Departure of Raji leaves need at nose tackle
Guion could shift back to anchor natural position
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
Alabama lineman Jarran Reed (left) is one of the top run-stoppers in the NFL draft.