Packers Growing Thin at Middle of Defensive Line

If you believe Packers’ president Mark Murphy, BJ Raji’s sudden retirement came as a surprise not just to fans but to the team, as well. Murphy stated that the team even had a deal with Raji near completion. While no one can fault Raji for his decision to walk away from the game (especially as it appears related to the health of his mother), his departure has certainly left the middle of the defensive line thin (no pun intended).

Raji has anchored the middle of the Packers’ defensive front for the past seven years. As a top ten pick, some might say that he’s never quite lived up to his billing, but he’s been a solid starter in Dom Capers’ defense. His shoes will be hard to fill, and the Packers have less than a full offseason to fill them.

The Packers have six defensive tackles currently listed on their roster: Letroy Guion, Mike Pennel, Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd, Christian Ringo, and William Campbell.

Guion is certainly coming in to the 2016 season as the expected starter. He’s the only guy on the roster who has seen significant playing time behind Raji at nose tackle, and the Packers shored up Guion’s services with a 3 year, $11.25 million contract this offseason. However, Guion missed time last season thanks to a suspension. His new contract reflects this, with only $500,000 guaranteed. In other words, this is a show-me contract, an incentive to Guion to keep his nose clean.

Can the Packers rely on Guion? They wouldn’t have offered him the contract if they didn’t think that they could, but it’s certainly structured to give the team some insurance.

Apart from Guion’s off-the-field issues, the question remains as to whether he can make a positive impact as a full-time starter. Guion has been a good back-up, but is he ready to be the Packers’ number one nose tackle? He finished with a modest 21 tackles and 0 sacks in 2015, down from 3.5 sacks in 2014. Clearly his suspension did not help his numbers. He could improve with an expanded role, but this is far from certain.

Between Guion and Raji, Guion actually graded out as the better nose tackle by Pro Football Focus, but he did play about 25% less snaps than Raji. Raji was also considerably better as a pass rusher, with Guion edging him out as a run stuffer. The question is whether Guion’s numbers will remain as reliable when he’s seeing significantly more playing time, and whether he can do anything but eat up a block on passing downs.

The only other natural nose tackle on the roster is Mike Pennel. He has played both end and nose in the Green Bay defense since being brought in as an undrafted rookie in 2014. Unfortunately, Pennel is facing a four game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Pennel showed steady improvement over the last two years but was not quite a roster lock even before the prospect of missing 1/4 of the season. Even if he makes the final cut, the Packers will need to look elsewhere for depth behind Guion for the beginning of the season, and likely beyond, as Pennel gets back into the swing of things.

Of course, neither Mike Daniels nor Christian Ringo will be played at NT. Daniels is listed as a tackle but is far and away the team’s best defensive pass rusher, capable of playing anywhere from a 2 to a 5 technique. Ringo is an unknown commodity, but at barely 300 lbs, he’s not going to be seeing time at the 0 technique any time soon.

Josh Boyd is a bigger body that is perhaps capable of playing nose tackle, but he’s mostly been used as a 5 technique on running downs. He was put on IR last year with a broken ankle and ligament damage. He should be ready to go for training camp but how he returns from the injury remains to be seen.

William Campbell is a recent addition to the roster. At 330 lbs, he has the size, but he has very little professional football experience. Campbell was drafted by the Jets as a 6th round pick in 2013, but he was actually drafted to play offensive guard, not nose tackle, the position he played at Michigan. After being cut by the Jets, he was picked up by the Bills and played on their practice squad. However, he was cut in September of 2015 and spent the remainder of the season out of the NFL.

In Buffalo, as in New York, he was listed as an offensive guard. The Packers have him listed as a defensive tackle. The Packers seem to be attempting to undo the transition to see what sort of career Campbell could have at nose tackle, if any. In short, he hasn’t seen any regular season action in the NFL and the little football he has seen in the past few years has been on the offensive line.

Upon final analysis, in terms of guys actually big enough to replace BJ Raji, the Packers are essentially looking at a solid back-up thrust into a greater role, an intriguing young player with a 4 game suspension, and a college nose tackle turned offensive guard (turned back into a nose tackle) who sat out most of last season. It’s not exactly the ideal setup.

Nose tackle isn’t the number one position of need for the team, but it’s definitely quickly moving closer to the top. It may now be the biggest position of need on the defense outside of inside linebacker.

There are a number of free agents left that the Packers could bring in to push Guion for the starting position, or at least to add depth, but the chance of Thompson bringing in anyone more than a street free agent is unlikely. The place where they are likely to make a move at the position, however, is in the draft.

It is becoming increasingly probable that the Packers will spend an early pick on shoring up the inside of the defensive line. A few weeks ago, I highlighted some of the defensive tackle prospects that could intrigue Green Bay toward that end. If the Packers have a need at the interior of their defensive line, this is a good year for it, as the draft is fairly deep at the position.

I had originally assumed that the Packers were likely to wait until a later round to take a true nose tackle, but the recent developments regarding Raji and Pennel may have changed the narrative.

With an already soft middle at the second level, it’s imperative that the Packers restock the big boys up front. If they don’t, the loss of Raji could leave a major hole on the defense. All of the pass rushing prowess of Mike Daniels, Julius Peppers, and the return of Clay Matthews to the outside will be for naught if the team doesn’t have the depth to keep opposing offenses from exposing a weak middle.

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Taylor O\'Neill is a Packer fan born and raised in Oshkosh, WI. He currently lives in Florida and is pursuing his PhD. Taylor is a writer with PackersTalk.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TaylorONeill87 for more Packer news.

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  • shavager

    Here’s hoping BJ Raji has change of heart and returns in time to participate in camp. Outside Raji coming back, Guion doesn’t have much to work with for depth help at NT, he’ll be wore out by mid-season. Expect some street FA’s and a mid-round pick to help the position, Thompson’s not likely to target a FA even IF the player and contract’s good for team. THAT has been the nagging factor that continues to keep Packers WATCHING Super Bowls instead of playing in them.

  • Ken Allen

    I think Vince would be proud of a man who was mature and smart enough to make a very measured decision after long deliberation, and including his family and mentors. It shows guts and a man who walked away because he didn’t want to take a chance of screwing the team (because his head wasn’t in the game) if something starts going bad at home. It’s not just his mother, it’s also his aunt and the family is obviously very close. We will miss his presence, but overall, it’s probably best for the team.