The play of Green Bay Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji has caused some level of frustration among Packers fans recently. Despite spurts of excellent play, especially rushing the passer, he has been somewhat inconsistent in providing run support over the past few years. He remains an intriguing player, however, possessing skills that few men his size have, and that begs the question: how will the Packers use him this season?
Raji has experience playing all over the Packers' 3-4 defensive line, but he has most frequently been used at the 3-technique left end position and at nose tackle. In 2012, while playing primarily end, Raji played respectably in both run and pass defense, grading out slightly higher against the run according to Pro Football Focus (+5.9 against the run, +2.8 rushing the passer). However, he put up a very disappointing 2011 season while playing on the nose, and almost all of that was due to his run defense. For the 2011 season, he graded out at -21.2 in the running game versus a nearly neutral grade in pass rushing, and his performance eventually forced the Packers to move him to end and put Ryan Pickett back on the nose late in the season. Going back further to 2010, we see the difference continue, as Raji's +12.7 pass rush grade was tempered a bit by a -4.3 rushing defense grade.
A popular theory for Raji's struggles, especially in 2011, is that it was due to the very high number of snaps that he played over the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Raji played 85.2% of the Packers' defensive snaps in 2010 and was just shy of 80% again in 2011. The Packers were reported to have subscribed to the theory and tried to lessen his workload in 2012. Not counting the Colts game in Week 5 (in which Raji was injured and missed most of the game) and the following two games that he sat out, he took the field for 73.3% of the Packers' defensive snaps, and his play showed improvement.
One thing that I firmly believe is that the Packers want Raji to be their nose tackle for the foreseeable future. One practice without Ryan Pickett does not mean much, but Raji did take the starter's reps on the nose in Tuesday's OTA practice (according to the Press-Gazette's Pete Dougherty). Pickett has played well at left end, so his adjustment to that position should not be a concern. The question is how best to manage Raji's snap count so he is effective at taking up blockers on running plays in addition to providing pressure to the quarterback.
This year's Packer defense should be the best-equipped unit to do so in recent years. Raji plays one of the interior line positions in nearly all of Dom Capers' sub packages, which are most frequently used on passing downs. A big reason he is so heavily utilized there is that he has been the only remotely consistent pass rushing threat on the line. However, Mike Neal's good play in that regard late last year and the addition of rookie Datone Jones should take some pressure off of Raji. Their pass-rush ability should allow Raji to sit out more frequently on passing downs, which should in turn make him more effective when he takes the field against the run.
If this is indeed the case, Raji's production and overall play on the nose should see a boost, but the snap count is not the only factor at play here. Having legitimate pass rushers at end may also allow Raji to devote more energy to taking up blockers instead of focusing on forcing his way into the backfield. That is what a nose tackle absolutely must do in this defense, and if Raji wants to earn a long-term deal in Green Bay this season I believe that is where and how he must earn it.
This brings me back to the question of where Raji will play this year, and my belief that the team wants him at tackle. It appears increasingly likely that Ryan Pickett will not be a Packer beyond 2013. He will turn 34 this season and his best days are obviously behind him. If they want to avoid a desperate search for a new starting nose tackle during the next off-season, the Packers must at give Raji the opportunity to perform well at the position this season. If he cannot and has to be moved back to end, I feel that it is highly unlikely that he would receive a contract extension.