For the last two years I’ve been making a list of 5 guys that have to be good. This kind of list isn’t obvious. You’re not going to find Aaron Rodgers on this list. These are guys that you might not think of right away regarding the overall success of the Packers.
That’s the thing, though. Aaron Rodgers is going to play well. Clay Matthews, should he stay healthy is going to play well. Eddie Lacy’s going to be good and so is the offensive line. The players that we know are good are more than likely going to play well.
It’s the players that are “in the margins” that can make the difference between another 11 or 12 win team with a playoff “run” and a 13 or 14 win team and the 14th World Championship in Packers history.
I can’t get the practices that I watched last training camp out of my head when it comes to BJ Raji. His position switch back to nose tackle was supposed to bring back the BJ Raji of old. As a 29 year old player, it’s completely reasonable to think that Raji still has something in the tank, especially when you consider guys like Jay Ratliff, Vince Wilfork and Kyle Williams still providing excellent play from the inside.
That all got confirmed when I watched him practice, especially after the season that Corey Linsley had. I’ll explain: Linsley is a very good NFL center and Raji threw him around in practice like a rag doll. The Raji resurgerce that would have happened last year might have saved the run defense in 2014 and just might revive it in 2015.
I’m not convinced that we’ll ever see the 6.5 sack BJ Raji from 2010, and I don’t think it’s even completely necessary. What they need is someone to occupy blockers and free up Sam Barrington, Clay Matthews and Jake Ryan. Raji can do that. If he can consistently do that he’ll serve an important purpose.
If Raji is good again he’s lightyears ahead of what even the best Letroy Guion has to offer. He has the ability to be a dominant nose tackle. If he even provides “plus” run defense and gets 4 sacks, he’s an upgrade at the position.
Raji’s role might be familiar to him in the first few games. One of the big criticisms of the coaching staff early in Raji’s career is that they didn’t trust any of the other defensive linemen besides Ryan Pickett and that Raji played too many snaps. There’s certainly better depth on the defensive line than existed in lean defensive years like 2011 and 2012, but for at least the first game Raji will be without linemates Datone Jones and Letroy Guion.
With that said, Mike Daniels is the best running mate for BJ Raji since Cullen Jenkins. That’s big news for BJ Raji and it’s good for Datone Jones as well. Jones specifically is going to have tons of one-on-ones against guards. On 5-man rushes with Peppers, Matthews, Raji, Daniels and Jones offensive lines are really going to have difficult decisions to make. Raji’s raw size guarantees that he cannot be ignored.
If Raji plays well, he can keep the new inside linebacking corps clear. Not only were AJ Hawk and Brad Jones marginal players, they didn’t have great defensive line play in front of them. A lot of people will give Hawk a hard time because he was always getting caught up in traffic. That was certainly an issue but a better defensive line could have kept Hawk a little bit cleaner.
As usual there is a large discrepancy between the upside and the downside of what Raji could offer in 2015. If Raji reverts back into his 2010 form in an effort to get a big pay day he’ll completely transform the defense, nickel and base. His presence would open things up for Mike Daniels and slot Letroy Guion into the quality depth position that he should have always been in.
If he plays poorly and his bicep injury appears to have long term effects the Packers will struggle on the defensive line. The line will falter during Jones’ and Guion’s absence and Raji’s career in Green Bay will end. Fixing the Packers’ defense has always been a priority and fixing the middle of the defense is the best way to do that. Matthews has solidified the linebacking corps as HaHa Clinton-Dix has done to the safeties. If Raji can shore up the interior defensive line this could be a well-above average defense, and that’d be good enough. BJ Raji has to be good.