Admittedly it’s arguable that this belongs higher on the list than number 5. 67% of last year’s starters on the defensive line are no longer on the team. Two open starting spots in one position group could possibly push this higher on the list. The reason that I don’t view it as highly is largely because of how often the Packers play their nickel defense (well over 50%) of the time. In almost every variation of the Packers nickel defense there are only 2 defensive linemen on the field. The main reason that this remains so low on the list is that the best defensive linemen in the nickel package, Mike Daniels, is still on the team and the player that projects to join him, Datone Jones is poised to break out after an injury plagued rookie season.
Who starts in the base defense and is introduced on national television is another matter. I think it’s a foregone conclusion that BJ Raji will be the team’s starting nose tackle. This is a good thing as Raji’s most productive season (2010) was from the nose tackle position. The two players that would have been flanking him, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly are gone and unless Raji himself gets hurt I don’t anticipate either player returning. For the purposes of this column I’m going to name Datone Jones the starter at the strong side defensive end position, he of a 6’4″ 295 pound frame. I believe that the weak side end position in the base defense is up for grabs.
Mike Daniels– Daniels is by far the Packers most effective interior pass rusher. His technique and motor are unquestionable but standing at just 6’0″ he does not have the length that is almost required to play the 5 technique. All of this might just not matter because despite his size, Daniels graded out as the Packers most effective run defender in 2013 by a wide margin. We already know that Daniels can play, and if he can be effective against the run there’s no reason that he can’t be a part of the base defense.
Jerel Worthy- I expect big things from Worthy this season. The 51st selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, Worthy was a very highly touted player coming out of Michigan State. As I’ve discussed previously it takes a season before defensive linemen are really ready to make an impact, unfortunately Worthy was robbed of that second season when he suffed a major knee injury in week 17 of his rookie year. This is a make or break year for Worthy and I still very much believe in his talent. At 6’2″ 304 pounds he looks the part.
Khyri Thornton- Thornton is the dark horse in this competition. At 6’3″ 310 Thornton has the best body for the 5 technique position. As I’ve stated it’s not usually a great idea to rely on a rookie defensive lineman, at least not to make an impact but Thornton might be different. There’s a theory that Thornton wasn’t as effective as he could have been because of the lack of talent around him at Southern Miss. He was double teamed on nearly every defensive play. The reason that I think Thornton could be different is his age. He’s 24 years old and more physically developed that most rookie defensive linemen. I don’t think he wins a starting job but if he starts figuring out some of the nuances of NFL line play he could become part of the rotation.
Prediction: As I’ve stated, I think this might be much ado about nothing. I honestly believe that in the nickel defense we’ll see a heavy rotation of Daniels, Raji, Jones and Worthy. For as little as the Packers run base it will be a time to get Raji, Boyd and Thornton (the team’s premier run defenders) on the field. I also believe you will see a little bit of Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and even Nick Perry with their hand in the ground. In the actual base defense (which I don’t believe gets played much) the 3 starters will be Raji, Jones, and Daniels.