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Raji Not Just Another Big Guy

Packers General Manager Ted Thompson is known for saying that a team’s foundation is in its offensive and defensive line - its big guys. - More Packers 2009 Draft Page


Packers General Manager Ted Thompson is known for saying that a team's foundation is in its offensive and defensive line - its big guys.

But with the No. 9 pick in Saturday's NFL Draft, Thompson doesn't believe he selected just another big guy in Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji. He believes the 6-foot-2, 337-pounder is capable of being a special player up front in the defense's new 3-4 scheme, bringing both stoutness against the run and disruption against the pass. And that conviction was strong enough to select Raji over Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was the near-consensus top offensive playmaker in the draft and surprisingly available at the No. 9 slot.

"He's a rare guy physically," Thompson said of Raji. "He's genuinely a powerful, powerful man, especially in his lower body. 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 skill set that he brings. The good Lord just didn't make many people like this."

Raji, anywhere from a first- to third-team all-America selection by several publications as a senior in 2008, showed that skill set last year after sitting out 2007 due to an academic mixup that left him with fewer credits than necessary to be eligible.

Last season, Raji led the Boston College defense with eight sacks, an impressive total for an interior lineman. He became the first BC defensive tackle to lead his team in sacks in 23 years.

He added eight other tackles for loss on the season, giving him a total of 16 TFL's in 42 total tackles. That's better than one in three of his tackles on the year coming behind the line of scrimmage.

"He is more than a space-eater," Thompson said. "He's a little more than that. We're excited about him."

There was plenty of excitement in general when the Packers were on the clock with the ninth pick and both Raji and Crabtree were available. Most draft projections had Crabtree being selected higher with Raji going at No. 5 to Cleveland.

But when the Browns traded out of the No. 5 spot, it became more likely Raji would last until the ninth pick. And when the Raiders surprised many by taking Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey instead of Crabtree, suddenly the Packers had a huge decision on their hands.

"I didn't expect the board to look like that when we got to nine, so I had to kind of take it all in and then talk it over with some of the guys and that sort of thing," said Thompson, who added he took a few courtesy calls about a possible trade but decided to stay put. "It wasn't like we were searching our minds of what to do. I just wanted to kind of think it through because I hadn't really got to that scenario quite frankly."

The scenario the Packers headed into this weekend facing was finding some key pieces to help with the transition to Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, and Raji certainly fits that bill. The nose tackle is one of the most important spots in the 3-4, and Raji joins veteran Ryan Pickett to form a duo that can rotate depending on the matchup or situation to keep a stout presence in the middle of the defense all game long.

"It's the anchor spot, and we feel blessed that we have two exceptional nose tackles now, and we have other young guys that might come on," Thompson said. "But it's the anchor and you have to have it."

Capers is glad he has two now, one being the consensus best prospect at this position in the entire draft who can learn from and compete with an established pro like Pickett.

"I think that he has the physical tools that you look for to hopefully be a dominant guy inside," Capers said. "A guy with that type of size and athletic ability, it's a combination you're always looking for, and those guys many times don't come around real often that have size, strength and movement."

Raji's combination of run-stuffing and pass-rush presence is also pretty rare for a player greater than 320 pounds, and Raji had three sacks in one game last season, against North Carolina State. To be able to have that big a body in the middle in passing situations could prove very valuable as Capers implements his scheme.

"A lot of times you see bigger linemen like that, they play on first and second down and they come out on third down," Capers said. "It will be interesting to see how he does, but I think he might have some capabilities of staying in there and playing on third down.

"It's a frustrating feeling if you run out of guys with size in there and all of a sudden have to stunt these guys all the time. That normally doesn't work very well."

{sportsad300}Raji took over as a starter at defensive tackle for BC during his sophomore season in 2005. By his second season as a starter, he was second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference.

But then the academic issue sidelined him for all of 2007, relegating him to the scout team in practice but providing an opportunity, as Raji said, to re-focus his energies and learn humility and patience.

"That was probably the hardest thing I had to go through," Raji said of sitting out an entire season. "I knew if I could get through that and get back on the right track, I knew I would be OK."

He had yet another setback earlier this year, though it was beyond his control. A media report indicated he tested positive for marijuana at the Scouting Combine in February, which Raji immediately denied and it indeed turned out he wasn't on the league's list of positive testers.

The son of two Pentecostal ministers, Raji did not raise any red flags character-wise with Thompson and the personnel staff, and the more they studied him, the more they liked both the power and passion in his play.

"You guys know how much we value big people, both on the offensive and the defensive line," Thompson said. "The good ones are really hard to find."

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