Saturday, April 4, 2009

Could Raji Be Our Warren Sapp???

I remember it well. In fact, I remember where I was. I was sitting at Shooter's bar area in Plover, WI, watching the 1995 draft. All the focus was on a defensive tackle from the University of Miami, a jewel prospect that was predicted by most at one point to be a top-5 pick. However, the focus wasn't on his play on the field or his great combine numbers, but instead the positive marijuana (and possible cocaine) test that was hanging over his head. That man was Warren Sapp.

I remember the mixed feelings I had watching that day. On one hand, I was really irritated that this cokehead was getting all of the attention of Mel Kiper, Jr. and Company while there were many other clean athletes out there deserving of discussion. On the other hand, with the Packers scheduled to pick at #23 in the first round, the thought of Sapp free-falling to have a chance to become a Green Bay Packer was just as intriguing. "Quit talking about him so much," I thought, "or other teams will get the idea and take him before we have the chance to!"

Alas, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took him at pick #12, ending any chance the Packers may have had to pick up the controversial lineman. Ron Wolf traded back to pick #32 and ended up with the guy many had predicted he would have taken at #23, Craig Newsome.

Sapp ended up being a lightning rod for much of his career with the Bucs, in part because he entered the league with a cloud over his head, but also because he seemed to be the kind of guy who invited controversy. He had a mouth that never stopped, but he had a motor that didn't stop, either. He went on to become a seven-time Pro Bowler, the 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and was named to the 1990's All-Decade team.

He obviously went on to earn the derision of most Packer fans following his rivalry with quarterback Brett Favre and his career-threatening cheap shot on Chad Clifton (and subsequent jawing with Mike Sherman). But there is no denying: the Bucs benefited greatly from being able to take him when they did, when he likely wouldn't have been there otherwise. They took a chance on a character risk, and by any measure, the positives outweighed the negatives as far as they was concerned.

Which brings us to 2009 and another potential top-5 pick in Boston College's B.J. Raji, considered to be the most complete defensive tackle in the draft and an ideal body for a nose tackle as the Packers' move to the 3-4 defense. And, he also tested positive for marijuana...once in college, and once again at the scouting combine.

Not too smart for a man about to get financially set for life. You'd think he'd be smart enough to head over to Walgreen's a week or two ahead of the combine and make sure he was cleaned out.

This has to be sending a lot of red flags out to teams that were interested in using a draft pick on him. When you are drafting in the top ten, and particularly the top five, you really can't afford to miss. The salary-cap ramification for a top-five pick can really bind you over for years, as most are signed to long-term contracts.

Raji missed the 2007 season due to academic problems, too. Before, teams were more likely to gloss over that blemish, but in the wake of the news of a guy who is willing to light up just before the combine brings a lot of things into question, not the least of which is his intelligence.

So the question is, will history repeat itself? With the Packers sitting at #9, the chances have greatly increased that Raji may fall to them, and Ted Thompson will be faced with an interesting choice.

Do you take a defensive lineman with issues at #9? Most experts will tell you that defensive linemen are the hardest position group to judge. Stories of Cletidus Hunt-types who only perform when it is a contract year are commonplace, and the Packers haven't exactly struck gold with their first round DLs.

Since 1978, the Packers have taken only five defensive linemen in the first round of the draft. Their names? Bruce Clark, Alphonso Carreker, Vonnie Holliday, Jamal Reynolds, and Justin Harrell. If that isn't enough to scare you off from taking a lineman, I'm not sure what is.

And Thompson is already coming under fire for some of his first round picks lately. AJ Hawk regressed last season and many wonder if there is a place for him in the 3-4. Justin Harrell has rarely seen the field due to injury issues that should have been red flags. And, he traded out of the first round last year to take a wide receiver that is likely to be competing for the third-WR position, at best.

And "risk" is not a word that we associate with Ted Thompson when it comes to how he approaches the draft and player acquisition. He will trade down and take the safe route in selecting a quantity of players rather than trade up to take a risk on talent. He coined the term "Packer People" to reflect the character and ethic he wants the players he brings in to exemplify.

So, at first blush, my guess is that Thompson passes on Raji or trades back to allow someone else to take that risk. But, is that the wisest choice?

Thompson has effectively told Mike McCarthy that this team is going to make do what the talent that he has, that the talent TT has acquired should be able to perform. In other words, don't expect any flashy free agents. The team is going to be upgraded from within and through the draft.

But the 3-4 is a scheme that is usually predicated on certain talents at certain positions, and the keystone is the stout nose tackle that has to eat up blockers. A young, healthy Ryan Pickett is a stretch to fill that role without some help around him, and he's a year older and seemed to run down as the year went on in 2008. Raji is the kind of player that could potentially walk in and take that role.

But, it's a risk.

In 2006, I stumped hard for Thompson to take linebacker AJ Hawk. When looking at the other players around him, particularly TE Vernon Davis, I saw Hawk as the least risky pick there was. Maybe he didn't have the highest ceiling of the players on the board, but he had the highest basement. Davis, the darling of the roll-the-dice fans, was the opposite: a freaky talent coupled with that high-risk, high-reward potential.

At that time, I thought that the safe pick was the way to go. And, I stand by that today. But, the thought of Sapp still is coursing through my brain for this draft, a need pick and BPA pick that may fall in our lap.

Sapp thrived in the NFL, partially because he knew he was going to be under scrutiny and would have to undergo random drug testing. He put a chip on his shoulder and went out to prove everyone wrong who passed on him. Like Sapp, Raji is considered a tremendous talent. able to take on multiple blockers and collapse the pocket.

There were many who had Raji going even as high as the #1 overall pick just a week ago. Not too long ago, another potential first-overall pick dropped to the Packers at pick #24, and few regret the selection of Aaron Rodgers.

However, the Harrell effect is also going to be looming large over Thompson. After reaching for the injured defensive end in the 2007 draft, Justin Harrell has "bust" written on him in pencil and is just waiting for it to be set in permanent ink after this year. Does Thompson take another defensive lineman just two draft later, when he is already under criticism for Harrell?

Thompson never seems to worry much about what people think about him or gets too ruffled about criticism, however. What it will come down to is the amount of homework that the Green Bay Packers put into Raji, and determine whether or not he is worth the risk.

Under the Thompson regime, high risks haven't been the status quo in Green Bay. Safe, conservative, fiscally efficiency has been the name of the game. BJ Raji may offer the chance to either bolster that reputation, or blow it out of the water.

If it were me, I'd strongly consider making that pick*. However, I think this vastly improves the chances that Thompson is going to trade back in the first round. I think Raji was on the short list of players that he was going to take at #9, and he's not anymore.

* This is assuming I have access to the vast amounts of information compiled by the Packer scouting department, not just casual Google searches.


eire5199 said...

Good stuff as usual, my friend. I've had many of the same thoughts myself.

It's going to be a very interesting first round this year...

C.D. Angeli said...

Check my next article...that would make it even funner!!!