Ted Thompson is well-aware of his less-than-stellar track record of selecting defensive linemen in the draft. He whiffed on Justin Harrell in the first round of the 2007 draft and has yet to capture any sort of return on second-rounders Mike Neal and Jerel Worthy. And yet Thompson has maintained his status as a buyer at the position, nabbing UCLA star Datone Jones in this April’s draft. Jones’ ability to make an immediate impact on passing downs will be key to the defense’s success in 2013.
Also instrumental in generating pass rush will be B.J. Raji, who is in his contract year and is one of only two roster-bound linemen capable of playing nose tackle. Like cornerback Tramon Williams, Raji has not been his dominant self since the 2010 Super Bowl run, forcing Thompson to extend the contract of safety Morgan Burnett last month, rather than Raji’s. In all fairness, Thompson has not provided Raji with an adequate supporting cast to-date, which is why many are counting on Jones to step up.
The three names listed as starters on the defensive line may not mean much as Dom Capers’ defenses have traditionally played more than half their snaps out of the nickel (which features only two down linemen). The formation figures to be an area where Jones will play the bulk of his snaps, given his exceptional speed and physicality. The Packers can only hope that the rookie gradually fills the shoes of ex-Packer Cullen Jenkins, who has been the only successful end in Green Bay since the team switched to a 3-4 defense.
With C.J. Wilson and Jones projected to split time at the third starting spot on the D-Line and Worthy likely beginning the season on the PUP list, the favorites for reserve spots are Neal (despite his audition at outside linebacker this summer) and second-year lineman Mike Daniels. However, Johnny Jolly has held his own in a comeback attempt this month and will push the coaching staff to keep seven D-Linemen. On the outside looking is rookie Josh Boyd, who appears to be a prime practice squad candidate.
It’s no secret that the Packers need better production out of their defensive front three. Creating pressure on opposing quarterbacks has fallen square on the shoulders of Clay Matthews, allowing offensive lines to double team the star pass rusher. Question marks still surround the availability and long-term potential of Neal and Worthy but an inspiring September debut from Jones could flush those uncertainties out of fans’ minds for now.