D-line counts on depth to ride out suspensions
The Green Bay Packers say they have a pretty good idea how effective their defensive line will be in 2015.
The question now is when they'll get a chance to see it at full strength.
The Packers likely will start the regular season down a pair of defensive linemen, Letroy Guion and Datone Jones, due to suspensions. They have three proven contributors in B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels and Josh Boyd, but someone will need to emerge to survive the interim.
Over the next month, the Packers hope that player surfaces from the pool of 2014 third-round draft pick Khyri Thornton, Bruce Gaston, rookie Christian Ringo, undrafted rookie Lavon Hooks and Mike Pennel, who sat out Friday's padded practice with a groin injury.
"We have some guys with some game experience of depth with Josh and Mike Pennel, who was fortunate to get some game experience last year," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "I like the way the group is working. One man's misfortune is another man's fortune. We're rolling right now."
Jones already has been suspended for the regular-season opener against the Chicago Bears because of a marijuana citation hours after January's NFC championship game. Guion may not be eligible to return until Week 4 against San Francisco.
The eighth-year veteran is facing a three-game suspension stemming from a February arrest in Starke, Fla., for felony possession of marijuana and a firearm. Guion's appeal is scheduled to be heard Aug. 24, according to ESPN.com.
The absence of Guion and Jones puts the most stress on Raji and Daniels, who made significant changes to their bodies this offseason. Daniels shot up to 312 pounds to become stouter against the run, while Raji said he's down to 327, the lightest he's been since the Packers drafted him in the first round in 2009.
Trgovac and defensive coordinator Dom Capers lectured Raji for years about the importance of staying on top of his weight. Capers often told him: "The older you get in this league, you don't want to get heavier. You want to get lighter."
He heard the same message from former teammate Ryan Pickett. So the 29-year-old Raji overhauled his offseason training to better position him for what's now asked of nose tackles in the Packers' reworked defense.
The Packers are hoping Raji now can replicate the production Guion gave them last year in his absence. Guion's 32 tackles and 31/2 sacks were second only to Daniels (41-51/2) on the line. A week into camp, Raji looks and feels revitalized with the switch.
"Trgo has always been helping me stay cautious of my weight and my size throughout the duration of my career," Raji said. "And the fact that we were transitioning from more of a flat read-and-react defense to more of a penetrating defense, he was right. He said it could help if I dropped a little weight to get off on the snap and penetrate and do some good things.
"I looked around the league and some of the guys who implemented that and tried to put my spin on it I guess."
Capers admitted in the spring that the Packers deployed more subpackages in 2014 than ever before, resulting in fewer opportunities for natural defensive linemen. Green Bay ran its 3-4 base defense on only 24.7 percent of its total snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
The snaps taken by true linemen in the Packers' defense have declined in each of the past three seasons. Their 2,168 combined snaps last season were down from 2,364 in 2013 and 2,484 in 2012, according to Football Outsiders.
That doesn't mean big bodies no longer are required, though. The Packers struggled against the run early last season when Guion was getting acclimated to Raji's role. With Raji back inside, the plan is to shift Guion to a five-technique outside with Daniels occupying the third starting spot in the base.
If Guion's suspension is upheld, chances are it will be Boyd who steps in during at least Week 1. The third-year lineman sat out all of the offseason program because of his knee, but was cleared in time for the start of camp.
Boyd (6-3, 310) doesn't provide Guion's pass rush, but possesses the versatility the Packers look for. Boyd is shaking off some rust from sitting out the summer. He's coming off a sophomore campaign in which he registered 21 tackles in 15 games with four starts.
"He brings it every day," Daniels said. "I remember him as a rookie and looking and saying, 'All right, we kind of need to get this guy's motor going,' and how he's balls to the wall every single rep, every single play. Almost like if you put on his rookie film. It's like two different guys. That's why they drafted him because they knew he had that in him.
"He's there mentally now where he's ready to be a factor."
The jury is still out on Jones and Thornton, but for different reasons. Jones has proven to be a decent rotational hand, but you expect an every-down playmaker out of a first-round pick. So far, Jones mainly has been a subpackage rusher. He'll be back in the mix after the one-game ban.
The next tier starts with Thornton battling for a roster spot after spending all of last season on injured reserve with a torn hamstring. He returned in better condition for his second camp and needs to show he can deliver on his promise.
Thornton underwhelmed out of the gate last summer and was clearly outperformed by Pennel, a 6-foot-4, 332-pound nose tackle who was taking second-team reps behind Raji before sitting out Friday.
"Khyri looks like he's into it," Trgovac said. "When you're a big-bodied guy like that, you're not going to make a lot of the splash plays that some of the other guys make. He's working hard in there. We'll see. I think sometimes when you're thumping and doing this, you don't always get to tell whether a guy can get off the block and finish the play right away."
The Packers see potential in Ringo. He's sawed off like Daniels at 6-1, 298, but was incredibly productive at Louisiana-Lafayette. Gaston signed onto the Packers' active roster in December and has looked OK in camp. He's 4-5 in one-on-one drills.
Trgovac said he's been giving Guion and Jones as many reps as the rest of the Packers' veterans so far. It'll be up to coach Mike McCarthy to decide if or when they'll start tapering their snaps to get the rest of their line ready for Week 1.
The Packers will be tested right out of the gate with Chicago running back Matt Forte, who rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay last September. If Guion's suspension isn't reduced, they'll need to tackle Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles without one of their top veterans.
Young linemen will look to emerge during Saturday's Family Night event and in Thursday's preseason opener against New England. A month from now, the Packers should have a firm grasp on whether this year's line can be as good as hoped.
"I like our energy," Daniels said. "I think our young guys are not afraid to step up and show what they're made of. I think that learning curve was very, very small for them. The first couple days, now it's like they figured it out. It's encouraging to see that out of your younger guys."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.