Beyond their top four defensive linemen, the Green Bay Packers have all kinds of questions about their depth up front.
They don’t know whether Justin Harrell’s back will hold up, and even if it does, they can’t be certain he’ll ever be an effective player.
They can’t be sure rookie seventh-round draft pick C.J. Wilson is ready to play at an NFL level.
And nothing second-year pro Jarius Wynn or first-year guys Ronald Talley and Anthony Toribio have done suggest they’re worth counting on, either.
The absence of their best defensive lineman, end Cullen Jenkins (who has been out since he pulled a calf muscle on Aug. 23), has exposed the lack of depth among the group. Both end Ryan Pickett and nose tackle B.J. Raji, who have flip-flopped positions from last season, have had solid camps. Rookie second-round pick Mike Neal, who has filled in for Jenkins, looks the part and will be expected to contribute this season.
Some of the questions beyond the top four would not exist if the Packers had the luxury of having defensive end Johnny Jolly around, but his indefinite suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy wiped him out of their plans.
“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, we miss Jolly. But we’ve got plenty of depth going in. People just need to keep improving and keep getting better.”
With the regular-season opener at Philadelphia less than two weeks away, there are no clear-cut answers as to who will be their fifth, sixth and perhaps seventh defensive linemen.
“I really like the younger players,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “I think they’ve done a very good job coming in here and showing us a lot of information. You’ve got to be very happy with Mike Neal. I like what C.J. has done. Talley is coming on now that he’s healthy. Justin’s been able to stay healthy, and it looks like he’s getting stronger down the stretch of training camp. I feel very good about what those guys have shown.”
Yet no one in that group is a proven player.
The best of the bunch is Neal, the 6-foot-3, 294-pounder from Purdue. He vaulted over all the returning ends except for Jenkins and Pickett. He has even started to work in the nickel as one of the two down linemen along with Raji.
“He’s strong as heck with a lot of quickness and a lot of explosion,” Jenkins said of Neal. “He’s got to be one of the best rookies I’ve seen coming in for a while, especially on the D-line. He just looks like he’s ready to contribute right now. Obviously, he’s going to keep getting better, but he already looks like a good player.”
Harrell, the former first-round draft pick, appears to have taken steps toward securing a spot on the team simply by staying healthy. Since he missed practice on Aug. 17, when his bad back flared up, he’s been healthy enough to practice and play. His performance hasn’t been anything spectacular, but at least he’s been able to stay on the field. The one-a-day schedule of the last two weeks of camp has helped take some of the stress off his back.
Harrell has the makings of a decent run stopper but has shown nothing in the pass-rush department. Keeping Harrell, even if the Packers think he’s good enough to contribute, is a risk because his back could go out at any moment.
“I think I can help this team,” Harrell said. “It’s not for me to decide other that just knowing all the calls and just playing hard and trying to make plays. That’s what it boils down to, just going out and showing the coaches you can be accountable.”
Wynn, a sixth-round pick in 2009, has been ahead of Wilson but neither has made many plays. Talley, a practice-squad player all last season, was slow to come back from offseason knee surgery. Toribio, who was elevated from the practice squad for the final regular-season game of 2009, plays mostly nose tackle and because Raji and Pickett can both play there, there’s little need for a third nose.
Wilson appears to be the least ready to play among that group, but the Packers might feel inclined to keep him on the roster for fear another team would claim him off waivers before they could stash him on the practice squad.
“From the first day of camp, I would say no, I wasn’t ready (to play),” Wilson said. “But as far as right now, I feel like I could go in there and give them a couple of snaps. I still have a long ways to go, but I’m very happy with my progress. Whether I’m on the team or the practice squad, they haven’t told me anything.”
If the Packers don’t like any of those options, it’s a position that could be helped through the waiver wire after the final cuts are made on Saturday or perhaps via a cut-day trade.
Last season, General Manager Ted Thompson kept six defensive linemen on the opening-day roster and only added a seventh, Toribio, when Pickett had a late-season hamstring injury.
Only once in 17 games, including the playoff loss at Arizona, did the Packers have more than five defensive linemen active on game day. They had six active against Dallas on Nov. 15, when three linebackers were out with injuries.
“I feel our numbers are very good at the defensive line,” McCarthy said.