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Best & Worst Case Scenarios: 2014 Packers Defensive Line

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Best & Worst Case Scenarios: 2014 Packers Defensive Line

Green Bay Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji by Benny Sieu—USA TODAY Sports.

Green Bay Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji by Benny Sieu—USA TODAY Sports.

It's time for the eighth annual "Best & Worst Case Scenario" series, a feature that goes back to the days of the old RailbirdCentral.com domain.

I attempt to take a look at what is the very best possible season a player is capable of producing, and on the other hand, what would happen if a player fell flat on his face (without assuming they suffer a season-ending injury). These are intended to be extreme scenarios on both sides of the spectrum. More than likely, each player is going to fall somewhere in the middle, but every now and then, they just so happen to come to fruition.

As one final note, I also try to take a look at what these scenarios would be from an individual standpoint and not necessarily what's best (or worst) for the team.

 

B.J. Raji

Best-case scenario: Motivated by a one-year contract and easily more comfortable as a true nose tackle, Raji gets back to playing at the high level expected of a former first round draft choice. No, he doesn't play at the same level as the Packers' Super Bowl season in 2010 when he had 6.5 sacks, but he comes close with four or five, which is more than adequate coming from 337-pound nose tackle. Perhaps more importantly, Raji becomes the team's No. 1 run stuffer, which fills an important role now that Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly are gone. The days of Raji creating disruption in opposing backfields are back.

Worst-case scenario: It's the same old Raji fans have become accustomed to seeing for the better part of the past two or three seasons. He just seems to be out there on the field but rarely making an impact. For a third consecutive year, Raji fails to come up with so much as a single sack, and if he makes more than two tackles per game, it's an anomaly. Despite being one of the few players on the team with massive bulk, the Packers are better off with high-effort players like Mike Daniels on the field. It doesn't appear as if Raji has a future in Green Bay beyond 2014.

 

Mike Daniels

Best-case scenario: Coming off a breakout 2013 season in which he had 6.5 sacks, Daniels ups the ante by setting a new career-high with seven or more sacks and in the process, becomes arguably the best interior pass rusher in entire NFL. Not only is Daniels a beast as a pass rusher, he becomes a dependable three-down player for basically the first time in his career. He uses his leverage to his advantage in helping the Packers run defense improve on last year's subpar ranking. The first Pro Bowl berth of Daniels' career comes in January.

Worst-case scenario: Daniels is more or less a pass rush specialist, which he does well, although he can't match his 6.5 sacks from a season ago, instead checking in with just five or six in 2014. The Packers try to give Daniels an opportunity to be a full-time player, but his 6-0, 300-pound frame doesn't hold up well against the run on a play-in, play-out basis. He'll make a play against the run every once in a while because he gives maximum effort, but the Packers need to bring bigger and heavier players on the field in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

 

Datone Jones

Best-case scenario: Jones puts the ankle injury from 2013 in the rearview mirror as he becomes a starter on the Green Bay defense and an integral part of a unit that improves on its 24th overall ranking from a year ago. He becomes a reliable player against both the run and the pass, but his five-plus sacks are his biggest contribution, especially considering he's one of several players with five or more sacks, also including Daniels, Matthews and Julius Peppers.

Worst-case scenario: Jones can't seem to live up to his first-round billing and appears to be a 'tweener as a defensive lineman at a relatively light 285 lbs. He ends the season with a handful of sacks, not unlike his rookie year, but Jones can't be trusted to be out on the field on running downs, because he gets pushed around by opposing tackles and guards. There's some natural talent in Jones, but the Packers have difficulty getting it out of him. He eventually loses his hold on a spot in the starting lineup.

 

Letroy Guion

Best-case scenario: Guion provides terrific value as a cheap free agent addition. More or less, Guion is a younger version of Pickett and Jolly, able to hold up against the run on early downs. Once he gets past his early season injury issues, Guion gradually gets in the coaches' good graces with a solid performance in training camp and the preseason. In due time, Guion becomes a starter on the Packers defense because he's reliable on those early running downs.

Worst-case scenario: Partially due to a setback from his pre-training camp hamstring injury, Guion is a non-factor in the Packers' defensive line rotation. Not only can he not crack the starting lineup, Guion is a worse option than either Josh Boyd or Khyri Thornton. The free agent acquisition doesn't see much action in the preseason and when he does, he struggles. The Packers decide they're better off, giving Guion's reps to younger players that are expected to be in Green Bay for the long haul. The Packers are grateful he doesn't cost much in dead money against the salary cap.

 

Jerel Worthy

Best-case scenario: The surgery Worthy had on his back in the offseason seems to have done the trick. It takes him some time to get up to speed, but it finally appears in Year 3 that things click for Worthy. He flashes with a couple sacks before the end of the exhibition season, which encourages the Packers to keep him on the roster for another season. Worthy doesn't become a starter, but he does carve out a role as an interior pass rush specialist, frequently paired with Daniels, and comes away with career-highs in nearly every statistical category, including at least three sacks. It's enough to be encouraged about his future.

Worst-case scenario: The lower-back injury Worthy suffered in the offseason is too much to overcome. Even if he manages to come back from the injury before training camp is over, he can't seem to crack any sort of rotation on the Packers defensive line, even as a sitiational pass rusher. The Packers cut their losses with Worthy, releasing him on the NFL's first cutdown date to 75 players, giving him an early oppotunity to ostensibly latch on with another NFL team.

 

Josh Boyd

Best-case scenario: The Packers are reluctant to hand a job in the starting lineup to Boyd primarily because of their investment in time and money into Raji, but Boyd becomes the best run-stuffer on the team by season's end. Sometime in the middle of the year, he becomes a starter on the defensive line, and even though his calling card is his run defense, he's capable of producing a handful of sacks too. Boyd is one of the most versatile players at his position, capable of playing as a base end or a defensive tackle in the team's nickel packages.

Worst-case scenario: More or less because the Packers have gotten smaller on the defensive line, Boyd carves out a small role in goal-line an short-yardage packages, but that's seemingly his only contribution to the team. Boyd has a difficult time displacing either Raji, Daniels or Jones in the battle for playing time, regardless of personnel package, and third round draft choice Khyri Thornton looks like the player with greater potential between the two of them. Boyd is ocasionally the victim of the NFL's gameday inactive list.

 

Khyri Thornton

Best-case scenario: Like any first-year player, Thornton encounters a learning curve as he learns the tricks of the trade in the trenches in the NFL, but in due time, he becomes a solid rotational player during his rookie season. After a promising training camp and preseason campaign, Thorton sees action in the Packers' opener at Seattle and goes on to play in all 16 regular-season games. He's versatile enough to play in both base and sub-packages, notching a sack or two and hinting that bigger and better things are to come in future seasons.

Worst-case scenario: Thornton has trouble distinguishing himself during his rookie year in the NFL. Although it's not for a lack of effort, Thornton can't seem to make any sort of imact, either against the run or the pass. When he sees the field in preseason action, he just appears to be treading water, not getting blown away, but still rarely making any tackles. He makes the Packers' 53-man roster but is on the gameday inactive list for all but a handful of games. His biggest accomplishment is merely receiving regular season playing time.

 

Mike Pennel

Best-case scenario: When Guion's chances of making the roster disappear, Pennel emerges as a potential backup nose tackle to Raji. He's the only other defensive player on the roster above 315 lbs., and as such, becomes a welcome run-stuffing addition to the unit. Following an encouraging month of August, the Packers want to keep Pennel around, especially in light of Raji playing under merely a one-year contract. Although he receives nothing more than sparse playing time during the regular season, Pennel shows potential as the Packers nose tackle of the future.

Worst-case scenario: Pennel may have a big body but unfortunately not much of an athletic one, at least on a relative scale compared to other defensive linemen on the Packers roster. The Packers feel good about what Raji, Guion and Boyd offer as some of the bigger players on the defensive side of the football, and the they just can't justify keeping Pennel at the expense of a fellow rookie like Khyri Thornton. The Packers and Pennel part ways at the end of training camp.

 

Carlos Gray

Best-case scenario: There's a lot of raw, untapped potential in Gray. Just 22 years old, he's the youngest Packers defensive lineman, and he's prone to make rookie mistakes, but he also shows flashes of surprisingly solid play. After a preseason campaign that includes a sack or two, the Packers decide they'd like to continue Gray's development, albeit on the practice squad. Gray only gets smarter and stronger as a result of being kept around the organization for an entire year in a supporting role.

Worst-case scenario: Gray was most likely better off staying in school for another year. At 22 years old, he just isn't ready for primetime despite possessing a 313-pound frame. Gray can't anchor against bigger NFL offensive linemen and gets pushed around in preseason action. The Packers have little recourse other than to expose Gray to waivers by the NFL's cutdown to 75 players.

 

Luther Robinson

Best-case scenario: A change of scenery does Robinson well after coming from a Miami program that changed coaches in the middle of his college career. Robinson displays a quick first step, getting a sack or two during the exhibition season, encouraging the Packers to keep him around on the practice squad.

Worst-case scenario: Little more than a training camp body, Robinson gets manhandled by offensive linemen that outweigh him, some by more than 20 pounds. After grading out poorly in the preseason, the Packers release Robinson during the midst of training camp.

 

Next in the series is the outside linebackers.

Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor at Cheesehead TV and its "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email carriveau@uwalumni.com.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (3) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Beep's picture

Big shoes to fill without Pickett and Jolly this year. I'm hoping there are more than a few best cases otherwise, our LB's are going to be getting run all over.

Stroh's picture

Pickett and Jolly started good last year, but they wore down and then were as much liabilities last year by the end of the year. Having a smaller group of players with more agility to extend the edge and chase the QB's could actually improve the run D, which is all either Pickett and Jolly did. Its not like having 3 330 lb DL helped the run D much last year.

Time will tell, but I don't think replacing them will be that difficult.

Imma Fubared's picture

Very good analysis. The question I asked myself, I wonder how many of the top teams in line for the SB have this many what if players.
You have quite a list. Not to mention they all could be on the worse case side of the equation? Ouch! My anst against Ted is, he seems more intent on acquiring bodies then playmakers.

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