Sunday, March 15, 2009

Defensive Line Has Reason to Feel Defensive...

Just read Dan Arkush's bit from PFW, and have to admit it gave me cause for concern as we get closer to the draft. The thinness has to be acknowledged by even the most optimistic of Packer fans.

For starters, the Packers currently don’t have an experienced 3-4 end on the roster. All three projected D-line starters — DEs Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly and NT Ryan Pickett — enter the offseason waving red flags, with Jenkins expected to miss much of the offseason while recuperating from ankle surgery, Jolly facing a potential league suspension stemming from his arrest last summer for possession of codeine, and Pickett coming off a campaign in which he clearly appeared to wear down late in the season.

Now, if I look at the Packers scheme change from the most simplistic point of view, it almost makes sense. If you are short at defensive line, but have four decent linebackers, switch to a 3-4! After all, if that was the situation when playing Madden, you'd play the 3-4, because you'd get your best players on the field!

But we know that the NFL isn't Madden, and that players are going to be asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The move of Aaron Kampmann (who once played DT) to an OLB spot is going to be a experiment filled with trepidation . And we know that AJ Hawk and Brady Poppinga already have their issues with pass coverage.

But it all starts up front, and if you are going to be able to play the 3-4, you need to have strong and stout up front. And the Packers are looking dangerously thin going into minicamps.

And if the line looks thin in the 3-4, it looks even thinner in a 4-3 , so please spare me the "Packer aren't going to run the 3-4 exclusively" line. This isn't about hiding our weaknesses. The offseason is about trying to get rid of our weaknesses.

The article goes on to let us know that the reserves (namely, Harrell, Montgomery, and Malone) really aren't doing much to reassure us that we have guys waiting in the wings to take over if Jenkins doesn't recover, Jolly is suspended, or Pickett continues a drop-off.

Most pointedly, the reach for Justin Harrell in the 2007 draft is a large cause of consternation for Packer fans (and likely, the Packer coaching staff, despite their apparent public support for him). When you whiff on a first-rounder, it often sets that position group back for a while. Remember Tony Mandarich? Terrell Buckley? Jamal Reynolds?

So, in a worst-case scenario, Pickett drops off, Jenkins struggles to return to form, Jolly is suspended (and not exactly a barnburner to begin with), and Harrell completes his bust melodrama. Yes, it's a glass-not-only-empty-but-broken-into-a-million-pieces outlook, but not one that is improbable. And, this is assuming Montgomery even signs back on with the Pack.

So, where do the Packers look to shore this area up this year?

Free agency is always a sticky proposition with Ted Thompson, who treads so carefully into free agent waters that you think he might be hydrophobic. There are still a couple of players out there that might be able to come in and help out. Shaun Cody, a UFA from the Lions might be a good option. The former 2nd rounder has already visited the Saints and is looking at some other teams. Dewayne Robertson of the Broncos might be another DT able to come in, though would be expected to be out of Thompson's price range.

The rumors are still abounding for a trade for Julius Peppers to come in and play defensive end, probably the biggest question mark along the line. This doesn't seem likely, as the price for Peppers would be a high draft pick, but the rewards could be quite considerable if he would end up working out as well as the optimists hope he would. The problem arises in that Peppers wants to move back to OLB, a la Aaron Kampman, which isn't all bad (a difference-maker like Peppers can upgrade the entire defense). But after Peppers, the defensive end pool gets older drastically (Vonnie Holliday, Kevin Carter, Bertrand Berry) and the chances of finding a FA that upgrades the present talent lessens.

In the draft, B.J. Raji and Brian Orakpo are a tackle and end (respectively) rumored to be taken by the Packers at #9. However, you also have to remember that this is Ted Thompson, who is likely to take the best talent available at that pick, and other positions on the team (cornerback, linebacker, offensive tackle) are just as needy as the defensive line. Raji likely won't fall to the Packers, and Orapko and many of the other DE projects, like Kampman, project to a OLB in a 3-4 (Aaron Maybin and Everette Brown are good examples).

Tyson Jackson is more of a prototypical 3-4 DE, a five-technique guy that has good athleticism. However, he is predicted to go 6 picks or so after the Packers. Do you reach and take him early? Or do you trade down and hope to get him?

While I know there are other good linemen available in the second and third rounds, I'm not going to count on them to come in as impact starters right away.

So, the question is: will the thinnest and most unstable position group on this team get an upgrade this offseason?

The answer will depend on whether or not Thompson takes a glass-full approach, that Jenkins will be back, Pickett will be fine at NT, and Jolly will not only avoid suspension, but develop into a starter to boot. And, of course, oft-injured Harrell will finally justify his draft selection. In that scenario, the Packers should be in reasonably good shape.

But, we all know that reality rarely follows the glass-full view, just as it doesn't follow the glass-empty view. Reality will end up being some shade of grey in between, and as that is the case, the defensive line is still going to need at least one major acquisition this offseason.

If I were GM (which I am not), I would do what it takes to get that difference-maker on the defensive side of the ball that fits the 3-4. I'm not sure what the asking price is for Peppers, but I'd sure consider meeting it. If he can be convinced to play hybrid DE/LB, it might be the best of both worlds. It couldn't be any worse than drafting Justin Harrell, even if it costs us a second rounder.

If for some reason Raji falls to #9, I'd certainly take him. He's a solid DT that will be a great player in any scheme, but particularly the 3-4. If that fails, I'd be looking for Tyson Jackson as a true 3-4 lineman, even if we have to trade down (or reach) to get him.

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