Green Bay Packers Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown, Depth Chart Analysis
The Green Bay Packers have the personnel to run a 4-3 defense as well as their base 3-4 scheme, and in 2014, expect to see multiple looks in the nickel, dime and other sub-packages to best utilize their talent.
Of the players on the current 90-man roster, 42 are on the defensive side of the ball. Green Bay is currently four or five deep at multiple positions, including free safety and left corner, giving the team plenty of options in improving their 2013 24th-ranked pass defense.
Their pass-rushing group is also formidable and fluid, with players like Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers slated to get snaps at both outside linebacker and defensive end and at the 7-technique Elephant end position.
The following defensive depth chart breakdown includes the 26 players expected to make Green Bay's final 53-man roster. Keep in mind that the Packers may very well keep six wide receivers and three tight ends after final cuts, so space for defensive players will be at a premium.
Players are listed at what is thought will be their primary position, but I have noted the other positions at which they could spend a significant amount of time. In a few instances for sub-package positions, players will appear twice (e.g., nickel corner and safety). Green Bay has of late run its sub-packages more often than its base defense, so that's reflected wherever possible.
Left Defensive End
Depth Chart: Datone Jones, Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy
2014 is former first-round pick Datone Jones' time to shine. "I won't be satisfied until I'm the best in the league," Jones told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week. It's a lofty goal, but Jones is ready to make a leap in his second year.
But more playing time could translate into more production for Jones, and after the many changes the Packer defensive line underwent this offseason, he'll have an opportunity to prove he can be better. To improve in 2014, according to Dunne, Jones plans on improving attacking with his hands and on developing a second move.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers also plans to pair Jones and Mike Daniels at defensive tackle and deploy them as inside rushers in nickel and dime situations, per ESPN's Rob Demovksy. That pairing should help Jones improve his sack numbers.
Mike Neal will be used as a hybrid player in multiple defensive looks and extensively at outside linebacker as well. He's listed here at two positions, since on the 2013 depth chart he was listed as a defensive end despite primarily playing outside linebacker last year. That was more out of necessity due to injuries than a reflection of what the coaching staff sees as Neal's ideal role. As Dunne explains, Mike McCarthy envisions Neal playing inside more, as the head coach has said Neal is best playing the 3-technique.
Demovsky wrote on July 3 that Jerel Worthy's "place on the roster is far from guaranteed." The Packers expect players to step up in their second seasons, which Worthy was unable to do in 2013, as he spent more than half the season on the PUP list. Because 2014 will in essence be Worthy's second year, he'll have to prove he can be an effective space-eater in Capers' scheme.
If Green Bay does decide to re-sign the recently cleared Johnny Jolly, Worthy's spot may be the one that opens up for him.
Depth Chart: B.J. Raji, Josh Boyd
B.J. Raji's contract season in 2013 should have been his "prove it" year, but the Packers have given him one more opportunity to earn his spot on the team in 2014 with a one-year deal and a move back to his best position, nose tackle.
But it sounds like Josh Boyd could be the future at the position in Green Bay.
Boyd, a fifth-round pick in 2013, beat out Datone Jones for snaps towards the end of last season. He played 105 snaps at the 3-technique and 5-technique positions and 12 snaps at the 0-tech, or nose, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
But Mike McCarthy thinks he could excel at nose tackle.
"I think Josh definitely has the flexibility. He's shown he can play the nose," McCarthy said, per Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel. "He needs to take a huge step, and I think he'll be one of those players that does in his second year."
In this depth chart, former Minnesota Vikings nose tackle Letroy Guion, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, doesn't make the final roster cut, due in large part to Boyd's potential.
Right Defensive End
Depth Chart: Mike Daniels, Khyri Thornton
Julius Peppers could be included in this group as well, but even though the Packers plan to move him around the field, he played almost exclusively out of a two-point stance during OTAs and minicamp practices, per ESPN's Rob Demovksy.
He will also be grouped with the linebackers in position meetings, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As such, he's been slotted as an outside linebacker.
According to Paul Imig of Fox Sports Wisconsin, Mike Daniels went from playing 25.6 percent of snaps in 2012 to 48.6 percent in 2013, and he could play up to 60 percent in 2014.
Daniels' improvement in 2013 was vast; he was second in sacks behind Clay Matthews. He is especially well utilized as an interior rusher in sub-packages and is primed to become one of the best players in Green Bay's front seven.
Khyri Thornton was a surprise selection in Round 3, after he was projected to be taken in Round 5 or 6. But Thornton's versatility could make him an excellent addition for depth on the line. His measurables aren't wowing, but his motivation could be a useful tool on a run defense that tended toward a bad tendency of giving up in late losses in 2013.
"I think (Packers coach Mike McCarthy) saw that when we were getting beat by 50, I was still playing," Thornton told Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel about his time at Southern Miss, a team that went 1-11 in 2013. "I was still running to the ball. I never gave up. I always encouraged my teammates."
At 6'3" and 304 pounds, Thornton certainly fits in size-wise with general manager Ted Thompson's recent draft selections on the defensive line. He could serve as a solid rotational 5-technique.
Thornton could also serve as depth at nose tackle, which would allow the Packers to rest easier about a potential decision to cut Guion.
Left Outside Linebacker
Depth Chart: Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry
For now, Clay Matthews remains at right outside linebacker, where he was moved to make way for Nick Perry. A healthy Perry has an opportunity to break out this season, but now that Green Bay has so many options for outside rushers, there won't be as much pressure placed on Perry as a "true" outside linebacker opposite Matthews.
Perry, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal are all eligible candidates for the elephant position, where they can line up at defensive end in the base defense or rush the passer at tackle or outside linebacker.
The elephant is a 7-tech, lining up on the inside shoulder of the tight end.
Per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McCarthy originally intended to use Neal at the elephant position heading into the 2013 season, but injuries to Matthews and Perry forced Neal to take the majority of his snaps at outside linebacker.
Left Inside Linebacker
Depth Chart: A.J. Hawk, Sam Barrington
A.J. Hawk had statistically one of the best years of his career in 2013, recording 74 tackles and a career-high five sacks. He was called upon to be more involved in rushing the passer when outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry missed 10 games between them, and he stepped up.
But Hawk seemed to struggle with speed through much of the season, allowing runners to break through the middle more often than was necessary.
Pro Football Focus graded Hawk in the bottom third of inside linebackers in defending the run in 2013. But his job as a starter looks relatively secure, so he'll have to address his shortcomings from last season to ensure a stouter middle in 2014.
Mike McCarthy expects Sam Barrington to make a big leap this season. “I really look for him to take a jump in Year 2,” McCarthy said, per Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel. “He knows that. That was part of our (exit) conversation. I thought he did some really good things in the preseason. I was excited about him and then he got injured."
Depth Chart: Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore
Brad Jones was hampered by a hamstring injury for a period of four games midseason in 2013, and though he notched three sacks and 60 tackles, like A.J. Hawk he also struggled with speed over the middle and was graded by Pro Football Focus in the bottom third in 2013 against the run.
For now, it appears Jones' starting spot is safe, deserved or not. "Brad's our starter until I'm told otherwise," linebackers coach Winston Moss said in late June, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky.
But Jamari Lattimore got a chance to prove what he can do last season when he made four starts in place of the injured Jones, and that could lead to more opportunities for playing time for him in 2014.
Right Outside Linebacker
Depth Chart: Clay Matthews, Carl Bradford, Andy Mulumba
As mentioned in the left outside linebackers slide, Clay Matthews remains at right outside linebacker here, where he was moved to accommodate Nick Perry.
Matthews is versatile and talented enough to rush from anywhere on the field. With Julius Peppers in the mix as the left outside linebacker, the Packers will have any number of ways to use Matthews, which would include lining him up opposite or even next to the former Bears defensive end.
The two of them on the field are impossible to double-team simultaneously.
Though some thought Carl Bradford was drafted to compete for a starting job at inside linebacker, the Packers plan to start him off on the outside.
"He's been an edge guy most of his career," Packers director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst said, per Packers.com's Mike Spofford. "He's a pass-rusher. That's what he does best."
Green Bay's bigger need is on the inside, but Bradford would be yet another pass-rushing weapon in the Packers' impressive rotation. Bradford had 20 sacks and eight batted passes in his two years as a starter at Arizona State.
If Jones continues to struggle next to Hawk, Bradford's size (6'1", 250 pounds) could justify a move inside. But for now, the Packers want to let him do what he does best.
Injuries thrust Mulumba into much more playing time than anyone would have expected in 2013—a total of 361 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. On those 361 snaps, he had 15 total tackles and a sack. He survived roster cuts last offseason because of his potential, and there isn't any reason to assume this offseason will be any different.
Depth Chart: Tramon Williams, Davon House, Micah Hyde (nickel corner)
The Packers currently have 10 cornerbacks on the 90-man roster. At the end of the 2013 regular season, they had six, including Micah Hyde, who has been taking reps at safety all offseason and should now see any potential corner action in the nickel package.
Assuming consistency, to keep six corners on the 53-man roster, promising talents Jumal Rolle, Demetri Goodson and Ryan White have been cut for this list.
Goodson would be an excellent addition to the practice squad, however. Expect him to land there if he doesn't make the 53-man roster.
Mike McCarthy likes Rolle's potential. “He’s got talent. He’s a hard worker," McCarthy said, per the Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn. But it's difficult to see him making the roster ahead of players like Davon House or Jarrett Bush.
The Packers "remain high on House," per ESPN's Rob Demovksy.
Tramon Williams nine missed tackles in 2013, but otherwise had a season consistent with his previous ones, recording three interceptions, 11 passes defensed (which was on the low side of his average) and a career-high 2.5 sacks. If he can work on his angles, the left side should be solid in 2014.
Depth Chart: Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush
Shields led the Packers in interceptions with four, and allowed the 12th-lowest opposing quarterback rating (72.7) among cornerbacks who played more than half of their defense's starting snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Casey Hayward's return from a hamstring injury is huge in 2014, and as reported by ESPN's Rob Demovsky, he's already been up to his ball hawking ways in minicamp, picking off a pass in the end zone.
In addition to playing in the slot this season, Hayward will be given an opportunity to line up as a true cover corner, according to cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt.
Jarrett Bush kept Green Bays playoff chances alive in Week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons when he picked off a Matt Ryan pass intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez. But even when he wasn't showing up in the highlights, Bush played very well all season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bush allowed opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of just 42.8 and receivers a catch rate of 61.5 percent. He's earned a chance to return in 2014 and continue to contribute.
Depth Chart: Morgan Burnett, Sean Richardson
Not only did Morgan Burnett not live up in 2013 to the contract extension the Packers awarded him last offseason. He also failed to perform at the same level that he did in his first three seasons with the Packers, during which time he notched six interceptions, three sacks, 17 passes defensed and four forced fumbles.
Compare that to last year, in which the Packers safety group didn't have a single interception. A lot of the blame for that has to fall on Burnett's shoulders, as he had zero interceptions, zero sacks, six passes defended and zero forced fumbles in 2013.
Burnett struggled playing down near the line as a strong safety, missing 11 tackles, eighth-most among safeties in the league, per Pro Football Focus.
But with either Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Micah Hyde playing alongside him, Burnett's performance should improve in 2014.
Hyde's move to free safety has created more competition within the safety group as a whole, which has caused Chris Banjo to fall off my final 53-man roster. Sean Richardson played the majority of his snaps near the box toward the end of the 2013 season, so with Hyde and Clinton-Dix at free safety, Richardson's being slotted in at strong safety for his run-stopping skills.
Depth Chart: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Micah Hyde
Don't put too much stock in the rumblings out of minicamp that Micah Hyde will start at free safety over Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in Week 1 of the regular season.
Hyde doesn't feel like he's in a competition for the starting job, according to Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, despite the fact that he's been taking reps with the first-team defense all offseason.
The preferred playing time could be a result of the Packers preparing Hyde to line up at multiple positions this season, and giving him an opportunity to improve at the one where has the least experience.
"We're still kind of kicking things around with him. Micah will have an opportunity for having a role on this team be it at safety, nickel, dime or whatever we may decide to stick him at," safety coach Darren Perry said, per Hodkiewicz.
Clinton-Dix is a true all-purpose defensive back and exactly what the Packers need out of a starting free safety.
"He's shown an ability to cover down in the slot, he's good in support, physical player. Also can play well in the back end," Green Bay GM Ted Thompson said, per the Journal Sentinel's Rob Reischel. "We think he's got very, very good ball skills."
With these two added to Green Bay's stable of safeties, the Packers shouldn't struggle to produce interceptions and create plays on the ball in 2014 the way they did last season.