Alarm bells went off in the media earlier this week upon B.J. Raji’s unexpected retirement prompting many internet scribes and Twitter GMs to pound the table for the Packers to find an immediate replacement in order to fix the sizeable hole created by the space eater’s defection.
Fortunately for Packers fans, this year’s draft class is one that promises a bountiful collection of interior defensive linemen of various shapes, sizes and skill sets.
If you connect the dots, there is little doubt that GM Ted Thompson won’t be hard on the trail for a 300-pound plus run enforcer… and my best guess is he’ll reel in his catch during the early rounds.
In fact, it’s no coincidence that at least one Green Bay representative was present at the recent Baylor, Penn State and UCLA pro days. All three of these college programs feature premiere linemen in Andrew Billings, Austin Johnson and Kenny Clark, all of whom are Day 1 or Day 2 prospects.
So now the discussion becomes: Should the Packers shore their inside linebacker position and put their chips on Reggie Ragland if he’s available in the 27th slot or do they beef up the defensive line?
I would opt for the latter option even if Ragland slips down to the end of round one.
A basic tenet of playing run defense is ensuring the presence of large and stout linemen up front and loading up on linebackers who can run, hit and chase right behind them.
Ragland is a thumper who can make plays at the point of attack. But he’s a bigger linebacker who weighed in at about 260 pounds during the fall. Today’s game values quickness and the ability to get around blockers rather than fielding two-down second-level defenders who can fight through blocks.
The idea that 250 to 260-pound linebackers can consistently push around blockers who outweigh them by 50 pounds is a myth. And even if you do stumble upon the odd linebacker who can overpower blockers, opposing offenses will only exploit them in the passing game by getting them matched up with pass catchers in space and/or in the flats.
Yet some may continue to argue that an inside linebacker needs to have size in order to play the run effectively. That might have been true during the halcyon days of the fullback, but a recent article on TheAdvocate.com points out that of the 42 linebackers drafted over the last four years, only four in the group weighed in at more than 250.
Two quicker than large linebackers highlighted in the piece are the rangy Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. It’s no mystery that both really elevated their levels of play once the Panthers shored up the trenches with the likes of Star Lotulelei, who is your classic no-frills power pig that occupies blockers for the guys that get all the stats.
Raji’s departure isn’t the only reason why the Packers need to invest in an impact interior lineman on Day 1. Dom Capers’ unit ranked 21st versus the run in 2015 and gave up 4.5 yards per carry.
And while the team did give up an average of 0.49 fewer yards per carry when Raji was on the field, according to Scout.com, the former first-round pick was a middle-of-the road run stuffer at best at his position, according to rankings generated by Pro Football Focus.
It would therefore be fair to conclude that the loss of the seven-year veteran didn’t create the hole in Green Bay’s defensive line since it already existed. Rather the issue was exacerbated.
So then the real dilemma to solve is figuring out who which large war daddy will realistically be there for taking when TT and company are on the clock?
Next: Who could the Packers target?