Raji equipped to dominate

First-round pick B.J. Raji flashed some of his prodigious potential at the recent rookie camp. His play will be a focal point when OTAs start this week and throughout his rookie season. He'll need to play up to expectations to improve the NFL's 26th-ranked run defense.

At the recent rookie camp, B.J. Raji lined up across from some nameless offensive lineman during a one-on-one pass-rushing drill. It was a matchup pitting the ninth overall pick of the draft against an undrafted player, and the result was both stunning and predictable.

Raji used a swim move to beat the lineman before he had even gotten out of his stance.

That Raji won the matchup wasn't surprising. He is, after all, one of the most highly touted defensive tackles to enter the NFL in years. It's how Raji won the matchup that was impressive. Players who weigh 337 pounds just shouldn't be able to move like that.

Somewhere, perhaps even the great Reggie White might have taken notice.

"For 330-plus pounds, he's not just a two-gapper," director of college scouting John Dorsey told Packer Report. "He's light on his feet. He's a more-fluid athlete than people give him credit for. I can see him either holding the point or avoiding the block and getting into the backfield to make the play. I think he is a fine addition to this organization."

Raji's hoped-for road to NFL stardom continues on Tuesday, with the beginning of four weeks of organized team activities. The first practice is Wednesday, and if Mother Nature cooperates, Packer Nation can see Raji during Thursday's practice at Clarke Hinkle Field.

Much is expected of Raji, and he's already been given a hero's welcome to Green Bay. When he stepped off the airplane for the rookie camp, he was greeted at the airport. While in a local restaurant's parking lot before dinner with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, fans flocked to him for autographs.

"It's real exciting, playing in such a prestigious organization like the Packers," Raji said. "It's something you only dream about. When I got the call, I was shocked that the day has finally come. I know a lot is expected of me, and I'm willing to work to get where I need to be to help this team win."

Raji is big and athletic, and the Packers are counting on those traits to make him a versatile and productive player from Day 1. In the base 3-4 defense, Raji will play nose tackle and defensive end. When the Packers go to a four-man front on passing downs, Raji likely will pair with Cullen Jenkins at defensive tackle. In short-yardage situations, Raji and Ryan Pickett will be manning the middle.

Raji learned a bit of both defensive fronts at the rookie camp, and that education will continue during OTAs and the three-day minicamp that follows.

"In the 4-3, you get your first step up the field," he said. "In a 3-4, you're more like reading and waiting for the offensive lineman to move, kind of moving lateral. It's a bit of adjustment but I'm getting the hang of it."

Truly big defensive linemen are hard to fine. Big guys with the nifty footwork needed to excel in both schemes are a rarity.

"He has the physical tools that you look for to hopefully be a dominant guy," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "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."

That was evident during 11-on-11 drills at the rookie camp. Raji was at left defensive end and unleashed a spin move. The quickness beat the guard, and Raji thumped the tackle with a forearm to open a crease to chase the quarterback out of the pocket. It was a violent move — especially in a limited-contact drill — but what would you expect from a big man with amazing athletic ability?

"He's genuinely a powerful, powerful man, especially in his lower body," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "He has the ability to take people backwards where they don't want to go. 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."

During his senior season at Boston College, Raji piled up eight sacks and 16 tackles for losses. That big-play ability is what made him a top-10 pick, but what the Packers really need is Raji to be a force against the run. The Packers ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and yards allowed per attempt last season. If the Packers can't do far better than that, Capers won't be able to unleash his exotic pressure packages.

"I'm not going to stand here and say one player is going to take care of anything that went on in the past," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I will tell you this: We're going to play better run defense and it is going to be everybody involved. It will start with our base front being a 3-4. I know from an offensive standpoint, I have always felt it was a bigger challenge to compete against a 3-4 than the four-man lines in run defense. Obviously, players have a lot to do with that. I'm not saying scheme is the end all and will resolve this, but he will definitely contribute. He is the body type. He is a gifted young man."

Those gifts should help the offensive linemen, too. Fourth-round pick T.J. Lang was one of the linemen who got the better of Raji during the rookie camp.

"He's a good player. He's a real good player," Lang said. "He's a big guy, he's quick, he's light on is feet and uses his hands really well. The thing about the linemen is you can't really tell how physical guys are without pads on, but I went against him a couple of times and he's a great player. It's a great challenge for me and it's a great challenge for everybody else. It's good work every day."

Raji, humbled by his 2007 academic suspension and the failed drug test he acknowledged at Boston College, knows what matters. And it's not a journalist's accolades, the general manager's high hopes or the fans' high expectations.

"I haven't accomplished anything yet," he said.

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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. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.

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