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Green Bay Packers Position Analysis, Vol. 5: Defensive Line

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIMarch 20, 2009

GREEN BAY, WI - OCTOBER 19:   Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett #79 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates during the game with the Indianapolis Colts on October 19, 2008 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay Wisconsin. The Packers won 34-14.   (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The first installment of this series on the defensive side of the ball, it is also the most difficult because it involves the most position changes.

However, the packers.com now lists players by their new projected positions, so that is how I will list them whether grading their performance in 2008 or their future outlook with the team.

NT Ryan Pickett, 6'2", 330 pounds, nine years experience, 48 tackles, 1.5 sacks

Pickett is the Packers entire hope for the 3-4 unless they can draft or trade for someone else, because he is the only defensive tackle big enough to handle the responsibilities with any real playing experience. That is a lot to rest on anyone's shoulders, even ones so wide.

Pickett was solid in 2008, but not spectacular. He occupied blockers, but did not prevent teams from running up the middle the way Gilbert Brown used to. He is much more athletic than the Gravedigger was, but was really not a threat to get to the quarterback.

However, he will not be asked to pressure the quarterback in a 3-4, and he is good enough to push the pocket and get the occasional blocked pass. Three tackles a game is solid, and most of the opposition's success against Green Bay was in exploiting undersized or inexperienced defensive ends and linebackers.

If the Packers can rest him on obvious passing downs and he stays healthy, he could just anchor Dom Capers' new scheme.

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NT Anthony Toribio, 6'1", 304 pounds, one year experience

Toribio had as many tackles in 2008 as I did, and wrestling my dog down does not count. He was an undrafted free agent signed out of Carson-Newman...if you are like me, that is the first time you have heard of that school.

The fact that he currently resides second on the depth chart is downright scary. Add to that the fact that he does not appear to be big enough to handle the nose in a 3-4, and this position is in crisis.

This is why I am calling on Ted Thompson to trade up to get B.J. Raji, who is the only lineman big and athletic enough to play this position immediately, and that is what the team should be looking for. Throw one of our four starting calibre safeties in to move up four or five spots...please!

NT Fred Bledsoe, 6'3", 329 pounds, one year on practice squad

Maybe Bledsoe was not even on the roster in 2008, but at least he has the size to play the position and was in a major college program (Arkansas).

DE Johnny Jolly, 6'3", 320 pounds, 49 tackles, one fumble recovered

Jolly played defensive tackle in 2008, and was the more athletic, pass-rushing compliment to Pickett.

However, he was not as effective: teams were more likely to run at him, but he got only one more tackle. Conversely, he was not able to get a single sack, even though he did occasionally draw blocking help from a back.

Ultimately, I would expect him to be shifted back to tackle if the Packers do not add talent at the position. He might be a bit undersized for that role in a 3-4, but he is not going to make enough plays at defensive end. He would be perfect for the nose on passing downs.

DE Cullen Jenkins, 6'2", 305 pounds, six years experience, 13 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble

Jenkins went down in week five last year, and the defense never recovered. To that point, it was in the top half of the league, and finished in the bottom quarter. Jenkins was big enough to shut down the run and athletic enough to take advantage on passing downs when teams focused on Aaron Kampman.

In a 3-4, the defensive ends also have to be bigger, and Jenkins passes that magic 300 pound threshold. He has not had a history of injury, and there is no reason to believe that he will not be a reliable bookend on the line.

DE Justin Harrell, 6'4", 320 pounds, two years experience, 12 tackles

Thus far, Harrell has been the Packers' biggest draft bust since Tony Mandarich. Projected to be a late first round pick, Thompson, who claims to not believe in drafting for need, reached quite a ways to get him. Harrell had a history of injuries at Tennessee, and that has continued in both of his seasons in Green Bay.

To make matters worse, he is now projected to move to the end position even though the Packers need tackles and only two defensive linemen are heavier than Harrell. His time is running out to produce, and I see him being used in a rotation in both line positions. But I also do not see him having a significant impact, either.

DE Micheal Montgomery, 6'5", 273 pounds, five years experience, 59 tackles, one forced fumble

Montgomery was brought back for depth and because the price was right. His only significant action came in 2008 because of all the injuries, and he was solid as a fill-in. However, in my opinion he is too thin to handle the defensive end in a 3-4 and will do little but provide depth in the event of an injury and occasionally rotate in on passing downs.

DE Alfred Malone, 6'4", 312 pounds, one year experience, four tackles

Malone has the size to play the position, but he was another undrafted free agent in 2007, and has almost no experience. Nothing should be expected of him in 2009, but he may be able to play in spots even if the line is not ravaged by injury.

Other linemen in 2008 (Colin Cole, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Jeremy Thompson, Jason Hunter, Aaron Kampman) combined for 118 tackles, 12.5 sacks, one fumble recovery returned for a touchdown

Cole signed for way more than he was worth in Seattle; Gbaja-Biamila was released mid-season.

Thompson, Hunter, and Kampman have been moved to outside linebacker because they are too small to play defensive end in the 3-4 but are athletic enough to handle their new responsibilities; they will be covered in next week's look at linebackers.

However, I listed these stats because they are necessary to grade 2008: D. While many of the players performed better than expected, the injuries made the unit as a whole unproductive.

So what are the team's prospects for the near future? C-

There are too many questions at the nose tackle and only one defensive end who is dynamic enough to be a difference maker. Because Ted Thompson failed to provide more help at this position in free agency (everyone not surprised raise your hand...did you feel the change in the atmosphere from the millions of hands raised?), the draft is his only choice.

Many people are not paying attention to the fact that most of the defensive end talent in this year's draft is undersized and will not be able to stand up in a 3-4. There are two ends big enough to handle the position for the Packers, but neither is rated in the top ten, so they would be a reach with the ninth pick.

This is the reason many Packers fans are looking for Thompson to trade down, where he can still get his guy and not overpay, plus get depth with later picks.

However, there is some question as to whether anyone but Raji (probably not available at the ninth pick) would provide the Packers much impact as a rookie. While Green Bay finished only 6-10 in 2008, they are closer to competing now than to rebuilding.

Had the team not suffered so many injuries (as many as five defensive starters were out at one time), the defense would likely have been at least as good as in 2007, when it was in the top half of the league, rather than in the bottom quarter.

Moreover, the team still managed to get four of its six wins in the division, so a slight upgrade could help them to dominate once again. Unfortunately, while the 3-4 is in my opinion a more effective defense, it is not as strong against the run, and all three division rivals have good backs.

Add to that the Packers being undersized in the unit most vital to run-stuffing, and one can expect even a healthy defense to struggle in the division.

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