B.J. Raji's hiatus forced Packers to change plans

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Maybe the Green Bay Packers would have drafted Kenny Clark with the 27th overall pick anyway, but the selection almost certainly was driven by B.J. Raji’s unexpected decision to walk away from football in 2016 -- and perhaps forever.

The Packers had already re-signed Letroy Guion and had an offer on the table to Raji. With both of them back, general manager Ted Thompson likely would have turned his attention elsewhere.

Instead, Raji’s hiatus left a gaping hole in the middle of the defense that had to be addressed in a big way.

Between now and the Packers' first training-camp practice Tuesday, we will break down each position group.

Next up, the defensive line:

Returning players: Guion, Mike Daniels, Mike Pennel, Christian Ringo (practice squad), B.J. McBryde (practice squad).

Gone from last season: Raji, Josh Boyd.

New this season: Kenny Clark (first-round pick), Dean Lowry (fourth-round pick), Brian Price (undrafted free agent), Tyler Kuder (undrafted free agent), Demetris Anderson (undrafted free agent).

Position coach: Mike Trgovac (eighth season).

Biggest issue: Given that the Packers had a lucrative offer on the table when Raji decided to walk away, it’s clear he was a big part of their plans in 2016 after he got his career back on track with a solid 2015 season. Now, there’s a lack of experience and depth up front, especially early in the season. Pennel is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Daniels is a rising star who signed a four-year, $41 million contract extension in December, but he’s one of the few proven players in this group. It’s likely the Packers’ opening-day front three will be Daniels, Guion and Clark.

Player to watch: Clark has some catching up to do after missing most of the offseason program because his school, UCLA, was still in session. However, the Packers were impressed with his ability to learn the playbook and adapt, even though he did it remotely through conference calls and video conferences with Trgovac and Lowry, who also had to stay away while Northwestern was still in class. Don’t be surprised if Clark steps onto the field with the starters at nose tackle fairly early in camp. That would likely move Guion back outside, even though he’s probably better suited to play the nose as well.

Medical report: There are no major injury issues on the defensive line.

Help wanted: You don’t see Datone Jones listed among the defensive linemen because he spent the offseason with the outside linebackers as part of his transition to the elephant position. Jones will now be grouped among players such as Julius Peppers and Nick Perry, who play more from a two-point stance off the edge but also can move back inside and put their hand on the ground on occasion.

Quotable: “You can’t have enough big guys up front,” coach Mike McCarthy said after the Packers drafted Clark and Lowry. “I know that was my focus. I was really hoping to come out of here with as many big players -- offensive and defensive linemen -- as possible. That was just my personal outlook on it, and I feel good about where we are right now.”

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