In 2013, the Green Bay Packers had three veteran bodies that were considered large enough to play nose tackle; they were B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly. B.J. Raji started 16 games for the squad, while Pickett had played seven years with the Packers and Jolly had played four.
Entering the free-agency period of 2014, the Packers had a significant issue to address at the nose tackle position: All three of them were free agents.
Nose tackle could have been addressed before then, but Raji had turned down a long-term contract during 2013. The deal would have netted him $8 million per year. Raji's 2013 season didn't go as he planned, as his talent dropped off during his contract year. After three days on the free-agency market, he re-signed with the Packers for a one-year, $4 million “prove it” deal.
While the presumed starter was then addressed, the depth behind Raji was still in question. Josh Boyd, a second-year defensive lineman out of Mississippi State, was the only other player on the roster anyone could have even imagined playing nose tackle. Boyd was still better suited to play strong-side defensive end for the Packers, but he could spell at nose at times.
Still searching for needed depth, the Packers passed over Pickett and Jolly. Three days after Raji was signed, Letroy Guion, who had spent his six seasons in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, was signed to back up Raji on a one-year contract worth less than $1 million.
According to Pro Football Focus, Guion graded out higher than Raji last year. #Packers— Cheesehead TV (@cheeseheadtv) August 27, 2014
Before Guion could even don a Packers game uniform, his snaps were stalled. On the day before summer camp opened, Guion sustained a hamstring injury. The team placed him on the non-football injury list, where he was shelved until the week of final cuts.
While Guion was only out of football for about a month, the Packers' defensive line unit looked completely different by the time he was back in action. Raji had sustained a torn bicep during the first preseason game, ending his season and placing him on the injured reserve list.
Jerel Worthy, a Packers 2012 second-round pick, was traded to New England for a conditional selection in the 2015 NFL draft. Mike Pennel, an undrafted free agent from Colorado State-Pueblo, began to display talent that made it appear as though he were a draft pick.
Entering the final week before cuts without any in-game snaps, Guion rotated in and out of the starting lineup at the nose tackle position. When the final game day came around, he got the starting nod over Boyd and Pennel.
Larry McCarren just said Letroy Guion was "lighting people up" at practice this week. Called him the "real deal."— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) August 28, 2014
Against Kansas City, Guion took nine snaps on the first drive. Eight of them were passing plays, while one was a rushing play. He was held back from the rest of the game, like many starters were after their first drive. That's not a great mix to get your one and only look at a potential starting nose tackle, but it's all of the in-game footage of Guion until the season kicks off.
- Play one: Guion lined up as a nose tackle. He shot off the ball too high, but his long arms helped him in pass-rushing. Pumping his arms pushed the guard a bit further back than he'd like.
- Play two: Guion lined up as a left defensive end in the nickel (no nose tackle) in each play thereafter. The offense ran a stretch run play, and he played it just like he should have. His long arms locked out the offensive lineman,while he read the running back's movement. When the running back decided to shoot the gap to Guion's interior, he moved in for the tackle. Unfortunately, he slipped while running to make the tackle, but still got a piece of the ball-carrier. This is the most impressive and important play that Guion made in the game. It was also the only running play he defended against.
- Play three: He played the pass well to start this play, but couldn't finish. He quickly shedded the hands of the guard in pass protection against him, then moved to the center. While bull-rushing the center, the center is pushed back, but gathered his balance and anchored. After that, Guion couldn't move him an inch.
- Play four: Guion again played too high,and was a non-factor in the passing play.
- Play five: An interesting play, but not uncharacteristic of a Capers defense, Guion was asked to take a step toward the offensive line before dropping into pass-coverage. The closest target to him was out of his zone, caught the pass and would have been tackled by Guion had he not dropped the ball.
- Play six: While Guion had a solid initial punch on his man, the ball was out of the quarterback's hands so quick that Guion couldn't have made an impact.
- Play seven: At this point, his high pad level while pass-rushing had become a consistent problem. He wanted to beat offensive linemen with his hands, not his power. That could develop into an issue against first-string linemen. He was completely driven out of the play by an offensive lineman in pass protection.
- Play eight: Before he could make a significant play, the ball was quickly out of the quarterback's hands.
- Play nine: His initial approach to the play was great on this rep, his first step was nice, and his pad level was good. After the first blow to the offensive lineman, though, his pad level shot up again. From that point, he was stopped in his tracks.
Overall, it's hard to get a feel for what a player can contribute in a starting role when he only played nine snaps in the preseason, but there's some optimism with Guion's potential. In the one run play of Guion on preseason footage, he played it perfectly. That's what he's in Green Bay for, anyway. If he could fix his pad level, he might be able to contribute in the pass-rushing aspect of the team.
With so many penetrators already on the roster, though, Guion is unlikely to see a third down, unless it's a short-yardage situation. Green Bay ia also known to play nickel and dime around 60 to 70 percent of the time, and Mike Daniels and Datone Jones are most likely the defensive linemen to come out in those sets.
A nose tackle's job is to clog up and make plays against the run. With a small sample size, Guion has already flashed the ability to do so. The question now is if he'll be able to do it consistently.