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Packers could target defensive line early in draft

Deep crop of top prospects should help Green Bay restock unit


This is the seventh and final story in a series that has examined the Packers' roster, position by position, leading up to the 2016 draft. The series concludes with the defensive line.

GREEN BAY – This draft is no longer just important for the future of the Packers' defensive line, it's vital.

The perspective changed when veteran B.J. Raji unexpectedly decided to step away from the game in 2016 with a long-term contract offer on the table. Even with Raji, the Packers were going to look at the deep crop of early-round defensive line prospects in this draft to find another long-term anchor to the unit.

Now, they may look to land more than one.

Re-signing Mike Daniels late last season and Letroy Guion early in the offseason were big moves that became even bigger upon Raji's departure.

The rest of the unit is a combination of moving parts, question marks and youthful potential.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers began experimenting last season with Datone Jones as a stand-up pass rusher, which could mean fewer snaps in the trenches for the former first-round pick. Josh Boyd is coming off a season-ending lower leg injury that sidelined him beginning in Week 2 of 2015. Mike Pennel is suspended for the first four games of 2016.

After those three, the rest of the current roster consists of young developmental prospects in 2015 sixth-round pick Christian Ringo and additional practice-squad holdovers B.J. McBryde and William Campbell.

Perhaps one or more from that trio will become more than a rotational contributor, but at this point, none has the pedigree of a Daniels, Guion or Raji.

Fortunately, analysts consider this one of the deepest drafts for defensive linemen in recent memory, so the Packers could have multiple options when it comes to the first-round talent available at the 27th pick on April 28.

Of General Manager Ted Thompson's 11 first-round picks for the Packers, three have been defensive linemen – Justin Harrell in 2007, Raji in '09 and Jones in '13. Thompson also showed as recently as last year that when a position is obviously depleted, he'll address it aggressively. The selections of cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in the first two rounds last year couldn't have come at a better time for the defense.

The Packers have needs elsewhere, of course, but it's hard to imagine the first two nights of the draft, which encompass the first three rounds, going by without Green Bay selecting at least one defensive lineman.

The Packers' three picks in the fourth round, two of them free-agent compensatory choices, could factor in as well. Daniels was a fourth-round compensatory selection in 2012, while Boyd was a fifth-round compensatory pick the following year.

Like a lot of teams, the Packers play so much sub-package defense, they don't have three down linemen on the field in their base 3-4 even half the time.

But the Packers still can't afford to go too light up front, not with Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson in the NFC North, and not with recent NFC champions Carolina and Seattle maintaining their power running games. Peterson is on the schedule in Week 2, of course, when Pennel will be out.

In any event, inviting the run is the last thing a defense wants to do. The Packers haven't ranked in the top 20 in the league against the run since 2012, and Capers wants to change that. Restocking up front is the starting point.

View previous stories in the position-by-position breakdown

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