Packers training camp preview: Defensive line

There are several key questions surrounding Green Bay's defensive line that could either make or break the defense.

Though he played less than 50 percent of the snaps last season, Mike Daniels had 6.5 sacks and was disruptive on nearly every play that he was on the field.

Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

 

This is the sixth in a series of 14 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' July 26 start of camp.

TODAY'S POSITION: DEFENSIVE LINE

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6

Projected starters: Mike Daniels, B.J. Raji, Mike Neal

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Datone Jones, *Josh Boyd, *Khyri Thornton, *Jerel Worthy, *Letroy Guion, Luther Robinson, Carlos Gray, Mike Pennel

The breakdown:

Taking the Packers' official roster at face value, Mike Neal is listed as a defensive end / linebacker, while Julius Peppers is identified as a linebacker / defensive end. For that reason, Neal will be analyzed as a defensive lineman, but Peppers will be viewed as a linebacker.

There are several key questions surrounding Green Bay's defensive line that could either make or break the defense. It begins with Mike Daniels, who was arguably the Packers' best defensive player last season. Though he played less than 50 percent of the snaps, Daniels had 6.5 sacks and was disruptive on nearly every play that he was on the field for. ProFootballFocus had Daniels as Green Bay's best defensive player by a significant margin. That's the Year 2 jump that head coach Mike McCarthy is always looking for. Now, though, the expectations are for Daniels to perform at a near-elite level, and it will be difficult for him to achieve that if the coaching staff doesn't trust him enough to play him in more running situations.

B.J. Raji made a somewhat surprising return to the Packers with a one-year contract this offseason. He opted for that route seemingly for two main reasons: to be a permanent nose tackle and to try to have a dominant season and hit free agency again as a prized player next offseason. The nose tackle aspect of that should work in his favor, as it's the spot where he's played best during his career. Whether Raji is able to tap into the 2010 version of himself (when he had what are still career highs of 6.5 sacks, 39 tackles and three passes defensed) remains to be seen.

Some defensive lineman needs to follow in Daniels' footsteps and have a breakout year. If Green Bay had two top-tier defensive ends in its 3-4 sets to go along with Clay Matthews and the outside linebacker group, the Packers' defense could be great. Datone Jones, as a first-round pick, should be the player most capable of doing that. He'll certainly be given every opportunity in training camp to show he can be that guy. Josh Boyd passed Jones on the depth chart late last season, so maybe it's the 2013 fifth-round pick who once again outperforms the player who was taken 141 spots sooner in the draft. Worthy has a lot to prove after a forgettable rookie season in 2012 and a follow-up year that never got off the ground due to recovery from a torn ACL.

There's a lot of discussion -- and justifiably so -- on Green Bay's safeties and inside linebackers, but if the defensive line has multiple players step up, the Packers' entire defense will benefit greatly.

Best position battle: Sorting out snaps at defensive end

Daniels played the most snaps last season out of Green Bay's defensive ends, and he wasn't even on the field for half of them. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was searching for favorable matchups, but the results were mixed. If the Packers have a couple defensive ends develop enough early this season to remain in regardless of the situation, Capers' job will be a lot easier.

The specifics of how Green Bay uses the elephant position will play an important role in this "position battle" too. Peppers and Neal are the two players currently set to play the elephant position, splitting their time between having their hand in the dirt and standing up at outside linebacker. If Peppers or Neal have a lot of success doing that, it will lessen the need for the more traditional defensive end. That would also cut into the opportunities made available to Daniels, Jones and the rest of that bunch.

As Jones, Boyd, Worthy and former Packer C.J. Wilson found out last season, playing time can be scarce if they're not productive. Right now, this is a group with several average players that lacks a superstar. Daniels has the best shot at becoming a Pro Bowl selection, but with no one player commanding 100 percent of the snaps, there will be plenty of chances for each of them to go from seldom-used to oft-used.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Lions; 2. Bears; 3. Vikings; 4. Packers

How's this for big names staying in the division: Jared Allen went from Minnesota to Chicago and Peppers went from Chicago to Green Bay. That will be an interesting dynamic to watch all season, as both will be compared with the other throughout. Plus, add in Willie Young going from Detroit to Chicago, Letroy Guion heading to Green Bay after six years in Minnesota and Corey Wootton signing with Minnesota after beginning his career in Chicago. Apparently they all enjoyed the competition of the NFC North.

The Lions rank atop the division at defensive line as the trio of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah have the potential to dominate games for Detroit. Suh, for as much as he's disliked by many, has been great for the Lions over the past two seasons. Ansah, the fifth-overall pick in 2013, began his NFL career by piling up eight sacks as a rookie.

The Bears' defense was a mess last season, but signing LaMarr Houston away from Oakland was a great move and Allen will be motivated to win after hand-picking Chicago as his next NFL stop. Young is a backup to Houston and Allen, which is a great indication of just how good the Bears' defensive ends are. Chicago used its second- and third-round pick this year to draft defensive tackles, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton.

The Vikings got good seasons last year out of defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. Minnesota is hoping that its offseason signing of Linval Joseph works out while also waiting to see what 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd can do in Year 2 of his career.

The Packers rank last in the division here, though they have the potential to at least be mentioned among the top two defensive lines in the NFC North if things go the way Capers & Co. hope. But that's up to Peppers and Neal to perform at the elephant position, it's up to Daniels to continue improving and it's up to someone from that remaining group to make a big jump.

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