I understood what was going on in late August when the Green Bay Packers released 22 players to get down to their final 53 and there were 8 DL on the roster and 1 on the PUP. I’m not trying to be arrogant or pretend I know everything about football because I certainly do not, but this particular maneuver by Ted Thompson did have a purpose. The question was an obvious one: “Why would a team that plays 2 defensive linemen at a time (usually) keep 4.5 times that many players under team control when roster spaces are so few and far between?” The answer is just, so, Ted Thompson.
Ted loves his guys. I think more than Ted loves his guys, Ted hates having to bring in other guys that were let go by their teams. Whether or not a player was released is kind of irrelevant as it pertains to outside free agency. Unrestricted free agents for one reason or another, value, injuries, poor previous cap management, unhappiness, whatever were not deemed important enough to that team to “make it work”. Overpaying for players that weren’t in their previous team’s plans (for whatever reason) is not something that Ted has cared to do. With that said, coming into the 2013 season, Ted Thompson had a problem.
The problem was that his 3 starting defensive linemen, Ryan Pickett, BJ Raji, and CJ Wilson were all playing on expiring contracts. The man who would overtake Wilson for his starting position in training camp, Johnny Jolly, was on a one year deal as well. Thompson had to put himself in a position where if he lost all of his defensive linemen in free agency he could at least field a competent DL unit of players under team control without having to dip too severely (gasp!) into unrestricted free agency or having to draft (double gasp!) based on need.
As insane as it is to make a 53 man roster prediction in February, I have had the same one since we broke camp last August. Datone Jones, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, and Josh Boyd will make the team along with one of Jolly/Pickett/Raji and then 1st 4 round draft pick “x” or unrestricted free agent “x”. It’s starting to seem like Johnny Jolly may not be an option because of his health. I maintain that either Raji or Pickett will be retained. That leaves a 6th (and possibly 7th) defensive lineman spot available for next year’s roster.
First things first: I expect a huge jump from Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy in the upcoming season. Defensive linemen historically make big jumps early in their careers and also do not historically make big impacts as first year players. Jerel Worthy will basically be a second year player this year, but with more experience. Jerel was a 2nd round pick and is very talented. He’s had experience in the NFL game in the past two seasons and is also approaching the magic 18 month recovery time from his knee injury. Datone Jones will hopefully make the same leap from rookie to sophomore year that JJ Watt and BJ Raji did. With all of that said, the Packers are going to need this player to at least be able to be on the field during the 2014 campaign, so my inkling is that he’ll be one of the Packers 4 top 100 selections or an unrestricted free agent.
Internal options: These have kinda already been discussed. The Packers were able to retain enough young talent last season that there are 4 defensive linemen under team control coming into the 2014 season. Mike Daniels had his breakout season a year ago. He’s a short, stout brick shithouse who is exceptional at rushing the passer. The only question about him is whether or not his size is going to limit him to a situational pass rushing role or if he can defend the run and play in the base defense. Josh Boyd is a relative unknown but possesses nice size at 6’3″ 310. Jerel Worthy and Datone Jones are both top 55 picks due for big improvements in production. BJ Raji was offered a contract averaging $8 million a year but as his play continued to decline, the offer was rescinded. Raji could come back but it would be on a seriously reduced contract.
Free agents: the studs available on the defensive line this season don’t really fit into the Packers defensive system. I’m sure that Dom Capers would love to have the team acquire Greg Hardy or Michael Johnson but neither of them fit into a traditional 3-4 zone blitz system. Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Linval Joseph might work but I would imagine both players would prefer to stay in a 40 front system that allows them to rush the passer more. The player that I honestly hope the Packers pursue is former Baltimore Raven Arthur Jones. Jones is ideal size for a 3-4 DL at 6’3″ 315. He had a breakout season last year with 4 sacks from DE position and is only 27 years old. This is the kind of signing on a 4 or 5 year deal that could be a decent way to spend some of the Packers $34 million in cap space. Former Chief Tyson Jackson is an interesting high upside 27 year old option.
Draft targets: The only defensive lineman I’d be interested in as a first round pick and I’m not that interested. Louis Nix of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is basically another “swing” at BJ Raji. He’s a 6’2″ 331 pound Nose Tackle. He’d fit perfectly in the base 3-4 as a player Green Bay could build the defense around. The question, as it usually is with a man his size, is whether or not he can make any impact rushing the passer. BJ Raji could, and now he can’t. Good nose tackles are hard to find. Two prototypical players for our system that I appreciate, but want no part of in round one, are Nix’s teammate Stephon Tuitt (6’5″ 304) and Minnesota DL RaShede Hageman (6’6″ 310). I can’t get the image of Nix and Tuitt getting dominated by Alabama in the national title game two years ago and I watched a LOT of Hageman living in Minnesota the last two years. He’s too inconsistent to warrant a round one selection. The Packers honestly don’t have the 2 seasons it would take to make Hageman into a solid contributor. Both Super Bowl teams this season had a mix of defensive linemen that they had developed (Ayers, Mebane) and contributors that were value additions through UFA (Philips, Knighton, Bennett, Avril). Defensive linemen take a lot of time to develop so if the Packers want to win now, maybe it’s time to invest in a veteran and allow Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy to become difference makers. Mid to late round picks that I would be more comfortable with include LSU products Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson (neither of which probably should have left school early), Ryan Carrethers of Arkansas State (a poor man’s Nix) and Deandre Coleman (a poor man’s Hageman)