First-Rounders Ready To Get To Work


B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews already have a fair amount in common.

They're both first-round draft picks of the Green Bay Packers. They're both big-city guys, Raji from New York City and Matthews from Southern California.

They were both mentioned in erroneous media reports regarding drug testing from the NFL Scouting Combine. They're both represented by the same agency, and through that connection, they trained together prior to the draft and congratulated one another upon being picked in the first round last Saturday.

But most importantly, they're both ready to get back to playing some football.

"It's been four months of just training and rumors and mock drafts and this and that, so it's nice to put that all behind us," Matthews said during a joint press conference introducing the two top draft picks to the local media. "But with all that behind us now comes a different set of pressure, so I think we are like some kids in a candy store. We're ready to get going and start making a name for ourselves."

That begins with the first rookie orientation workout on Friday afternoon, so they still have a day to wait before taking the field. But with the Packers making the transition to a 3-4 defense, and with Raji and Matthews playing two cornerstone positions in it - nose tackle and outside linebacker, respectively - there are not only high expectations for both players but opportunities to potentially have a significant impact as rookies, which has them all the more eager to get going.

For this opening weekend, Raji will get some work at both nose tackle and defensive end, positions that the coaching staff has said veteran Ryan Pickett will play as well. Because all three linemen up front in a 3-4 need to be stout at the point of attack, it will benefit the Packers if the 337-pound Raji can develop some versatility right from the start.

"The big thing for me is getting a grasp of the defense, understanding what the defense asks me to do, and try to do that," Raji said. "And if I'm ready opening day to start, obviously I would love to have that opportunity. But if I'm not, I'm willing to do whatever I need to do as far as getting this team ready to win some games."

Meanwhile Matthews is coming from a 4-3 system where he played very much a 3-4 role. As an "elephant" end at USC, Matthews rushed the passer on the outside from a stand-up position, much like a 3-4 outside linebacker, and he'll be learning the spot from one of the best to ever play it in outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.

On draft day, Greene made it clear to Matthews that he expects a lot out of him even with what may seem like an overwhelming workload for a rookie. But if anyone is accustomed to expectations, it's Matthews, whose grandfather, father and uncle all had successful NFL careers, so Matthews doesn't sound like a young kid who will be out of his element under Greene's tutelage.

"He seems like a real fierce guy," Matthews said. "I obviously admire the way he played back in the day. I'm really looking forward to it. Everyone I've talked to says he is a heck of a coach and you're going to get coached up. By doing so, you should be a heck of a player.

"Just watching the way he played back in the day, he was ferocious and got after it and that's how I want to emulate my game."

{sportsad300}Getting back on the field Friday also will help both players put a pre-draft nightmare of sorts behind them. In separate media bulletins, Raji had reportedly tested positive for marijuana at the Combine, while Matthews had tested positive for steroids. Both reports turned out to be false, but while there was speculation both players would fall precipitously in the draft, they could only wait until the official results were released to NFL teams, clearing their names.

Matthews also used his initial Green Bay press conference to set the record straight about his weight gain. Several stories have said the 245-pound linebacker's weight was in the 160s when he arrived at USC as a walk-on freshman, but he said that was his weight as a junior in high school when no one was recruiting him. Late growth spurts and a lot of hard work had him in the 220s by the time he arrived at USC, and he said he continued to grow even in college.

Both hope by now all of that stuff is in the past and they can just get on with football again. A lot of hard work awaits, but these two wouldn't have it any other way.

"That's one of the things I think that they drafted us for is the type of character that we are and how we work hard for everything and how we haven't been handed everything," Matthews said. "We're go-getters and that's what we plan on doing here is getting after it."

"The fact that we are both first-rounders, that doesn't change who we are as people," Raji added. "Nothing is going to change about us, not our approach to the game, not our work ethic. (It's) great for us to be in this position as first-round draft picks, but at the end of the day we know we have to work and earn our keep."

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