With their first pick in the NFL Draft on Saturday, the Packers found a player they think can become the centerpiece of their new defense.
Mammoth B.J. Raji was selected No. 9 overall by the Packers at a position of need, nose guard, in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. The 6-foot-1, 337-pound Boston College product gives the Packers a chance to turn around a defense that has regressed in recent years.
"He has the physical tools that you look for to hopefully be a dominant guy," said Capers. "A guy with that type of size and athletic ability, that's the combination you're looking for, and those guys many times don't come around real often that have size, strength, and movement."
Raji's selection, unlike three of four other Thompson first picks with the Packers, was not that big of a surprise. Many mock drafts had predicted Raji to go within the No. 5 to No. 10 slots, with the Packers being the most likely candidate at No. 9. But with the Packers on the clock to pick, selecting Raji became less than just a slam dunk. Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree, a player the Packers also liked, but did not necessarily need, had slid.
"I didn't expect the board to look like that when we got to (No.) 9," said Thompson. "So, I kind of had to take it all in and talk to some of the guys and that sort of thing. It wasn't like we were searching our minds and didn't know what to do. I just wanted to kind of think it through because I hadn't really got to that scenario, quite honestly."
With the Jets trading up to No. 5 to select quarterback Mark Sanchez (USC) and the Raiders taking wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (Maryland) at No. 7, the Packers passed on potentially rocky waters with Crabtree by dropping an anchor named Raji.
"He's genuinely a powerful, powerful man especially in his lower body," said Thompson. "He has the ability to take people backwards where they don't want to go. He also has the quickness to go around them. It's unbelievably hard to find the combination of the skill set that he brings. The good Lord just didn't make many people like this."
As Raji wiped his brow of sweat while talking on the phone to the Packers just before his selection, the Packers got the man they really wanted.
"We feel confident we did the right thing," said Thompson.
Raji's selection unofficially kick-starts a new era for a Packers defense that finished 20th in the league a season ago. The crux of the team's problems were along the defense line, where they had trouble stopping the run and were even worse rushing the passer. Raji figures to change that.
"He's a classic nose tackle build, but like I say, hopefully we're taking football players," said Thompson. "We think B.J. Raji is a pretty good football player. I think he fits pretty well in a 3-4, but I still think he can play well in a 4-3 which he played his entire career in college. He's more than a space eater."
Raji posted a career-high 42 tackles, 16 stops behind the line of scrimmage and eight sacks his senior season at Boston College.
The Packers are not concerned with his ability to adapt to a 3-4 defense, which he has never played. Though Raji had some classroom struggles in college, scouting reports highlight his football acumen – things like his ability to learn quickly and retain plays and to pick up schemes. He was rarely caught out of position due to mental errors.
As for questions about Raji's stamina, the Packers do not seem to be worried. They figure to play him among a rotation, at least initially, which includes interior lineman Ryan Pickett, who will turn 30 in October.
"A lot of times you see bigger lineman like that and they play on first and second down and they come out on third down," said Capers. "It will be interesting to see how he (Raji) does, but we think he might have some capabilities to stand in there and play on third down.
Thompson also said Saturday that he has no concerns about Raji's character. Reports that surfaced earlier that Raji had tested positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine turned out to be false, and by all indications, the son of parents who are both pastors appears to be headed in the right direction.
After missing the 2007 season at Boston College due to academic reasons (he did not have enough credits), Raji came back strong in 2008 as one of the coveted prospects in the draft. He spent the 2007 season focused on his class work and improving his technique working with the Eagles scout team.
"It gave me a lot of patience," said Raji. "That was probably the hardest thing I had to go through. I knew if I could get through that… I knew I would be OK."
Now, the Packers' defense is hoping it will be OK with Raji in the middle and not regret passing up Crabtree, who was regarded by most as the No. 1 receiver in the draft.
"All things being equal, you guys know how much we value big people on the offensive and defensive line," summed up Thompson. "The good ones are really hard to find. It gets to be a supply and demand thing, but it doesn't necessarily take over the value of another player at another position. It's just we've always put a lot of emphasis on that."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.