Raji Puts Nose to Grindstone

Ryan Pickett's departure has allowed the Packers to move B.J. Raji back to his natural position. Going back to nose tackle is one reason why he decided to return to the Packers.

For B.J. Raji, the ending of one chapter meant the sequel to another.

After two seasons playing mostly defensive end in the Green Bay Packers' base 3-4 defense, Raji is going back home to nose tackle.

"I think that's his natural position is the nose," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said after Thursday's organized team activity. "Obviously, when we had him and Pick (Ryan Pickett) on the same team — both good football players — you don't want one sitting on the bench. I think that's his natural position."

In other words, the presence of the beefy and aging Pickett necessitated moving Raji to defensive end — even if it wasn't the best role for Raji. With the book apparently closed on Pickett's Green Bay tenure — the free agent remains unsigned — Raji is moving back to nose tackle.

It's that return to nose tackle — where Raji played so well and rose to national prominence during the Packers' run to the championship in 2010 — that was a key selling point as Raji returned to Green Bay after receiving tepid interest on the free-agent market.

"Yes, they're going to move me back inside, and that obviously to me played a big factor," Raji said, "but, ultimately, the pieces around me was another factor. I just (feel) like (with) the best quarterback in the league, in my opinion, and (Eddie) Lacy having a good impact last year and the things we can do on offense and the things I believe we're going to be able to do on defense this year, I think this is the best decision for me."

Raji, the Packers' first-round pick in 2009, has had an incredibly inconsistent career, as evidenced by his numbers from ProFootballFocus.com. A holdout and ankle injury derailed his rookie season. In 2010, he ranked 28th out of 77 defensive tackles (3-4 and 4-3 schemes). He piled up 66 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits (coaches' count) and finished with 28 stops (a Pro Football Focus statistic that counts sacks plus impact tackles against the run).

In 2011, he ranked last out of 88 defensive tackles. He finished with 43 tackles, three sacks and 10 quarterback hits, and had just 10 stops. In 2012, his first season playing primarily end in the base defense was a success. Even though he didn't have a sack in his 14 games (the only two games missed in the past four seasons), he had 46 tackles and seven quarterack hits, added 18 stops and ranked seventh out of 34 3-4 defensive ends. Last season, however, was a major disappointment. With a big payday on the horizon for the former ninth pick in the draft, he ranked 43rd out of 45 3-4 defensive ends with 36 tackles, zero sacks, three quarterback hits and 14 stops.

With the meager production in 2013, the financial windfall vanished. Raji accepted a one-year deal worth $4 million, which included $500,000 in guaranteed money.

"Obviously, I've had some time to think it over, and I felt this was the right decision for me," Raji said. "I liked our chances this year. This was even before I heard anything about Julius (Peppers), and I still liked our chances coming back. Coach (Mike McCarthy) called me a couple times to express that they wanted me back and things, and I decided to come back."

Trgovac said Raji's role would be "somewhat" different than it has been in previous seasons. While the 3-4 is considered Green Bay's base defense, McCarthy has said the team has lined up in that front on only about a quarter of the defensive snaps the past few seasons. Moreover, in certain packages in the base defense, Raji lined up on the nose with Pickett at end. Raji will remain one of the nickel defensive tackles when it's not an obvious passing situation.

"I chose to come back for one year," Raji said. "I had some options. I had a few teams who were interested in me, but I decided to come back because I'm a guy that, obviously, I have my own private matters to worry about but, ultimately, I think I'm (most) happy when I'm winning football games."

Trgovac has seen that happiness through these early stages of the offseason. Now the elderstatesman among the team‘s defensive linemen, Raji is taking his role seriously.

"I think B.J. likes it here and I really like B.J.'s attitude right now,"Trgovac said. "He's been a good leader in there. He's one of the older guys now. When he came in here as a rookie, I said, ‘You're not going to believe how fast you're going to be the oldest guy in this room.' When you come in here as a rookie or a second-year guy — me being in this league for 20 years, guys don't realize how fast they're going to be the oldest guy in the room because everyone's careers are pretty short."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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