Thus, Raji’s torn biceps tendon — the first major injury to strike a key member of the team this summer — is just about the worst news imaginable to a promising defense.
Clay Matthews is the best player on the defense, but at least there’s quality depth at outside linebacker with Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry, plus a bunch of decent players fighting for roster spots.
Casey Hayward’s hamstring injury was a major reason why Green Bay went from 18 interceptions in 2012 to 11 in 2013. Still, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Davon House provide a quality trio of cornerbacks.
Even with Raji, the Packers had almost no depth on their defensive line. Mike Daniels and Datone Jones flanked Raji as the starting defensive ends. Daniels, a third-year player and budding star, has one career start to his credit. Jones, a first-round pick last year who hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire, didn’t start any games as a rookie.
Josh Boyd will take Raji’s place in the starting lineup. A fifth-round pick last year, Boyd played 103 snaps as a rookie and received more than a dozen snaps in just two regular-season games. His resume consists of just eight tackles and no starts.
Letroy Guion, who spent his first six seasons with the Vikings, was supposed to provide depth at nose tackle and defensive end but hasn’t been cleared to practice due to a hamstring injury sustained before training camp. He started all 28 games he played in the past two seasons for Minnesota. His roster spot appeared in jeopardy; now, he figures to take over Boyd’s role as the No. 4 lineman.
The depth chart is rounded out by four rookies — third-round pick Khyri Thornton and undrafted free agents Mike Pennel, Luther Robinson and Carlos Gray. Of them, only Pennel — a big nose tackle who surely will make the final roster, barring a trade to acquire a veteran — has flashed on more than a rare occasion.
On the surface, the loss of Raji seems like an insurmountable hurdle for the Packers to get past, though only time will determine the truth of that statement.
It’s different positions but it’s an interesting comparison of critical early-season injuries, nonetheless. In 2010, the Packers lost inside linebacker Nick Barnett and tight end Jermichael Finley in Week 4 and Week 5, respectively. Finley, in particular, looked like a major blow after a brilliant start of 21 receptions in the first four games. However, the Packers won the Super Bowl, even with his replacement, Andrew Quarless, catching 21 passes all season. On the other hand, the defending Super Bowl champions lost safety Nick Collins in Week 2 of the 2011 season at Carolina. Green Bay started the season 13-0 but the defense was a mess all year, and the season ended with a one-and-done in the playoffs.
Without Raji, the onus falls on defensive line coach Mike Trgovac to work wonders with what’s left in the cupboard. It will be up to Daniels to continue his ascending path, Jones to crank it up a couple notches and one of the bargain-rack players (Boyd, Guion or Pennel) to provide the ultimate bargain in the middle of the line.
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.