INDIANAPOLIS––No, Mike McCarthy doesn't intend to utilize smaller defensive linemen moving forward despite what's been suggested in the media in recent weeks.
But he does have to prepare for the potential losses of two of the most productive veterans on the team in B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, a pair of big-bodied "War Daddies" that both tip the scales at over 330 lbs. They'll become free agents in early March and may or may not be back.
With an eye toward the future, McCarthy is looking for a pair of rookies from the 2013 class to step up their play entering their second year in professional football to help the Packers defense become more creative and more effective. Those players are Datone Jones and Josh Boyd.
"We’ve had a situation with our defense where there’s a lot of change, a lot of moving parts and we have to do a better job of planning for that and training that way starting in April," said McCarthy. "At the end of the day, Datone Jones needs to be on the field and being utilized. We have a lot of creativity in our defense and a lot of scheme, but the reality is we didn’t get to a lot of it this past year."
Jones was a first round draft choice this past season, and while he's still young, he probably didn't put up the numbers people expect from a player picked No. 26 overall. Despite playing in all 16 games, Jones had just 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Part of the reason for Jones' lack of production might perhaps be attributed to being undersized at a listed weight of 285 lbs. and an inability to keep on the weight over the course of a long season, one quite a bit longer than college.
But another factor––and one that was not insignificant––was Jones' sprained ankle suffered at the most inopportune time, his first snap of the first preseason game of the year.
“Datone, very talented young man," said McCarthy. "His injury at the end of training camp set him back. There’s a number of packages that he was a big part of, a primary part of, and frankly we really didn’t get to a lot of them just because of the way the season went with our injuries. Getting him back in the offseason, I feel he’s one of those second year players who take a huge jump. That will be my expectations for him.”
If Raji and Pickett depart in free agency, there's little choice but for Jones to play a larger role this upcoming season, even if he doesn't possess the same sheer bulk.
Whereas Jones was utilized primarily as an interior pass-rush specialist in his rookie season, he'll be looked at as someone that needs to become nearly a three-down player like Raji used to be.
Even if Raji and Pickett do depart, Jones is never going to be a nose tackle in the team's 3-4 defense. But there's perhaps another second-year player who could handle such a position.
Boyd was lightly used in his rookie season with the Packers, although his playing time and impact increased late in the year. Entering his sophomore season in the NFL, he's another player that will be looked at to bolster the defensive line.
"I don't want Josh to bulk up. He's a big man," said McCarthy. "Josh did some good things. I think Josh has a flexibility. He's shown he can play the nose and he can play the three-technique. So I really like what Josh gave us as a rookie, but he needs to take a huge step, a big step. And I think he'll be one of those players that does that in his second year."
The Packers certainly haven't ruled out the possibility of Raji and Pickett returning to Green Bay in 2014. As general manager Ted Thompson acknowledged on Friday, he'd like to keep his players all things being equal.
In the NFL, however, not everything is equal. The Packers have to balance a salary cap and how much they want to invest into their free agents and weigh that against any offers another team might make.
Jones and Boyd are part of the team's future plans, no matter what happens in free agency, and they're being looked to be part of the anticipated renaissance on the Packers defense in 2014.
"We will be a little different on defense as far as how we utilize our defensive players, particularly our front players, because we do have a number of players who can play both the rush outside position and maybe make some impact from the inside position," said McCarthy. "But our evaluation as far as what we’re going to do bringing defensive linemen into our program––if anything, you always want to get bigger, stronger and faster and things like that. We’re definitely not going to be smaller.”
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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