Packers seek depth on defensive line
Sixth in a nine-part series of Packers position previews.
GREEN BAY - Defensive line, the Green Bay Packers’ most underrated position group last season, took some shots in the offseason but an appreciable drop-off isn’t expected.
Mike Trgovac, a veteran position coach used to squeezing more from less, is optimistic despite the abrupt leave-taking of B.J. Raji and the four-game suspension of Mike Pennel.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” Trgovac said. “Hopefully, you end up playing more nickel than anything, but I think we’re going to be OK.”
The Packers were aligned in their 3-4 base front just 17.7 percent of the snaps, a trend borne out by their decision to keep just five defensive linemen on their opening roster the past two years. In Dom Capers’ first five seasons, six defensive linemen made the team four times and seven another.
As passing increases, the need for more 300-pound defensive linemen decreases. But, if a team lacks four or five capable big men, the integrity of its defense can be in jeopardy.
The Packers know they can count on Mike Daniels, their best player a year ago, and they felt good enough about Letroy Guion to give him a three-year, $11.05 million contract ($500,000 guaranteed) in February.
With the 27th pick of the first round, they selected UCLA’s Kenny Clark.
That should take care of the three starters in the base but, with Pennel out (substance abuse violation) for a month, where’s the depth?
“I think (Dean) Lowry is going to be a good player,” Trgovac said. "(Christian Ringo) is coming on. I like the three (rookie) free agents. You never know if one of those guys might come on.”
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The Packers had gone three seasons without a defensive lineman on the All-NFC North Division team before Daniels broke through as a unanimous choice in late December. In the last 15 years, just five other defensive linemen from Green Bay had made the all-division team.
Besides Daniels, the list included Raji in 2010 and ’11, Aaron Kampman in 2006, ’07 and ’08, Cullen Jenkins in ’07, Grady Jackson in ’04 and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in 2002 and ’03.
Contrast those 10 selections in the defensive line from 2001-15 to the Packers’ offensive line, which had 35 first-teamers in the same span.
Recognition or not, the Packers probably would be content if the production from their defensive line in 2016 matches what it was in ’15.
For the most part, foes had a beastly time trying to hammer the ball inside against the 3-4. The front didn’t just drop anchor, either. The unit’s 22 tackles for loss, including Raji’s career-high total of seven and Daniels’ 6 ½, was its highest since 2007.
The Packers ranked 21st in rushing yards allowed (119.1) before holding the Redskins and Cardinals to an average of 62 in the playoffs.
Opponents had much better success running against Green Bay’s sub packages, which is where the majority of the 15 rushes for 20 yards or more resulted. Daniels was responsible for four of the 15.
Quarterbacks hit the Packers for 383 rushing yards and a 5.9 average.
“When you look at our numbers from each defense they were very good,” Trgovac said. “The problem is we let some quarterbacks run on us in passing situations, and then every now and then we gave up a big play.
“We’ve got to eliminate that. That will get our rush defense up there.”
Linebacker Mike Neal, who played inside for 97 snaps, isn’t expected back. However, Datone Jones, who played 256 of his 424 snaps with his hand down, remains partially in the plan there even though he has dropped about 15 pounds to play mainly linebacker.
“Datone doesn’t just totally leave us,” Trgovac said. “When you get into game-day actives . . . we’ve been keeping him abreast of what we’ve been doing. For a guy that’s not real heavy, he’s a strong guy.”
In the Packers’ 3-4, the simplest way to describe the roles would be a 5-technique playing over the strong-side tackle, a 3-technique playing on the inside shoulder of the weak-side guard and a nose tackle, or 1-technique, playing over the center or shaded to either side.
Last year, for the most part, Raji was the nose tackle, Daniels was the 3-technique and either Guion or Pennel were the 5-technique.
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With Pennel suspended, it appears Guion would be the 5-technique even though the Packers consider him best suited for nose tackle or 3-technique.
“The closer Letroy is to the ball the more pressures he gets and the better he is,” Trgovac said. “He really knows how to use his length (34 7/8-inch arms). He knows how to keep blockers off his body and make plays.”
After serving a three-game suspension to open last year, Guion looked more like a weight-lifter than a football player. Following a dismal start, he turned his season around in Game 14 and garnered the contract.
“He’s OK,” an NFC North personnel man said. “Strong at the point. Not real smart.”
Raji, a consistent, savvy, committed anchor against the run, ranked as the unit’s second-best performer behind Daniels.
“With Guion you’ve got younger, you’ve got quicker, you’ve got the same strength,” another NFC personnel man said. “He moves better.”
Preparing for Pennel’s absence, don’t be surprised if the Packers push to get Lowry ready to take at least some of the 5-technique load off Guion. At 6 feet 5 ½ inches and almost 300 pounds, Lowry has the ideal size Capers has sought at the position.
“Very smart kid,” Trgovac said. “Understands leverage. I’m really excited to see him.”
One day after the Packers drafted Lowry in the fourth round, an NFL personnel director said: “I thought that was high but by no means do I think it was bad (pick). I’d have drafted him sixth to free agent. His lack of arm length (31) is the only thing that really held me back. He’s a 100 percent, high-motor overachiever.”
Not unlike Guion, Pennel probably is best-suited to play nose tackle or 3-technique.
“Mike’s got tremendous upside,” Trgovac said. “We’re working our butts off with him on fundamentals.”
Asked if Pennel’s future was in question because of the suspension, Trgovac answered, “You’d have to ask the organization that. I haven’t treated him any different. I’ve been playing him like he’s going to be here. He’s going to be important to us.”
The Packers selected Clark over defensive lineman Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech (who went 30th to Carolina) largely because he was the better of the two as a nose tackle.
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“I see him (Clark) as a nose tackle and a 3-technique,” Trgovac said. “I think he’ll do better at the nose. He’s very strong, and he’s another wrestler in high school like Daniels so he plays with excellent leverage.
“Very, very good feet. He has the ability to be an every-down player. Now let’s see.”
Daniels signed a four-year, $41 million extension ($12 million guaranteed) in mid-December.
“Mike Daniels is one of my favorite players in the NFL,” an NFC scout said late last season. “He can pass rush and work down the line of scrimmage. I was hoping he’d get to free agency.”
The Packers are eager to see if the hard-working, long-armed (33), squatty Ringo can start playing like Daniels in his second season rather than just looking like him.
There could be room for one of the rookie free agents — Brian Price, Demetris Anderson or Tyler Kuder — during Pennel’s suspension.
“All three of them are big guys with good movement,” Trgovac said.
PACKERS POSITION PREVIEWS: DEFENSE LINE
FIVE-TECHNIQUE ENDS (4)
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Letroy Guion 6-3½ 325 29 FA-’14 Florida State
Played 622 snaps mostly as a NT in 2014 and 374 mostly as a 5- and 3- technique in ’15. Last year, pressures fell from 16 to 3½ and tackles for loss from five to 2½.
Mike Pennel 6-4 335 25 FA-’14 Colorado St.-Pueblo
Snaps increased in second year from 175 to 315. Led the D-line in tackles per snap with one every 8.3. Pressure per snap rate slipped from one every 31.8 in 2014 to one every 42 in ’15.
Dean Lowry 6-5½ 296 22 D4-’16 Northwestern
Three-year starter for Wildcats with 12½ sacks and 31½ tackles for loss. Ran 4.85, vertical jump of 32½, 30 reps on bench press and Wonderlic score of 31.
B.J. McBryde 6-5 303 24 FA-’15 Connecticut
Missed part of off-season because of injury. Waived injured Aug. 14 by Eagles as rookie free agent last year. Started eight of 30 games for Huskies, no sacks. Ran 5.01. Long arms (35 1/8), big hands (10 ½), Wonderlic of 26.
THREE-TECHNIQUE ENDS (3)
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Mike Daniels 6-0½ 312 27 D4-’12 Iowa
Led D-line in pressures (32) and posted career-high in tackles for loss (6½). Playing time was 67.9 percent in ’15, 63.8 percent in ’14, 48.1% in ’13 and 21.9 percent in ’12. Has never missed a game due to injury.
Christian Ringo 6-0½ 300 24 D6-’15 Louisiana-Lafayette
Beat out by Bruce Gaston for fifth berth on the D-line and spent entire season on practice squad. Ran 4.93, not quite as fast as Daniels’ 4.86 in ’12. Long arms (33), small hands (9 1/8).
Tyler Kuder 6-3 310 24 FA-’16 Idaho State
Played all three positions in the off-season. Started at NT for the Bengals in 2013-’14 before moving to 3-technique in ’15. Slow (5.23), strong (31 reps on the bench).
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Kenny Clark 6-2½ 315 21 D1-’16 UCLA
Declared as a third-year junior after starting two years at NT. Short arms (32 1/8), big hands (10 ½). Finished with 159 tackles (20 for loss) and 6 ½ sacks. Wonderlic of 16.
Brian Price 6-2½ 325 22 FA-’16 Texas-San Antonio
Backup NT in 2013-’14 before starting as a 3-technique in a 4-2-5 defense as a senior. Ran 5.17, just 20 reps on the bench and Wonderlic of 19. Short arms (30 5/8), small hands (9 3/8).
Demetris Anderson 6-1½ 312 24 FA-’16 Central Florida
Added May 9 (no signing bonus) after surviving rookie camp cattle call. Missed all of senior season following reconstructive knee surgery. Played 10 games (one start) at Western Michigan in ’11 and 26 games (24 starts) at UCF in 2013-’14. Ran 5.23, just 16 reps on the bench.
Acquisition categories: D4 means fourth-round draft choice, FA means free agent.