Sudden impact with top picks

B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews will provide an immediate shot in the arm for the new-look Green Bay defense. Veteran Packers reporter W. Keith Roerdink provides his thoughts after Day 1 of the draft.

With the first pick in his last two drafts, and three of the five that he's served as general manager, Ted Thompson's ‘Best Player Available' hasn't been anybody that was going to make an immediate impact. Aaron Rodgers? Nope. Justin Harrell? Don't get me started. Jordy Nelson? Heck, receiver was already their deepest position.

So when Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree was still sitting there at No. 9, looking like the most tempting thing at Radio City Music Hall not named Erin Andrews, you kind of figured that he was destined to end up in green and gold, creating a log jam with starters Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.

But when Thompson stared into a draft board that, to most Packer fans, has seemed as mysterious as that smoke monster on ‘Lost,' what he saw was Crabtree, the best receiver and arguably the best player in this year's draft, ranked on par with Boston College nose tackle, B.J. Raji, a 6-foot-1, 332-pound man-mountain who's a perfect fit for Green Bay's new 3-4 defensive scheme.

Just like that, ‘Best Player Available' and ‘Need,' something at times treated like a four-letter word inside 1265 Lombardi Ave. , shook hands and waited for Commissioner Roger Goodell to make it official: Raji was a Green Bay Packer.

"There are a lot of difficult calls during the course of the draft, and we think a lot of Michael Crabtree and a couple of other guys," Thompson said. "But yeah, it was a difficult call. But we feel confident that we did the right thing."

Make no mistake about it; Crabtree would've been an excellent pick. And an understandable one. Late last season, he seemed like a sure-fire No. 1 overall pick. His game-winning touchdown grab against Texas that he caught between two defenders before tight-roping down the sideline seemed to cement that status. But then came word of a stress fracture in his foot. And while he decided to skip the 40-yard dash at February's Scouting Combine, Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey scorched the turf with a 4.3 and went to the Raiders (good luck to you) at No.7. Clearly, some of the shine had worn off. Still, I'll be shocked if Crabtree isn't one of the best receivers in the league three years from now.

As a Packer, however, Crabtree would've been fighting for snaps behind the ageless Driver and rising star Jennings. His selection also would've pretty much relegated Jordy Nelson (last year's first pick) and James Jones to trade bait at best and an afterthought at worst. Instead, they get Raji, a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle in the mold of the Steelers' Casey Hampton, the Patriots Vince Wilfork and the Ravens' Haloti Ngata. This isn't a guy who's just a ‘space-eater,' though his ability to tie up on opposing center and guard will be huge (literally) for the Packers' linebackers. As good as Crabtree might be, this was the absolute right call by Thompson.

"He's a very powerful, explosive interior defensive lineman that has the ability to definitely play the run," Thompson said. "He also shows the ability and the power to be a pass rusher from the inside. We think his addition gives us a little flexibility with Ryan (Pickett). Obviously Ryan is our nose tackle and he does a great job at it, but he is also athletic enough that if we wanted to move him around a little bit, that gives us some flexibility."

There are some knocks on the big man. He's been called lazy and his weight was up to 360 as a sophomore. Raji's off-field issues include three supposed positive tests for marijuana at Boston College , a false-positive rumor from the Combine and being academically ineligible for the 2007 season. Thompson, however, was unfazed. He's comfortable with the work his scouting departments have done and the personal interviews they've conducted. But the game film from last season – those 42 tackles and eight sacks -- tell you all you need to know about Raji.

"He has the ability to take people backwards where they don't want to go," Thompson said. "He also has the quickness to go around them. He is a very powerful player against the run. It's unbelievably hard to find the combination of skill set that he brings. The good Lord just didn't make many people like this."

If getting Raji didn't generate enough euphoria in Packer Nation, Thompson went against the grain by trading back up into the bottom of the first round to take USC outside linebacker Clay Matthews III, with the 26th pick. In giving up their second round – the 41st overall -- and both third-round picks, the Packers made a strong statement that Matthews, the son of longtime Browns linebacker Clay Matthews and nephew of longtime Oilers/Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, is a player they think can grab hold of the starting outside spot opposite Aaron Kampman. So long as that happens, and Matthews thrives in that role, what Green Bay gave up to get him becomes a footnote.

"We were really zeroed in on Clay," Thompson said. "We think he's a really, really nice fit for our defense. He's a guy that has worked his way up. He was a former walk-on, 205 pounds, that wound up starting and playing for one of the better teams in America. He plays the game very well. He has obvious great genetics going for him, and I think he is going to have a really nice career."

Matthews, featured on this week's Sports Illustrated cover with his ‘Band of Brothers' USC teammates, was the second Trojans linebacker to be selected after fellow outside linebacker Brian Cushing went No. 15 overall to Houston. Inside linebacker Rey Maualuga went 38th overall to Cincinnati. As a senior at USC, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Matthews racked up 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks as part of the most-heralded linebacking unit in the country.

Following in the footsteps of his dad and uncle, Matthews calls his story from college walk-on to NFL first-round pick a remarkable one. And to hear him tell it, it's clear the pride he takes in making his mark first as a special team's standout and eventually as part of the Trojans starting defense. It's also pretty clear that he's set his sights on a starting spot on the Packers defense this coming season.

"I'd sure like to think so," said Matthews, who clocked a 4.62 40-yard dash at his pro day. "I think I'm a terrific athlete and I have confidence in my abilities. I'm here to stay and I'm here to win a starting position."

After watching last year's defense struggle against the run, fail to generate a consistent pass rush and inexplicably collapse late in games, Raji and Matthews represent impact players, soon-to-be starters, and perhaps most of all -- immediate hope.

Not a bad first day, Mr. Thompson. Not bad at all.

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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at

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