B.J. Raji has been one of the biggest enigmas for the Green Bay Packers since he was drafted by the team in 2009. He was drafted by them No.9 overall to anchor Dom Capers’ new 3-4 defense. The Packers at the time really had nobody capable of playing nose tackle for the long run, so it was as big a need as you can get.
Raji hasn’t exactly been a bust, but at the same time he has failed to live up to expectations most of the time in Green Bay. The good news for him is that the team may not have won Super Bowl XLV without him. Raji was dominant that season with 6.5 sacks from nose tackle and his pick-six interception in the NFC Championship game in Chicago was huge in closing out the Bears. In addition to the exceptional pass rush, Raji was a big reason why the Packers led the NFL in rush defense in 2009. That’s what the Packers really need from him in 2015.
Green Bay improved its run defense after Clay Matthews started playing snaps at inside linebacker last season, but it still wasn’t where you want it to be. Their defensive line is more of a smallish and quicker unit, which is rare for a 3-4 defense in which the linemen are supposed to be able to occupy multiple blockers to allow the linebackers to flow through the line of scrimmage and make plays. Raji gives Green Bay by far its biggest body. If he can command and take on double-teams the Packers would have a better chance in stopping the run effectively.
Ideally, Raji would be a little taller than 6’2″ since nose tackles aren’t free to penetrate a lot of the time and are just occupying blockers. A couple more inches would really help Raji in seeing over the offensive line and locating running backs in the backfield.
Raji has all the skills to be a very effective nose tackle. His burst with his first step off the snap is rare for a man his size and allows him to penetrate quickly in the backfield to disrupt plays, although you would like to see him develop more counter moves when he isn’t winning with quickness. That’s why he wasn’t happy as a DE in the 3-4 scheme, since those “jet” opportunities to go into the backfield weren’t there a lot. Raji combines that quickness with good strength to hold up at the point of attack.
Despite always having the talent, Raji just hasn’t been able to put it together consistently. His maturity, effort and love for the game have been questioned by people around him at times. That’s probably why he was not productive when he felt he was playing out of position. However, playing out of position and fewer rushing opportunities is still no excuse for zero sacks in his last two seasons in 2013 and 2013. Hopefully, the fact that Raji stayed around the Packers and supported his teammates when was injured instead of running away and hiding is a sign that he has grown up.
The Packers are hoping that Raji’s good trai ning camp last summer at nose tackle is a sign of things to come, and that he will be refreshed and hungry coming off an injury. Raji is being counted on in a big way with Green Bay’s thin defensive line and great need to stop the run. Time will tell if the trust in him will pay off.——————