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It's an uphill battle for Green Bay Packers' injury prone defensive end Justin Harrell

Jul. 27, 2010
 
Justin Harrell, center, works during Green Bay Packers Organized Team Activities (OTA) at Ray Nitschke Field in Ashwaubenon.
Justin Harrell, center, works during Green Bay Packers Organized Team Activities (OTA) at Ray Nitschke Field in Ashwaubenon. / File/Press-Gazette
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Packers by Position

Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Pete Dougherty will be focusing on a different Packers position each day going into training camp. The schedule is as follows:
♦ Friday: Receivers/tight ends
♦ Saturday: Offensive line
♦ Sunday: Quarterbacks
♦ Monday: Running backs
Today: Defensive line
♦ Wednesday: Linebackers
♦ Thursday: Defensive backs
♦ Friday: Special teams

More

Three seasons into his NFL career, such as it is, Justin Harrell has played in a mere 13 NFL games.

The 2007 first-round draft pick was recovering from a torn biceps tendon when the Green Bay Packers selected him, and he’s been injured ever since, most notably with a chronic lower-back problem that shortened his 2008 season and sidelined him all of last year.

So even though the Packers have kept him around for another training camp, odds are against him making their 53-man roster even after the NFL this summer suspended starting defensive end Johnny Jolly for the year.

Harrell’s career with the Packers is on life support because, for one, there’s reason to doubt whether he’ll even get through training camp without his back acting up. Last year, after two surgeries and apparently full rehabilitation, it took only a week of spine-compressing full-contact practices to sideline him for the season.

Second, even if Harrell gets through camp OK, the Packers will have to consider the risk of him aggravating his back during the season. That’s hardly a long-shot, with the worst possible outcome that he’d wind up on injured reserve early in the season, only after the Packers had cut another player they liked, with the likelihood that the released player was picked up by another team.

Circumstances can change once camp begins, and Harrell still has the raw power that the Packers liked when General Manager Ted Thompson selected him at No. 16 overall in ’07. But Harrell will need an excellent, healthy camp and perhaps some good fortune on top of that to keep from ending his Packers career as one of their all-time first-round draft busts, not in the class of Tony Mandarich at the No. 2 pick overall in 1989, but comparable to former defensive end Jamal Reynolds, the failed No. 10 pick from the 2001 draft.

For what it’s worth, Harrell got through offseason practices fine, and the Packers aren’t going to discount anybody’s chances, at least publicly, on the eve of camp. But he’s fighting uphill.

“(Harrell) has done everything we’ve asked him to in this (offseason),” said Mike Trgovac, the Packers’ defensive line coach. “His day will come when we put the pads on and get rockin’. He’s very smart, knows all his assignments, picks up things easy. He’s one of those guys when you put the no pads on you don’t see wow, but when you put the pads on you feel his strength.”

With their switch to the 3-4 defense last year, the Packers kept only six defensive linemen to open the season and added a seventh, Anthony Toribio, only at the end of the year because a hamstring injury sidelined Ryan Pickett for the final two regular-season games and the wild-card round of the playoffs. Even with the physical and high-effort Jolly out for the year, that makes for a hard road to the final roster, depending on injuries.

Four defensive linemen are locks to make it: Pickett, B.J. Raji, Cullen Jenkins and second-round draft pick Mike Neal.

That leaves probably two spots for a group that includes Jarius Wynn, a sixth-round draft pick from last year selected specifically for the 3-4; rookie C.J. Wilson, a seventh-round draft pick who flashed talent as an inside pass rusher in unpadded practices this summer; Ronald Talley, who spent last season on the Packers’ practice squad; Toribio; and Harrell.

Harrell has prototypical size (6-foot-4 and 315 pounds) for a 3-4 end, but that group is deep enough to prevent him from making it by default. So even if Harrell makes it through camp healthy, he’ll have to convince the Packers he’s worth the injury risk, because barring injuries they’ll have to let go of a decent player or two to keep him.

“We’re going cut a good football player, we’re not going to be able to keep ’em all,” Trgovac said. “The competition at this position is going to be extraordinary.”

The Packers’ move to the 3-4 scheme last year proved to be a boon for their run defense, which went from No. 26 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and yards allowed per carry in 2008 to Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, last season. They made one noteworthy change this summer because of Jolly’s escalating legal problems, flip-flopping B.J. Raji from defensive end to nose tackle, and Pickett from nose tackle to defensive end.

Pickett and Raji are both more true nose tackles, but with Jolly out, they along with Cullen Jenkins are the team’s best three defensive linemen. To get all three on the field in the base defense, the Packers decided Pickett was the better fit than Raji at end because his experience and slight advantage in height — both are listed at 6-2, but Trgovac said Pickett is the taller of the two — help him match up against the taller blockers at tackle.

“We felt Pick is the more versatile of the two right now,” Trgovac said. “They’re both versatile, but we’re hoping we can leave them in one position all year. May not work out that way, but we’ll see when training camp begins.”

A more critical question is whether the interior defensive line can juice a pass rush that added no new outside rushers. Last year the Packers used their four-man, passing-down front on about 60 percent of their defensive snaps. Though they didn’t draft any outside linebackers to help improve from their No. 12 ranking in sacks percentage last season, they did select Neal in the second round in part because of his inside pass-rush potential, along with Wilson in the seventh round primarily for that reason.

Jenkins (4½ sacks last year) and Raji (one sack) were the primary inside rushers in ’09, though Jolly took some of those snaps also.

“I think Jenkins did a great job last year rushing,” Trgovac said. “We need to find another inside rusher, and it’s open to all. Wynn, B.J. and Mike Neal have done a good job. That job is going to be wide open in training camp; it’s going to open up and whoever wants that job will show us.”

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