De­par­ture of Raji leaves need at nose tackle

Guion could shift back to an­chor nat­u­ral po­si­tion

Packer Plus - - NFL Draft Preview: Defensive Tackles - By MICHAEL CO­HEN mco­hen@jour­nalsen­tinel.com

Green Bay — As yet an­other NFL draft de­scends upon the sport­ing world, we are re­minded, as al­ways, that glam­our is not evenly dis­trib­uted on a foot­ball field. Where quar­ter­back prospects like Car­son Wentz and Jared Goff make head­lines with things as minute as hand size, other play­ers at less sexy po­si­tions feel al­most un­der­val­ued, re­gard­less of their im­por­tance within a par­tic­u­lar scheme.

Such is the case with nose tack­les in a 3-4 de­fense, a group of meaty gi­ants whose best trait, at times, is their in­cred­i­ble girth. They can be a ful­crum of the de­fen­sive line, and the de­fense as a whole, but rarely do their wide frames grace the lime­light.

Un­less, of course, your nose tackle makes an abrupt exit from foot­ball, like B.J. Raji did in March, step­ping grace­fully away from the Pack­ers — at least tem­po­rar­ily — while leav­ing be­hind an enor­mous gap in the mid­dle of the trenches.

“I think he’ll play again,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the own­ers meet­ings in Boca Ra­ton last month. “But it would have to be at the right time. He needs to go through this process of his life. But he’s also open to other chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties out there. But this is purely a fam­i­ly­fo­cused de­ci­sion.

“I had a long con­ver­sa­tion with him and I re­spect him and told him I was proud of him. I was aware of the health (mat­ters), in ref­er­ence to the woman who raised him. I didn’t re­al­ize the stage it was in when we talked about it be­fore in train­ing camp.”

The ab­sence of Raji presents gen­eral man­ager Ted Thomp­son with two pos­si­ble reme­dies: In one sce­nario, vet­eran de­fen­sive line­man Letroy Guion shifts back to nose tackle, his nat­u­ral po­si­tion, and the Pack­ers find a de­fen­sive end to take Guion’s place in the base de­fense. In the in­verse sce­nario, Guion stays at de­fen­sive end and the Pack­ers find some­one else to play nose tackle.

Given the suc­cess Guion had at nose tackle in 2014, when Raji missed the en­tire sea­son with a torn bi­ceps, it’s likely McCarthy and Capers would pre­fer to shift him back to the in­te­rior. In 2015, when Guion moved out­side to de­fen­sive end, his pro­duc- tion de­creased sig­nif­i­cantly, though he did come on strong in the fi­nal month of the sea­son.

The process of fit­ting col­le­giate de­fen­sive line­men into NFL schemes is a dif­fi­cult one, es­pe­cially given the unique­ness of the body types in the 3-4. Here are five in­te­rior line­men who ap­pear ca­pa­ble of play­ing nose tackle and, po­ten­tially, re­plac­ing the void left by Raji:

1. JAR­RAN REED

Alabama, 6-foot-3, 307 pounds, 5.21 sec­onds in the 40-yard dash

Low­down: Reed played two years at East Mis­sis­sippi Com­mu­nity Col­lege be­fore trans­fer­ring to Alabama and emerg­ing as one of the best run-stop­pers in the country. He pro­gressed from honor­able men­tion All-South­east­ern Con­fer­ence as a ju­nior to full All-Con­fer­ence hon­ors as a se­nior. Im­pres­sive tackle to­tals in his two years (55, 57) and posted at least 4½ tack­les for loss each sea­son. Did not rush the passer par­tic­u­larly well and said scheme was a big rea­son. Un­der­stands lever­age and how to use his power. Plays with good phys­i­cal­ity. Subbed off the field on ob­vi­ous pass­ing downs. Quick­ness is merely av­er­age. “The abil­ity to get side­line-toside­line, bring down quar­ter­backs, make plays out­side the tackle box,” Reed said at the com­bine. “It def­i­nitely shows ver­sa­til­ity and ath­leti­cism, from my stand­point, and I try to re­ally show­case that a lot.”

Pro­jec­tion: First round

2. AN­DREW BILLINGS Bay­lor, 6-1, 311, 5.05 Low­down: A na­tive of Waco, Texas, Billings stayed lo­cal to play for the home­town Bay­lor Bears. He gained no­to­ri­ety in high school by set­ting a state record as a power lifter with a mark of 2,010 com­bined pounds (805 squat, 500 bench, 705 dead lift). Plays foot­ball with in­cred­i­ble strength, ev­i­denced by 31 reps on the bench press, fourth among de­fen­sive line­men. Very ac­tive in the back­field with 5½ sacks and 15 tack­les for loss in 2015. Moved from of­fen­sive line to de­fen­sive line in col­lege. Fast, com­pact and pow­er­ful. Known to rely on power more than tech­nique at times. Height will work against him. Just 21 years old. Com­pared him­self to Vince Wil­fork: “He re­ally has the at­tack off the ball like that,” Billings said at the com­bine. “I think I bring a lit­tle bit more move­ment lat­er­ally onto that po­si­tion, and quick­ness. But def­i­nitely his ag­gres­sion I can bring.”

Pro­jec­tion: First round

3. VER­NON BUT­LER Louisiana Tech, 6-4, 323, 5.33 Low­down: But­ler was a two-year starter at Louisiana Tech who turned in steady pro­duc­tion both as a ju­nior (56 tack­les, 13½ tack­les for loss) and a se­nior (50 tack­les, 10 tack­les for loss). Earned first-team All-Con­fer­ence USA hon­ors in 2015. He has a great frame for the po­si­tion with height, thick­ness and long arms (35-1/8). Solid strength, solid ath­leti­cism, good abil­ity to stand up against a dou­ble team. Ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing in mul­ti­ple gaps. Bet­ter player on pa­per (phys­i­cal tools) than he was on tape. Could be viewed as a bit of a project. Lots of up­side if he learns nu­ances of the po­si­tion. Pro­duc­tion should have been bet­ter given his phys­i­cal gifts.

Pro­jec­tion: First or sec­ond round

4. KENNY CLARK UCLA, 6-3, 314, 5.06 Low­down: Clark en­tered the NFL af­ter his ju­nior sea­son and went against the rec­om­men­da­tion of UCLA coach Jim Mora. A two-year starter at UCLA, Clark’s pro­duc­tion in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly from a steady sopho­more sea­son to an im­pres­sive ju­nior cam­paign. Recorded 75 tack­les, six sacks and 11 tack­les for loss in 2015. Led the team in pass breakups with five. Knows how to use hips and lever­age well af­ter high school wrestling ca­reer. Ex­hibits a nice feel for the game, di­ag­nos­ing run­ning plays quickly. Men­tioned Mike Daniels as a player he en­joys watch­ing. Short arms (321⁄ 8) may be a prob­lem at the next level. Good strength, de­cent ath­leti­cism. “I think teams see me as a three tech­nique who can do a bunch of other things,” Clark said at the com­bine. “I can be dis­rup­tive and get into the back­field from that spot. Other teams want me to be a nose guard or shade into the 1. I feel com­fort­able do­ing all that.”

Pro­jec­tion: Sec­ond round

5. AUSTIN JOHN­SON Penn State, 6-4, 314, 5.32 Low­down: Be­fore he set­tled on foot­ball, John­son was a stand­out bas­ket­ball player at St. Au­gus­tine Prep in New Jer­sey. He earned All-State hon­ors, league Player of the Year hon­ors and led his team to a state ti­tle. On the foot­ball field, John­son red­shirted at Penn State in 2012 and played in ev­ery game dur­ing the next three years. Left school with one sea­son of el­i­gi­bil­ity re­main­ing. Ju­nior year in­cluded 15 tack­les for loss, 6½ sacks and a 71-yard touch­down on a fum­ble re­turn. Big body with good thick­ness through­out. Good pro­duc­tion from the in­te­rior with 78 tack­les in 2015, sec­ond in the na­tion among de­fen­sive line­man. Small arms. Not great with his hand place­ment. “I guess a weak­ness that I talked about with some coaches that we had in­for­mal meet­ings that we had last night was pad level, just sort of look­ing for where the ball is and go­ing,” John­son said at the com­bine. “I know I like to run to the ball and try to make a play, but some­times it’s bet­ter to stay low and stay on your man.”

Pro­jec­tion: Sec­ond round

BEST OF THE REST

6. Has­san Ridgeway, Texas; 7. Wil­lie Henry, Michi­gan; 8. D.J. Reader, Clem­son; 9. Nile Lawrence-Stam­ple, Florida State; 10. An­twuan Woods, USC

MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Alabama line­man Jar­ran Reed (left) is one of the top run-stop­pers in the NFL draft.

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