GREEN BAY - Ryan Pickett was a trusted, wise veteran leader who did the dirty work. Johnny Jolly was a compelling comeback story who did what he could to recapture his pre-suspension form. And C.J. Wilson was an unsung run-stuffer whose single greatest accomplishment was tickling the ivories on the eve of Super Bowl XLV to keep his teammates loose before the biggest game of their lives.
All three of those familiar faces are gone from the Green Bay Packers' locker room these days, and it's time for the youngsters drafted to replace them – many of them having been selected with high picks – to step up.
How effectively they do so – especially 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones, 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy and 2014 third-round pick Khyri Thornton – will go a long way toward helping the Packers' beleaguered defense deliver on head coach Mike McCarthy's bold "big letters" promise of improvement on that side of the ball.
"We've got some young, talented guys. We'll see if they progress," tell-it-like-it-is defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "There's a lot of eager faces and there will be a lot of good competition.
"I don't know that there's any more investment than most teams have in their defensive lines. You're always going to invest in your defensive line. But obviously we didn't get to where we want to be last year. And we didn't finish the way we wanted to finish, so obviously there's some improvement to be made."
Last season, the Packers finished No. 24 in scoring defense, No. 25 in total defense, No. 25 in run defense and No. 24 in pass defense. Against the run, they ranked 29th in yards allowed per rush (4.6).
When emerging leader Mike Daniels spoke during the offseason about the defense needing to get "meaner," he did so knowing the guys up front can set the tone. Against the run, that wills tart with Raji, who re-signed on a one-year, $4 million deal that was essentially a marriage of convenience between a player who clearly wasn't going to strike it rich on the open market and a team that needed to bring back at least one of its veteran linemen.
The sides agreed not only on compensation but on Raji's role: He will return to nose tackle in the base defense, where he played in 2010 when he had his best season. With Pickett still on the street and Jolly's career in doubt after a serious neck injury (although he has reportedly been cleared by his doctor to return to football), Raji is the leader of the unit and must play better to not only command respect but earn a bigger payday next spring.
"They're going to move me back inside, and that obviously to me played a big factor (in re-signing)," Raji said. "But ultimately, the pieces around me was another factor. … I believe going back inside and doing some things I am accustomed to doing a few years back, I just felt like this is a good move for me."
While Raji and free-agent signee Letroy Guion are now the old men of the bunch, it'll be the youngsters who'll have to make the greatest improvements, starting with Jones, who had a non-descript rookie season after a training-camp ankle injury that the coaches feel stunted his growth.
"When Datone came in here, we were really excited about him. Then he got hurt and he didn't really look the same," Trgovac said. "At the end of the year, he started being himself again.
"I think everybody when he first came in here saw his athleticism. He's a tough kid. There's never been a question of that. He probably fought through that thing and tried getting on the field, being a first-round pick and all of that."
There are expectations when you are a top pick, but to Jones' credit, he never used the preseason injury as an excuse for his quiet play. He was brimming with confidence all offseason that he'll have a greater impact, even though it appears that he'll enter camp primarily as one of the two down linemen in the team's nickel and dime defenses.
"Every morning I wake up I have something to prove. That should be for everyone," Jones said. "For me, I want to be the best ever. For me, I'm working hard every day and no hard feelings to anyone else, but this is a business now."
Another player the Packers need see get down to business is Worthy, whose impact was limited as a rookie in 2012 before he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the regular-season finale. He opened last season on the physically unable to perform list and, after playing 467 snaps as a rookie, played just 12 plays last year. He then missed time in the offseason because of an injury and the unexpected death of his grandmother.
But perhaps the most interesting development at the position is the team's plan to employ hybrid defensive ends/outside linebackers, a position they call "elephant," in an effort to bring more athleticism onto the field. Among the players who fit the mold are Mike Neal, who was supposed to be more of a hybrid player last year but ended up at linebacker most of the time due to various injuries; and free-agent addition Julius Peppers, who has never played in a 3-4 before and had been a 4-3 defensive end in Carolina and Chicago. The team's 2012 first-round pick, Nick Perry, may also be an option to do split duty.
"An elephant for us could mean in certain schemes [he is] an outside ‘backer; he could be a defensive end in other schemes," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You'll see an elephant align in a lot of different spots. When you have a number of different schemes, you could see a number of different elephants on the field in different spots based off what those schemes are.
"I just think in this day and age, with the injury factor and that type of thing, you've got to have a lot of flexibility because what you play one week you might not be able to play the next week because you have a couple of guys banged up. You've got to be ready to go and be ready to go out and play at a high level each week."
QUICK READ: DEFENSIVE LINE
Will Raji's move back to nose tackle pay dividends?
Just 18 months ago, Raji was being discussed in the same breath as quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews as a must-sign player – even after uneven performances in 2011 and 2012. Then, in a contract year, he was largely persona non grata, and not only did he miss out on the kind of lucrative long-term deal Rodgers and Matthews earned, he had to settle for a below-market one-year deal and a chance to prove himself. He says moving back to nose in the base defense will help him, but the Packers only play their "Okie" package about 24 percent of the time. So he'll still have to contribute in other ways, which is what he did in 2010 when he was a field-tilter up front.
"We'll see what happens," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "He's got the right attitude, he's working extremely hard, and I think he's comfortable at what he's doing. You know with us, we're not going to be in packages where we're going to have a nose on the field 100 percent of the time. So just like before, he's going to have to be a part of our nickel fronts.
"I'm excited to see him come out (in camp). He's had an excellent attitude."
On the rise
It's one thing to talk a big game. It's another to back it up. And Daniels, who became increasingly vocal as a second-year player last year, certainly did that with his 6.5 sacks in 2013. Now, he's talking even more – he went on a long soliloquy last month about how he was tired of being pushed around and that the defense needed more of a mean attitude – but it'd be unwise to bet against him backing it up. While he lacks ideal height (listed at 6-foot) he plays with good leverage and has surprising quickness for a big man. For the defense to improve, he must, too.
"Mike's always been a tough guy. That's what we loved about him," Trgovac said. "People were probably a little bit afraid of him (entering the draft) because he doesn't have the NFL standard height and arm length, but we really loved him. He's an ex-wrestler who will get in there and grapple with [offensive linemen]. He's not going to be a finesse guy. He's very tough, works hard, great leverage and very good hands."
Player to watch
Jones walked in last year and looked like he was going to have an immediate impact. He came from UCLA, which ran a lite version of defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme, impressed everyone with his quickness during helmets-and-shorts practices and came off as a mature-beyond-his-years rookie. Whether you buy the coaches' insistence that Jones' ankle injury, which he suffered on the first play of the first preseason game, was the main reason for his quiet season or not is irrelevant. With the veteran departures, he must be a significant contributor this year.
Base defensive end
With Johnny Jolly out of the picture at least as of now, and yeoman defensive end C.J. Wilson having left as a free agent to Oakland, there's an opening at defensive end on base downs. Letroy Guion, a seventh-year vet who came over as a free agent after being cut by Minnesota, could help there, but the coaches seem to like Boyd, the 2013 fourth-round pick who started to take snaps away from Jones late in the year. Just as Daniels started to figure things out late in his rookie year in 2012, it seemed Boyd was starting to do the same.
"Josh Boyd right now is a little bit where Mike Daniels was a year ago at this time. We're hoping that Josh can make the same kind of progress that Mike Daniels made," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Mike's one of the hardest workers we have. He's got a great defensive temperament. He's strong. He's explosive. We hope he can just pick up where he left off last year and we're anticipating that Josh is going to take a step."
To grasp just how vital it is for the Packers defense to play better – but not necessarily be expected to "win" games for the team on a regular basis – the only stat that one needs is how the Packers have fared under Mike McCarthy when the defense holds the opponent under certain scoring levels. (It also may surprise you that since Capers took over as defensive coordinator, the Packers rank seventh in the 32-team league in scoring defense.)
The Packers are a remarkable 56-9 when the defense holds the opponent to 20 or fewer points (an .862 winning percentage) and 74-21-1 (.776) when holding the opponent below 30 points. Conversely, when the defense is bad, the Packers don't win many shootouts. They're just 6-24 (.200) when the opponent cracks the 30-point threshold.
"He did play some nose last year, but I think he'll be able to focus more on it. There were times when we played pickett at nose, times we played him at nose. Now, it's going to be, when we're in nose, it's going to be him. I think he's excited about that. Certain guys get a certain comfort at a position. I've known guys, they play end, but they're not going to play right end. They're going to play left end. I've coached some guys who've said, ‘No, coach, I'm not playing on the right side.' You think, ‘What's the difference? It's just turning the other way.' Certain guys feel more comfortable at certain positions." – Trgovac, on Raji's return to nose tackle.
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