Both age and monetary concerns were behind the Green Bay Packers’ decision to let former defensive end Cullen Jenkins walk in free agency following the team’s win in Super Bowl XLV.
After the lockout ended in late July of 2011, Packers general manager Ted Thompson wasn’t even remotely interested in giving Jenkins the kind of length (five years) and dollars ($25 million) he eventually landed, especially after Jenkins turned 30 years old in January of 2011.
Two offseasons later, Thompson and the Packers are still attempting to fill the hole on the defensive line left by Jenkins’ departure to the Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, defensive end remains one of the defense’s biggest weaknesses as Green Bay limps into another offseason because of a defensive letdown.
With the free agency and the 2013 NFL draft quickly approaching, the position should sit high on Thompson’s offseason priority list.
Finding another version of the versatile defensive end might be easier said than done, however.
At 6-2 and 305 pounds, Jenkins never fit the long, slimmer body type of some of the game’s best 3-4 defensive ends. Justin Smith of the San Francisco 49ers is 6-4 and 285 pounds, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans is 6-6 and 295 pounds and Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals is 6-8 and 300 pounds. The top five finishers at the position this season—Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson, Campbell, Jason Hatcher and Smith, according to Pro Football Focus—averaged out at 6-5 and 290 pounds.
Despite a shorter, stockier stature, Jenkins still possessed the kind of agility and quickness needed to collapse pockets as a five-technique in the 3-4 defense. He was also powerful enough to anchor against the run, giving Jenkins an ability to play all three downs regardless of scheme.
The Packers simply don’t have a player like Jenkins on the defensive line currently.
C.J. Wilson (6-3, 290) can anchor against the run in the base defense, but he provides next to nothing in terms of a consistent pass rush. Over nearly 1,200 career snaps, Wilson has just 26 quarterback disruptions and 3.5 sacks. While fine as a rotational player, Wilson is nothing more than a below-average starter.
Rookie Mike Daniels (6-0, 290) is far too short to be a three-down player at defensive end. As a situational pass rusher, Daniels can shoot gaps and disrupt passing plays using his quickness. But he isn’t nearly big enough to hold up for 30-plus plays against the run, meaning he’ll always be somewhat of a limited player.
Fellow first-year player Jerel Worthy (6-2, 290) still has a chance to develop into a Jenkins-like player. His quickness may always be Worthy’s go-to attribute, and it was clear that he cut weight to ensure that remained. But he doesn’t currently have the height or power in his game to be a regular in the base defense, and an ACL injury that required surgery now clouds his immediate future. He was disappointing as a pass rusher in his first season. What he becomes is still very much up in the air.
Most will view Mike Neal (6-3, 295) as the best hope at the position. He was miles ahead of any other defensive lineman in pressure ratio this season, and his length and power might be the best of any defensive lineman. That said, he struggles to anchor against the run and always seems to be one play away from the training table. The Packers can’t be confident that he’ll ever be anywhere close to the kind of player against the run that Jenkins was, which limits how often he can be in the base defense.
The numbers support the difference a rare player like Jenkins made.
According to PFF, from 2008-10, Jenkins provided 98 total quarterback disruptions (15 sacks, 21 quarterback hits and 62 hurries) over 927 pass-rushing snaps. He also provided 45 “stops” in the run game, or plays constituting a negative play for the offense.
In the two years since, Green Bay’s production from Jenkins’ replacements has been mostly lacking against the pass and run.
Over 1,473 (or 546 more) pass-rushing snaps, a combination of Jarius Wynn, Wilson, Neal, Worthy and Daniels has produced just 66 total quarterback disruptions (16/7/43). The five players also combined for 65 stops over nearly twice the amount of overall snaps than Jenkins had over a three-year span.
In comparison, Watt combined for 76 disruptions and 72 stops in 958 snaps over 16 games this season. Jenkins, over 642 snaps at both defensive end and defensive tackle for Philadelphia, recorded 30 disruptions and 18 stops.
The overall defensive ranks also supports Jenkins’ impact.
The Packers defense finished the 2009 season ranked seventh in points (18.6), second in yards (284.4), 11th in sacks (37.0) and first against the run (83.3). The next season—Jenkins’ last in Green Bay—the Packers finished second in points (15.0), fifth in yards (309.1), second in sacks (47.0) and 18th against the run (114.9).
The first season without Jenkins saw drops across the board. Green Bay finished 2011 ranked 19th in points (22.4), 32nd in yards (411.6), 27th in sacks (29.0) and 14th against the run (111.8). In 2012, the numbers improved slightly. The Packers were 11th in both points (21.0) and yards (336.8), fourth in sacks (47.0) and 17th against the run (118.5).
While hundreds of factors go into the final ranks of a defense, the absence of an impact player at defensive end certainly contributed to such a precipitous drop off.
In the last handful of drafts, Thompson has just missed on the opportunity to land an impact 3-4 defensive end such as Kendall Reyes (6-4, 300), Corey Liuget (6-3, 300) or Wilkerson. Mike Neal shows flashes but remains a work in progress, Worthy struggled in his first year and Daniels is probably nothing more than a rotational player.
While the Packers have a number of personnel issues that need fixing this offseason, possibly no position needs to add an impact player quite like defensive end. Finding a suitable replacement for Jenkins—whether its in the first round of April’s draft or elsewhere—is a must if the Packers are going to survive and thrive in the 3-4 defense.