The Defensive Line Dilemma

Matthew HagenContributor IMay 15, 2009

GREEN BAY, WI - AUGUST 23:  Justin Harrell #91 of the Green Bay Packers looks on before the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on August 23, 2007 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Mike McCarthy may have faith in the depth of his defensive line, but I simply won’t believe it until I see it.

In a May 3 press conference McCarthy said, “If you recall two years ago we had an excellent rotation we felt in the defensive line, and we're trying to get back to that.”

Unfortunately, buying into the evidence behind that statement means jumping on the back of some unreliable horses; namely the chronic bad back of Justin Harrell.  The Packers believe in Harrell, and I would too, if he could stay on the field. 

But so far his career has been nothing but hopes, dreams, and a weekly mention in the injury report.  At the very least, he will be counted on as a key member of what should amount to a six man defensive line rotation.

Joining Harrell in the rotation will be Cullen Jenkins, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, rookie B.J. Raji, and an undetermined sixth member.  Is it a bad thing that the guy I have the most faith in, B.J. Raji, has never played a snap in the NFL?  I think so.

Raji has the quickness and size to play any spot along the line, and that’s exactly what the coaching staff is counting on.  His versatility will go a long way toward making his fellow linemen play at a respectable level.  But he can’t do it by himself.

Cullen Jenkins is a good player, but he has had numerous injuries throughout his career, including a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2008 season prematurely.  He will be ready for training camp, but another serious injury could pop up, and that would cripple the team’s depth.

Ryan Pickett has chronic knee pain, and carrying around 330 pounds of weight is not helping the issue.  Pickett can be an effective nose tackle, but only if he is used in the base 3-4 defense and short yardage situations, which should equal up to fifty percent of the team’s defensive snaps.  Anything more than that might spell disaster.

Johnny Jolly is an enigma.  His breakout 2007 season seems so long ago, as the memories of that campaign have been dashed by his wholly ineffective 2008 season.  There has to be a lot weighing on Jolly’s mind as well.  He is facing felony drug possession charges that shouldn’t require jail time but may require an unwanted reprieve from the gridiron at some point this season.

That breaks down the five linemen that seem to be locked into a roster spot, but six will likely be kept for the regular season.  The main candidates for the final spot are Michael Montgomery, Alfred Malone, Jarius Wynn, Brian Soi, and Anthony Toribio. 

With the way the roster stands now, one of these guys will “win” a roster spot and be counted on as quality depth along the defensive front.  Even my green and gold colored glasses can’t clear up this haze.

Some of the coaches have talked up Alfred Malone throughout the offseason, and his body type fits the new 3-4 defense. I’ll be watching him closely during minicamps, but right now he is still an unknown.

Montgomery and Wynn are undersized and overmatched. I think this training camp will be the last we see of Montgomery. Wynn is a prospect to sneak onto the practice squad.  An offseason in the weight room will do him good. He could turn into a long term starter, but not this year.

It would be nice to see flashes out of the mammoth 334 pound body of Soi, but he is another unknown. But wouldn’t it be exciting if Soi became the long term back up to Raji at nose tackle after Pickett’s contract runs out after this upcoming season?

Mike McCarthy can’t afford to think about next year.  He needs to win now, and the depth along the defensive line will have a hand in this year’s results.  What happens if Jenkins misses big portions of the year, Harrell still is his old injured, unreliable self, Jolly’s 2008 season repeats itself, and Pickett continues to be limited by his knee issues? 

Even if just Jenkins or Harrell are lost for an extended period, the line will be unable to absorb the blow; that is unless the staff’s feelings on one or two of the unknown linemen are correct.  I would prefer a more reliable insurance policy.

Kevin Carter is still an available free agent, but I’m not counting on Ted Thompson to pull the trigger. Although, if training camp is in full force and the situation turns ugly, I think Thompson will scour the depth chart of the other thirty-one NFL rosters in pursuit of a trade. The season could depend on it.

The defensive line is the biggest question mark that the team faces heading into the 2009 season. Sure, injuries and ineffectiveness could strike any personnel group on the team, but recent history shows that it is more likely to smack our defensive line across the face. That is a scary thought if you, like me, subscribe to the idea that games are won or lost in the trenches.