Contemplating B.J. Raji's best position

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- B.J. Raji was the best defensive tackle in college football last season. This week, he practiced exclusively at defensive end because Green Bay -- at least for now -- employs an established veteran at nose tackle. Thus far, no one considers the change a big deal.

Is it?

That was one of my primary questions as Packers minicamp approached. Would Raji's playmaking ability be minimized as a 3-4 end? Is the team better served to rotate him with veteran Ryan Pickett at nose tackle? Or is it just a matter of time before Pickett is phased out?

During the course of two days, I made sure I talked to all of the appropriate parties: Raji, coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. In a nutshell, here is the consensus view: Raji is talented enough to play either position. His permanent destination has yet to be determined, but ultimately it will be based on how he fits into the Packers' best three-man combination on the defensive line.

One thing is certain: The shift has added another level of adjustment for Raji as he transitions from college to the NFL.

"His learning curve is probably a little higher than you would like," McCarthy said. "You always would like to take a rookie and establish him in one position, but that's not always the best case to get the young man on the field. ... There has definitely been more learning for him. He has worked his way through it. He's a gifted young man. You can see why everybody was so high on him."

At his best in college, Raji was an interior force who collapsed the pocket from the inside and routinely made plays in the backfield. He did that primarily as a "three-technique" tackle in Boston College's 4-3 defense, where he was lined up on the outside edge of the offensive guard. As a result, the Packers initially projected him as nose tackle in their 3-4 scheme.

But McCarthy and Capers are determined to use their top defensive linemen, in whatever combination they can get them on the field. Raji and Pickett qualify at this point, and Raji's relative quickness advantage makes him the natural choice to play on the end.

The two-fold question, of course, is how well Raji can adjust to playing on the edge and whether the Packers would be forgoing his ability to penetrate by putting him there. Depending on the scheme, a 3-4 defensive end can often be more about contain responsibilities and maintaining integrity on the line of scrimmage rather than making plays. Theoretically, many 3-4 schemes call on linebackers to penetrate, make tackles in the backfield and apply a pass rush.

A 3-4 nose tackle might be asked to hold his ground as well, but his presence directly over the ball can give him a unique opportunity to disrupt a play at the outset.

Raji said he feels "pretty natural" at defensive end and said that his role is to provide contain only on certain calls. Other times, he has been asked to slant and control the gap between the guard and tackle. Asked if he thought the end could be a playmaking position in this scheme, Raji said: "It could be."

He added: "We have a lot of good defenses in this scheme where we're getting after the opponents and getting upfield. Even though it's a 3-4 defense, at times you can have that a little bit."

Technically, Trgovac said, Raji is positioned only about a foot and a half away from where he played in college. The Packers' version of the 3-4 usually puts the end directly in front of the tackle, according to Trgovac. There are also nickel packages in the scheme in which the Packers will use either two or four defensive linemen. In those cases, Raji will be a "three-technique" defensive tackle.

"It's a pretty easy transition for him," Trgovac said. "It's not that hard. The hard thing will be for him as a rookie playing some end and doing nose tackle and making sure we don't overload him."

There is some Black and Blue precedent for this position shift. As a rookie in 2003, Minnesota's Kevin Williams started his first 12 games at defensive end before finishing the season at his natural and permanent position of defensive tackle.

As the accompanying game-by-game chart shows, Williams was decent as a defensive end. But he nearly doubled his sack total after sliding over to defensive tackle for the final four games.

The Vikings played a 4-3 defense that season, so the comparison is not entirely apples to apples. But it's an example of the Packers' current mentality: Get your best players on the field and then figure out where to maximize their skills.

My take? It's hard to imagine Raji playing his entire career as a defensive end. In fact, Capers said he will consider Raji "somewhat interchangeable" with Pickett as training camp approaches.

"They're obviously both big physical guys," Capers said. "They're good athletes for guys their size. They bring a lot to the table. Both of them are going to get double-teamed, and they've got to be able to play those blocks and not get knocked off the ball. We're working Pickett at nose tackle and Raji at end right now, but those guys have to be interchangeable to what we do."