The Green Bay Packers put a significant emphasis on the defensive line in this year’s draft.
By selecting Mike Neal (Purdue, second round) and C.J. Wilson (East Carolina, seventh round), the team made it clear it felt more size and depth needed to be added up front. And by officially moving B.J. Raji (RAJI!) and Ryan Pickett to nose tackle and defensive end, respectively, the Pack will look a lot different as they enter year two of the 3-4 scheme.
This current look will probably only last for the 2010 season, though.
That’s because two key members of the line, ends Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins, are both entering free agency after this season. Jolly signed his one-year RFA tender – worth $2.5 million – last week. Under the current CBA, he wouldn’t be scheduled for unrestricted free agency until after 2011, but you have to think the Players Association will get that rule changed by the time a new CBA is agreed upon.
Jenkins, meanwhile, will earn $3.2 million in the last year of the four-year, $16 million contract he signed in 2007.
Green Bay is clearly hoping one of the two rookies or 2009 sixth round pick Jarius Wynn – no, I’m not doing the “If he’s healthy, Justin Harrell could bring something to the table, too” dance, like some fans are – will play well enough this season to make either Jolly or Jenkins expendable.
Obviously, how those two players perform this season will play a major part in who stays and who goes. Since it’s only, you know, June, we can’t determine that yet. But we can look at some factors that may provide some clues as to which way the team is currently leaning.
First, let’s look at the type of player each is.
Jolly is a powerful – make that ridiculously powerful – lineman. His quickness is perhaps a bit underrated, yes, but Jolly makes his name on his ability to flat-out overpower the man in front of him. He’ll likely never be a big-time pass-rusher – he had just one sack last season and has just two for his career – but he’s still an asset in pass defense. His 11 pass knockdowns last season broke the club record of nine, ironically set by Jenkins in 2007. In many ways, he is a prototypical 3-4 end – not overly flashy, but strong enough to eat up blocks and free the linebackers behind him.
Jenkins is not a weak man by any stretch, but he doesn’t appear to have the raw strength of Jolly. Of course, he’s got very good quickness and has shown he knows how to get to the quarterback, be it 3-4 or 4-3 (his 4.5 sacks last season is a lot for a 3-4 end, believe it or not). He’s a good fit for the scheme, but perhaps not quite as much as Jolly is. Remember, pass rushing skills are a plus, not a requirement, for 3-4 ends.
Let’s now take a look at the ages of each player. Jenkins turned 29 in January, while Jolly turned 27 in February. Not much of a difference in most areas of life, but in the NFL, two extra years of youth can sometimes play a big part in making such decisions.
So far, it would seem the edge goes to Jolly, right? Yes, but this third area could shift things a bit: Negatives on each player.
There are two major knocks on Jenkins: His injury history and his tendency to wear down as the season progresses.
Big things were expected of him in 2007, but he wasn’t very good (outside of the pass knockdowns). Injuries nagged him for most of the season and he finished with just one sack (plus 1.5 sacks in the divisional round win over Seattle). He was lining up a Pro Bowl-type year in 2008 before a torn pectoral muscle put him on injured reserve just four games in.
The tendency to wear down was obvious last season. After putting up 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles through the first six games, Jenkins all but fell off the map for the final 10: One sack, no forced fumbles. Pass rushing is a luxury for linemen in this scheme, yes, but it wasn’t just there that Jenkins disappeared. You seemed to notice him less and less in every area as the season went on.
And Jenkins was also one of the players that voiced their displeasure with the way Dom Capers was scheming things near the midway point of the season. He quieted down as the defense took off, but you have to wonder if he’s still unsure of his role. After all, he’s a better fit for the 4-3.
Those two knocks are certainly significant, but they pale in comparison to the major knock on Jolly: His character.
The drug charges currently looming against Jolly are certainly troublesome, as is the fact that his trial is seemingly never going to actually happen. Truth be told, though, I’d be willing to look past that. Remember, this is the NFL, and Jolly would definitely not be the first young player to make a foolish off-field mistake involving drugs (allegedly).
The thing I can’t look past, however, is the fact that Jolly is still making foolish mistakes (see: the photos where he appears to be drinking even though he was told not to by the judge). Those photos, in part, earned him an extremely strict curfew from the judge in his case and those are the things that make me wonder if he can ever actually be counted on.
I’m not the only one who feels that way, either. The rumors have been out there for awhile now that people within the organization are worried about handing over a big contract to Jolly. The drug issues play a part in those feelings, but there’s also concern that Jolly has a poor work ethic and could be the type of player to mail it in upon receving that big signing bonus (now more relevant than ever with the current Albert Haynesworth saga in Washington).
And whether or not he’s found guilty in this case, Jolly is almost certain to receive a suspension of some sort from Roger Goodell (even if he’s found innocent, I’m guessing he’ll have to sit out two games). That means the margin for future error with him will be zero – not good if you’re talking eight-figure signing bonuses.
When you add all of this up, it seems like Jolly is a better candidate to stay until you consider the off-field stuff. Jenkins might not be the better fit for the scheme, but he’s a safer choice. It’s true that the team could keep both players – franchise Jenkins and re-up Jolly – but that is not going to happen. Pickett and Raji already both make big money and the team has invested a lot in the young guys, particularly Neal.
Again, the 2010 season will likely provide the final verdict. But for now, Jenkins has the edge.