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Green Bay Packers defensive line could depend on DE Mike Neal

Jul. 26, 2011
 
Green Bay Packers position analysis: Defensive Lin...
Green Bay Packers position analysis: Defensive Lin...: Mike Vandermause and Pete Dougherty discuss the Green Bay Packers defensive line. How does Mike Neal fit into the picture?
Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Neal (96) during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field in Ashwaubenon on Friday, Aug. 6, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette

Position analysis series

Pete Dougherty breaks down the Packers by position heading into training camp:

Running backs
Receivers/tight ends
Quarterbacks
Offensive linemen
Today: Defensive linemen
Linebackers
Defensive backs
Special teams

The roster

Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
Howard Green DE/NT 6-2 340 7
Lawrence Guy DE 6-4 304 R
Justin Harrell DE 6-4 315 5
Cullen Jenkins* DE 6-2 305 8
Elisha Joseph DE/NT 6-2 290 R
Mike Neal DE 6-3 294 2
Ryan Pickett DE/NT 6-2 340 11
Jay Ross DE/NT 6-3 302 1
C.J. Wilson DE 6-3 290 2
Jarius Wynn DE 6-3 285 3
Curtis Young DE/LB 6-1 270 1
*Unrestricted free agent

More

Cullen Jenkins had seven sacks in 11 regular-season games last season and along with B.J. Raji provided the Packers an inside pass rush as good as any in the NFL.

He’s also 30 years old and missed 15 games the last three seasons combined because of pectoral (2008) and calf (2010) injuries.

General Manager Ted Thompson’s decision not to extend Jenkins’ contract last season virtually ensures the eighth-year pro will leave the Packers in free agency this week. Letting him go is the hard decision NFL teams have to make, and Jenkins will be coveted on the open market. But in Thompson’s estimation, the high cost in guaranteed money wasn’t worth the risk for a player who’s passed the 30-year-old mark and has an injury history.

If it’s a fact of life that NFL teams sometimes have to lose good players, the Packers’ ability to replace this important piece to their Super Bowl run depends on a player with an equally concerning injury history but with youth on his side: Mike Neal.

Neal, a second-round pick in 2010, showed noteworthy ability (five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble) in the two games he played last season. But he also had two significant injuries: an abdominal strain that sidelined him for the first three regular-season games, and a tear in his left shoulder in Week 5 that required surgery and ended his season.

That’s on top of a college career in which he had three postseason surgeries: to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in 2007, the same injury he sustained last year; on a turf toe injury in ’06 that cost him five games; and for a knee injury his redshirt freshman season in ’05.

No one has questioned Neal’s toughness — in college he postponed shoulder surgery until playing through the final three games. But the injuries kept him off the field enough early in his career that Purdue coach Joe Tiller called him a “tease” in the spring of ’08, before Neal got through his junior and senior seasons in good health.

The Packers showed how much they liked Neal when they selected him in the second round of last year’s draft, and based on his limited play in ’10, if he’s healthy through the season, the Packers might not miss Jenkins much. But if injuries keep Neal off the field, the Packers’ pass rush will suffer.

Neal may or may not be a starter — defensive coordinator Dom Capers took a liking to the jumbo group of Raji, Ryan Pickett and Howard Green, all 335 pounds or more, as a run-stopping wall on early downs. But Neal can provide an inside pass rush alongside Raji that nobody else on the roster can. The Packers ranked No. 5 in passing defense last season, and their pass rush (ranked No. 3 in sacks percentage) was a big part of that.

Another key figure in the Packers’ rush last year was Raji, the third-year pro who is one of the rising young defensive linemen in the league. The No. 9 pick overall in the 2009 draft developed into one of the NFL’s best nose tackles and inside rushers as last season wore on — counting Jenkins (seven sacks) as an inside rusher, the Packers had two of the top six sackers at defensive tackle in the league. Raji’s 6˝ sacks ranked sixth at the position, and in an indication of his improving play as the season went on, four of those came in the final five weeks of the regular season.

As long as Raji stayed in good shape this offseason, he at age 25 should be hitting his prime at his position, though the Packers might want to cut back on his snaps at least a little from last season to help the longevity of a man his size.

Pickett, in the meantime, remains a mainstay on the defensive line at age 31. Though he’s not a pass rusher or highly publicized around the league, he’s stout at the point of attack and has the ability to slide up and down the line to make plays in the run game.

Green’s conditioning and weight will be something to look for when players report this weekend after the NFL lockout forced them to work out on their own all offseason. He has a history of weight issues, most recently when the Jets cut the 32-year-old last October because he didn’t make weight after their bye week.

That turned into a coup for the Packers, who claimed Green off waivers and used him as a run stopper. Capers regularly played his jumbo line on running downs, and by the playoffs the Packers’ run defense was better than its rankings (No. 18 in rushing yards allowed per game and No. 28 in yards allowed per carry) suggested. That three-man line figures to be a regular part of Capers’ defensive run-down package again this season.

Defensive end Johnny Jolly, on the other hand, appears to be as good as gone after his most recent arrest, in March, for possession of codeine. He had been suspended indefinitely in 2010 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and was not reinstated by Commissioner Roger Goodell before the NFL lockout. Jolly’s plea agreement included the charges being dropped for his March arrest, but the commissioner still might not reinstate him this season. And even if he is reinstated, it’s hard to see Thompson, based on the GM’s history, keeping the 28-year-old Jolly after his most recent arrest.

Defensive end Justin Harrell is another player unlikely to return after his fourth consecutive injury-shortened season. He’s missed 50 of a possible 64 games since the Packers selected him at No. 16 overall in 2007. His string of injuries include a sprained ankle, a chronic back injury and reconstruction surgery on his knee last year after getting hurt while blocking for a field goal.

Cutting Harrell will clear his $1.225 million combined base salary and roster bonus off the books, though the Packers will have to eat a salary-cap acceleration of $530,000 from his second-year option bonus of $5.3 million. Harrell’s original draft status might pique the interest of another team at the NFL minimum salary, but whether he has a strong desire to play is unclear.

With those two likely gone, the Packers will look for C.J. Wilson to be a big part of their defensive line rotation again. The seventh-round pick last year improved as much as any player on the roster last season.

With Harrell’s season ending in the first half of the first game, Jolly suspended for the year, and Jenkins and Neal missing substantial time, the Packers had to force feed Wilson regular playing time in ’10. He played the run well but wasn’t much of a factor as a pass rusher, though in college his greatest asset was rushing the passer. He could be a player to watch in camp to see if he advances his skills as an inside rusher after playing mostly on the outside in college.

The Packers also return defensive end Jarius Wynn, a sixth-round pick in 2009 who last season was cut during training camp and re-signed after Harrell’s injury. Wynn worked into the playing rotation because of the injuries and was active for three of the four playoff games.

Thompson also drafted a project at defensive end in Lawrence Guy out of Arizona State in the seventh round. Guy (6-5 1/4, 300) was highly recruited coming out of high school but something of an underachiever in college and a surprise entry in the draft after his true junior season.

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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