2015 NFL Draft: Packers Positional Preview: DL

I’ve been pretty lucky so far with my position preview schedule.  All of the offensive positions were more or less resolved when I wrote about them.  Randall Cobb re-signed before I wrote about wide receivers.  Bulaga was back on board before the offensive line evaluation was due.  It appears, though, that that run of luck is over.

The defensive line group is still completely in flux.  The Packers have 2015 starters Mike Daniels and Datone Jones returning.  They also have rotational pieces Josh Boyd and Mike Pennel are coming back as well.  The Packers also have long-term investments in Khryi Thornton, Bruce Gaston and Luther Robinson that they hope to develop in 2015.

That’s all well and good but the big question still remains.  What do the Packers do at nose tackle?  Is BJ Raji coming back after his injury? Is Letroy Guion coming back after his arrest?  Are both players coming back to form the deep rotation at nose tackle with Pennel that they should have had a year ago?

The smart money says that with most of the big defensive tackles off the market (at very low rates) the Packers will be able to afford bringing Raji and Guion back.  The team has been reportedly working on re-signing both players.  After a marijuana-related arrest it’s possible that Guion doesn’t have any other suitors.

Class Strength: 7/10

Just to be clear for the purposes of the Packers I’m not including edge defenders in this class.  I’m only evaluating players that will play end or nose in the Packers’ scheme.  Edge defenders in Green Bay play outside linebacker.  I’m talking about the big, big boys here.  The phrase that keeps coming to mind when evaluating this class of defensive linemen is “top heavy”.  I like a lot of the players, but I don’t really care for a lot of the depth, especially as it pertains to players that would fit the Packers’ scheme.

The guy that would fit the Packers the best and potentially transform the way they play defense is USC’s Leonard Williams.  He’s someone you can play anywhere on the line and will cause problems for the opposing offense a la JJ Watt.  He’s not a realistic target for the Packers, though.  Green Bay would have to move up into the top 3 to get him and I don’t foresee that happening for any reason.

Jordan Phillips and Danny Shelton are potential long term fits at nose tackle.  Arik Armstead is a 6’8″ 300 pound freak athlete that with some development could be the Packers version of Calais Campbell.  There are other big bodied stars that could be versatile weapons for the Packers.  I really like Carl Davis of Iowa (6’5″ 320), Malcom Brown of Texas (6’2″ 320), and Eddie Goldman of Florida State (6’4″ 335) for their ability to play anywhere on the Green Bay defensive line.

After that, though I really get concerned about who could come in and help Green Bay on the line.  I don’t think Michael Bennett from Ohio State is a good fit.  I think he needs to stay in a 4-3 system. The only later round players that I really like are Xavier Williams of Northern Iowa, Gabe Wright of Auburn and Ellis McCarthy of UCLA.  McCarthy, who plays at 6’5″ and 340 pounds really seems to be a lightning rod for evaluators.  I’ve seen him graded anywhere from a shoo-in second round pick to a day 3 flier.

Packers Positional Situation: C+ 

Green bay doesn’t need an immediate starter at defensive end, that is almost certain.  I’m also guessing that BJ Raji will be the starter at nose tackle when the Packers open up the season.  Daniels is a beast, nearly unblockable due to his short stature, immense power and undeniable motor.  Despite the press that both Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers receive I really believe that Daniels is the Packers’ best defensive player.  Datone Jones showed flashes of why he was a first round pick last season and I really expect him to take a huge leap in 2015.  His arrow is pointing up and high picks on the defensive line often take a season or two to adjust to the NFL game.

Behind the starters, though, there are concerns.  Josh Boyd is fine as a rotational player but there is little to no hope that he will ever provide interior pass rush.  Mike Pennel needs to be a better run defender if he is going to stick with the team as a 15-20 snap a game run stopper.  Coach McCarthy seems to think that Khyri Thornton has turned a corner in his development but as a 2nd year player that turns 26 during next season, the clock is ticking faster on his development than it would for most.  Gaston and Robinson haven’t shown anything in game reps or camp that would lead me to believe they bring anything special to the table either.

All in all, despite Thompson repeatedly using top 60 picks on the defensive line (Justin Harrell, Raji, Jones, Jerel Worthy, Mike Neal) the Packers have nowhere near a dominant defensive front.  It’s unfortunate and one of my few criticisms of Thompson that a team that spends high picks on defensive linemen can’t find enough decent ones to run 2 and 3 man fronts.

Packers Level of Need at DL: 6.5/10

It’s certainly difficult to assess just how badly the Packers need to draft a defensive lineman.  On one if Raji returns, you have a player that was dominant during the 2014 training camp at nose, the best player on the defense at one end and a potentially emerging 3rd year star at the other.  Add into that group a top 100 pick from a year ago (Thornton) and 2, possibly 3 decent rotational players in Boyd, Guion and Pennel and it would appear you’d have enough linemen for a team that usually only has 2 on the field and at the most (besides goal line) 3.

On the other hand the Packers run defense was poor again.  According to FootballOutsiders.com the Packers had the 24th best run defense in football last season.  A lot of that will be improved by AJ Hawk and Brad Jones leaving the team, but at some point the Packers need to become more stout up front by addition, not just subtraction.  The idea of shorter squatty defensive linemen like Ryan Pickett or BJ Raji being necessary to stop the run might be antiquated, but that doesn’t mean a big bodied lineman like Carl Davis or Jordan Phillips wouldn’t help the defense succeed against the run.

Round to Start Targeting DL: Round 1

In my opinion, unless the Packers are specifically selecting Minnesota’s Maxx Williams to play tight end they don’t need to spend a 1st round pick to augment the league’s premier offense.  The way that this draft is panning out, I think some of the best value is actually in defensive linemen that will go late in the first round or very early in the second.  The Packers other main defensive needs are at outside cornerback and inside linebacker, and you could also see those addressed in round 1.

My Favorite Fit for the Packers: Carl Davis, Iowa

The big knock on big Carl Davis is his lack of pass rush.  I’m not really sure I see that as a big problem.  The packers main issue is defending the run.  They have plenty of inside pass rush.  Mike Daniels is one of the finest inside rushers in the league.  Datone Jones’ inside rush is coming (believe me).  Besides that, Mike Neal and especially Julius Peppers can rush front he interior of the defense as well.

What Davis brings is a huge frame and the ability to play end or nose tackle in the base defense.  He also provides the length to defend the run when the Packers are in their nickel defense.  If coach Trgovac can squeeze some pass rush out of him, all the better.  Davis would instantly be the longest defensive lineman on the Packers and would personify the bigger, faster, stronger direction that the defense keeps moving towards.

Ted Thompson has repeatedly found success drafting players from Iowa.  The aforementioned Mike Daniels, cornerback/safety Micah Hyde and offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga are all former Hawkeyes. Davis just might be the next in line.  Davis is the only one of the players that I have mentioned that have a  chance to fall into the second round, allowing the Packers to address cornerback or inside linebacker.

Other options: Jordan Phillips, Eddie Goldman, Xavier Williams

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Ross Uglem is a writer at PackersTalk.com. You can follow Ross on twitter at RossUglem

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