It was easy to make excuses for B.J. Raji following his nondescript rookie season. From his training camp holdout to his nagging ankle injury to his playing out of position, there were plenty of reasons to explain why the No. 9 pick in the ’09 draft often looked like just another guy. It was expected that a healthy ankle and a switch back to nose tackle would enable the player who dominated the ACC to cause similar havoc in the NFL, but that isn’t happening – at least not yet. Through 18 practices and one preseason game, Raji has been good, but far from great.
The front three was the strength of the defense last season, and coordinator Dom Capers is counting on that to be the case again. But without the suspended Johnny Jolly at left end, the only way for that to happen is if Raji has a breakthrough year. The former Boston College star needs to be as strong at the point of attack as Ryan Pickett was a year ago, and he must be far more productive as a pass rusher. He’s 0 for 2 in the early going.
While Raji has little trouble handling opponents one-on-one, he needs to do a better job of holding his ground against double teams. In his first season at nose tackle, Pickett did an excellent job of tying up two blockers and allowing the linebackers to come up and make tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. Raji must do the same, but it won’t be as easy for him. Because he weighs considerably less than Pickett, his technique needs to be close to perfect on every snap. It hasn’t been, or at least it hasn’t been on a consistent basis. He tends to rise out of his stance, play too upright and get turned too easily on occasion.
As a pass rusher, Raji needs to be a difference maker – someone who will collapse the pocket and push the opposing quarterback into the waiting arms of one of the outside linebackers. He hasn’t done that enough through the first three weeks of training camp. Sure he’s been better than Pickett, but that’s not saying much. On a defense with very few natural pass rushers, Capers is counting on Raji, along with Clay Matthews and Cullen Jenkins, to make life miserable for the Brett Favres of the world.
There’s no question that a healthy Raji will be a solid player this season, but the Packers need him to be more than solid. And maybe he will be once the regular season begins, but as of now, he’s not at the level of Casey Hampton (Steelers), Jay Ratliff (Cowboys), Vince Wilfork (Patriots), Kelly Gregg (Ravens) and Aubrayo Franklin (49ers). For the sake of the entire defense, he needs to get there as soon as possible.
-Mike Tahan contributed to this report