The Green Bay Packers have been rebuilding and revamping their defense since the disastrous 2011 season, in which they had one of the worst defenses in NFL history. And while the reclamation project is not completed, it could take a huge step forward if a player or two on the Packers’ defensive front can take a big leap forward in 2015.
Of course when B.J. Raji was selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, he was supposed to be the lynchpin that held things together up front – he was supposed to be the guy. And for a season or two he was. Yet, he struggled in 2013 and missed 2014 due to injury, which means with a one-year deal in hand, 2015 is his time to shine.
Yet, the nose tackle position, which is Raji’s to lose with LeTroy Guion being suspended for multiple games to start the season, gives him the best chance to rebound and earn a big-money deal next offseason. However, once Guion is back, all bets are off. The veteran defensive lineman, who signed with the Packers as a free agent following four seasons with the Vikings, had a solid year for Green Bay in 2014. He was a stout presence inside when Raji went down and when he’s back from suspension he deserves playing time.
With Raji and Guion both on one-year deals, each will have plenty of motivation to prove themselves. Another that will want to prove himself is Mike Daniels, the fourth-year man from Iowa, who has become the Packers best interior rusher and one of the best in the NFL. Last season, Daniels became the full-time starter at end in the 3-4 defense and registered a career-high 6.5 sacks. He is deserving of a new contract and if he has another strong season, he could command quite the payday this offseason as well.
But, Daniels is not the only Packer with something to prove on the D-line. 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones also has yet to live up to his potential. He needs to have a solid camp to beat out 2013 fifth-rounder Josh Boyd of Mississippi State for the starting defensive end job opposite of Daniels. Jones has proven to be a solid interior rusher, even notching 3.5 sacks as a rookie before suffering through an injury-riddled sophomore campaign. But, he has yet to prove he can be the three-down player Green Bay thought he would be when it used a top pick on him two years ago.
Khyri Thorton, a 2014 third-round pick by the Packers will also try to work his way into the rotation after missing his entire rookie season due to injury. And the other player likely to make the roster is second-year nose tackle/defensive lineman Mike Pennell, who came to Green Bay and made the roster as an undrafted rookie last season. He saw snaps at the nose and at defensive and proved to be a reliable backup with some upside.
It goes without saying that when Raji, Guion, Daniels, Jones, Boyd, Thorton and Pennell all back, Green Bay should have solid depth and talent along their defensive line, but if players like Raji, Guion, Jones, Pennell, Boyd and Thorton can reach their potential, the Packers defensive line could go from a good one to a great one.