Positional Review: Defensive Line

Pickett (Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports)

After a one-week break for our blockbuster coverage of the Senior Bowl, we look back at the season with our featured performer, depth chart, unit grade and look ahead to 2013. Leading the way was venerable Ryan Pickett, who was easily the line's most productive player.

After a one-week break to watch the Senior Bowl, Packer Report continues a position-by-position review of the 2012 season with the defensive line.

Featured performer

Old reliable Ryan Pickett once again was one of the defense's unsung heroes. He was the team's only defensive lineman to start all 16 games, the first time he had done so since 2008.

Just how productive was Pickett? According to the coaches' stats, Pickett led the defensive line with 75 tackles. That ranked fourth on the team and was 29 more than second-ranked B.J. Raji. For perspective, since Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009, Pickett finished 10th (and third among linemen) with 47 tackles in 2009, 10th (and second among linemen) with 53 tackles in 2010 and ninth (and first among defensive linemen) with 54 tackles in 2011.

He also added five quarterback hits after not getting home at all in 2011, according to the coaches' tally. He also added 26 "stops," according to ProFootballFocus.com, an increase over last year's 20.

"I think he fits our defense and takes pride in what he does there," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "He fits the defense, he works hard at it and he played in all 18 games this year and I think it was big for him not to miss a practice. I don't think he missed a practice all year. I can't remember one that he missed – he might have missed one or two in there. He was able to stay healthy this year. He came into training camp in relatively good shape."

Pickett, who entered the league as a first-round pick in 2011, will enter his 13th season in 2013 and will be playing the final year of his contract. His cap number will be a lofty $6.6 million. Given his play this season and that none of the backups are suited to fill his run-stuffing role, it's hard to imagine the Packers would deem his price tag too expensive.

"I didn't see him fall off at all this year," Trgovac said. "I think he definitely has another good year left in him."

Rest of the depth chart

Raji, the team's first-round pick in 2009, had an outstanding season – his subpar performance in the playoff loss to the 49ers notwithstanding. Even though he didn't record a sack for the first time in his career, Raji made his share of impact plays. Among 3-4 defensive ends, he finished seventh in run stop percentage with 18 stops in 222 run snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

C.J. Wilson is one of the more underrated defensive ends in the league. Wilson, who joins Pickett and Raji as the third starting lineman in the base defense, is an excellent run defender. He finished with 37 tackles and 2.5 sacks; he had just one sack in his first two seasons.

The Packers' patience with Mike Neal was rewarded. After two injury-ruined seasons and then a four-game suspension to start this season, the 2010 second-round pick recorded a career-high 4.5 sacks in 11 games. That was the second-best figure on the team. He also led the defensive line with 12 quarterback hits, by the coaches' count. Among 3-4 ends, he was third-most productive pass rusher on a per-snap basis with 20 total pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) in 192 pass-rushing snaps.

Neal's production turned out to be a necessity because the team didn't get much pass rush out of rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels. Worthy, featured prominently in the nickel and dime packages, had 2.5 sacks and five quarterback hits. Daniels had two sacks and six quarterback hits. That combined total of 4.5 sacks and 11 hits practically matches Neal, even though the rookies played in 727 snaps compared to Neal's 323.

Unit grade

C-plus: Outside of Raji, this is a unit of role players. Against the run, the Packers allowed 4.5 yards per carry. That's simply not good enough. The blame for that doesn't fall squarely on the defensive line, of course. However, Capers' reliance on the nickel and dime packages means the two linemen on the field must show a lot of toughness and grit against double-team blocks. Against the pass, this unit took a huge step forward but needs to get better. In 2011, the defensive line contributed six sacks and 17 quarterback hits. Raji (three) and Jarius Wynn (three) combined for all of the sacks and 15 of the hits. In 2012, the defensive line contributed 11.5 sacks and 39 quarterback hits. Four linemen had sacks and seven had a hit.

Looking ahead

With that as a backdrop, there is some intriguing potential if Neal can stay healthy and continue his upward trajectory and Worthy and Daniels take a big step.

Worthy, a second-round pick, and Daniels, a fourth-round choice, were asked to charge up the field in their college schemes. "Basketball on grass," is what Trgovac calls it. With Green Bay, it's about playing the run first, and then transitioning to the quarterback. The hope is they'll master those techniques and become more productive. There's nowhere to go but up for Worthy, who, according to ProFootballFocus.com, ranked 27th out of 31 3-4 ends in pass rush productivity (total of nine pressures in 289 pass-rushing snaps.

Worthy's progress suffered a setback when he had knee surgery after the season, a procedure that will keep him from participating in the offseason program and threatens his entire 2013 season. Daniels' progress was held back because of a torn labrum that prevented him from participating in the offseason program after the draft.

"I think it's going to be a tremendous battle because I think Mike Daniels really came on," Trgovac said. "Mike (Daniels) came here, missed all the OTAs. He missed a lot of time in training camp with his shoulder, so to transition him from that defense (at Iowa) to a 3-4 defense took a little bit of time. But I thought he really came on at the end of the year. It will be a good battle between he, Mike, C.J. and Jerel. Those guys, it's going to be a fun battle to watch."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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