Give it to general manager Ted Thompson; he refused to stand pat after a poor showing by the Packers defensive line last season.
Thompson went out and signed three defensive linemen in free agency this past offseason in addition to adding two rookies in the NFL draft.
But the chances that Anthony Hargrove, Phillip Merling or Daniel Muir make a measurable impact in 2012, however, are slim. They’ll be lucky to make the Packers’ roster in 2012, let alone make a quantifiable effect in terms of tackles and sacks.
Back in 2010, the defensive line of the Packers was looking pretty good. In fact, it was a big reason Green Bay was able to win a Super Bowl with Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji forming an impressive duo while Ryan Pickett was his usual, solid self.
The Packers defense was among league leaders in both overall defense based on yards allowed (fifth) and scoring defense (second). Part of the reason for their lofty rankings was the pass rush, as they were able to generate 47 sacks on the season, which ranked second in the NFL.
Fresh off a Super Bowl victory, however, Jenkins flew the coop in free agency and signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. And in 2011, the Packers defensive line looked lost.
Opposing offenses could focus their efforts on stopping Raji, and it didn’t help that he probably played too many snaps. Pickett never was and never will be a pass-rush threat, Mike Neal was too injured to help and nobody else stepped up.
The Packers’ defense suffered. Even though they were a middle-of-the-road team in terms of points allowed, they ranked dead last (32nd) in the NFL in terms of yards allowed and gave up the most passing yards in history of the league.
A big problem was the pass rush that only generated 29 sacks, and the defensive line didn’t pull its weight.
As a response to last year’s pathetic showing, Thompson knew he had to bring an infusion of talent to the defensive line and uncharacteristically made three acquisitions on the free agent market.
Among them, only Hargrove was considered an unrestricted free agent whose contract had expired. Both Merling and Muir were known as "street free agents," each of them having been released by their previous team.
As much as Hargrove could actually be an active and contributing member of the Packers defense this season, he has a suspension handed down by the NFL hovering over his head.
Hargrove has been suspended for the first eight games of the regular season, and his appeal has been denied. This stems from his part in the New Orleans Saints’ alleged bounty program back when he played for the Saints in 2009 and 2010.
Despite the suspension, Hargrove is still able to participate in training camp and preseason games. It’s even possible that he may be granted an injunction to his suspension through a court of law, but regardless, Hargrove’s bearing on the Packers’ defense would appear to be minimal.
Assuming he comes back at midseason, there’s no guarantee Hargrove will be part of the Packers’ defensive line rotation. They’ve made a commitment to developing rookie Jerel Worthy, and other contributors such as Mike Daniels, Mike Neal (post-suspension) and C.J. Wilson can’t be counted out.
The Packers are hoping Hargrove will provide a boost as a pass-rushing defensive tackle in their nickel packages, and perhaps he even has the size to be used as an end in the base 3-4 defense. Unfortunately for the Packers and Hargrove, it looks as if the suspension will limit his ability to make any sort of impression until the second half of the season.
Merling has gone from a player oozing with potential to possibly his last chance in the NFL. The 32nd overall draft choice by the Miami Dolphins in 2008 was signed by the Packers in May after being released earlier this offseason.
At one point, Merling was considered an up-and-coming player out of Clemson. In his rookie year, he had 26 tackles and one sack and then followed that up by making 33 tackles and 2.5 sacks in his second year as a professional.
Then in 2010, Merling’s career became derailed. He was arrested in a domestic dispute in May after an argument with his girlfriend, although charges were later dropped. Then in August he tore his Achilles tendon, which limited him to only five games that season.
Merling saw his playing time decrease even more in 2011, playing in just 10 games and starting only one. After reportedly missing part of the Dolphins’ offseason program this spring, they had seen enough.
Described as “overweight” by Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers took a chance on Merling anyway. Even though the Dolphins were in the process of switching to a 4-3 defense this season, Merling has experience in their prior 3-4 scheme, and could play a base defensive end for the Packers.
However, there’s just too many things working against Merling to expect him to be a factor this season. Perhaps a change of scenery will do him some good, but from his legal troubles to his injury history to his spotty work ethic, anything Merling does in a Packers uniform would be viewed as a bonus.
Muir entered the NFL with the Packers in 2007 as an undrafted rookie and was able to crack the 53-man roster late that season.
After being cut during training camp in 2008, Muir caught on with the Indianapolis Colts and would actually go on to play a significant role in 2009 by making 54 tackles as the Colts qualified for the Super Bowl that season.
By 2011, however, Muir’s career was hanging by a thread. He was signed by the Colts at midseason and only played in four games before being released.
The Packers invited Muir back with a contract this offseason and are offering him a chance to be part of the 2012 defensive line rotation. Working in Muir’s favor is that he’ll be rejoining a team where he has some familiarity, but he’ll also be playing in a 3-4 defense for the first time in his career.
Despite the schematic change, Muir remains upbeat. In an interview with Cheesehead TV’s “Railbird Central” in March, he said:
I'm just looking forward to coming up there and getting myself mentally and physically prepared. Coming from a 4-3 to a 3-4, I don't think it will be that much difference. Scheme-wise it's different, terminology, but at the end of the day, it's football.
It’s a good thing Muir has a positive attitude, because that’s one of the few things he has going for him. As a defensive tackle, he doesn’t have the girth of a Raji or a Pickett at a comparatively small 322 pounds. Muir has never been known as a sack artist, so he’ll have to prove himself by being able to stuff the run.
There’s certainly the possibility that Muir or Hargrove or Merling surprise onlookers and add a new dimension to the Packers defensive line. They just shouldn’t be expected to be a "magic pill" for what ails the defense.
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