unselfish team leader.
DE Cullen Jenkins: A fixture on the line since 2004, Jenkins is one of the league’s better inside pass rushers when healthy. Problem is, he has missed 17 games over the last three seasons due to injury, including five this past season. A free agent, Jenkins recently indicated to the local media that he was “99 percent sure” he would not be back with the team in 2011. But both GM Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy painted an entirely different picture at the Combine in Indianapolis. Despite playing solely in the nickel and missing five games, Jenkins registered seven sacks and led the defensive line in pressures per snap. His ability to play inside in a 4-3 and end in a 3-4 could make him very attractive on the open market.
Mike Neal: After starting to come on strong after overcoming an abdominal strain that forced him to miss the first three games, the muscle-bound Neal was lost for the season a week after an excellent performance against the Redskins, when he tore his rotator cuff in practice. The team feels he has the potential to replace Jenkins and make the same kind of progress as Raji did in his second season. But there are genuine concerns about his ability to stay healthy.
C.J. Wilson: The team’s seventh-round draft pick in 2010 showed steady improvement, displaying a nose for the ball while never seeming overwhelmed. Wilson looks like he could develop into a solid inside rusher in nickel packages.
Howard Green: Replacing Jenkins at right end in the base defense after being obtained off the waiver wire in late October, the 360-pound Green proved to be a valuable pickup. His harassment of Ben Roethlisberger, leading to a Nick Collins interception return for a TD, was one of the bigger plays in the Packers’ victory in the Super Bowl.
Jarius Wynn: Released before the season after having been beaten out by Wilson, Wynn was re-signed after Harrell went down for the count early. Wynn is a hard worker with decent athleticism, but his smallish stature — he was the team’s lightest D-lineman at 287 pounds — could make it hard for him to make the team next season.
Justin Harrell: In four years, the injury-prone Harrell has played in only 14 games. After suffering a torn ACL in the season opener at Philadelphia, he’s a long shot to remain with the team.
Johnny Jolly: Jolly is an intriguing X-factor after having been suspended for the season in July for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy. A consistent force at the point of attack with excellent ball skills, he figures to have a reduced role should he return to the team.
Bottom line: The odds really do seem to be against Jenkins returning, but Neal looks like he has what it takes to be an adequate replacement. Raji is a stud in the middle, and it would not be a surprise at all if the Packers use their first pick in the draft on another pass-rushing D-lineman.