When Ryan Pickett signed a contract extension through the 2013 season in March, he said he felt like he was born to play nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme.
Now, let’s see if he was born to play end in the 3-4 scheme.
The big surprise at the second day of organized team activities came on the first snap of Wednesday’s lengthy start-of-practice jog-through period. Rather than Pickett lining up at his customary nose tackle and B.J. Raji lining up at left end as the replacement for the unsigned Johnny Jolly, it was Raji at nose and Pickett at left end.
Whether the moves are permanent or simply a way to add versatility depended on who you talked to.
Pickett and Raji both hinted that the move was permanent, with Raji saying he’d play “primarily” nose in the base defense. Coach Mike McCarthy, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and defensive coordinator Tom Capers, however, didn’t go nearly that far.
“We’re in Year 2 of our defense,” McCarthy said. “Just like the other two phases (offense and special teams), we’ve had a chance to go back and evaluate our schemes and concepts that we used last year, how we can better utilize our players, moving some players around to give us some flexibility to make sure we have those options throughout the course of a 16-game season, and that’s definitely one of them, trying to get Ryan more on the field. I think it just says a lot about him as a person and his flexibility as a player.”
The move isn’t as absurd as it might seem at first blush. Defensive ends in the old 4-3 scheme needed to have the athletic ability to make plays all the way to the sideline. In the 3-4, that get-to-the-sideline ability falls on the outside linebackers. Nonetheless, McCarthy said Pickett has “exceptional foot quickness,” and Capers said he's "blessed to have two guys with that size that can play inside and outside."
Raji was drafted to play nose tackle, which is a role Pickett excelled at last season in helping the Packers lead the NFL in run defense. Raji, the No. 9 overall pick of the 2009 draft, played all three defensive line positions last season. Throughout the year, Trgovac said nose tackle was Raji’s best position.
“I think B.J. is clearly more of a natural nose guard, just looking at his body type and his dimensions, but I think he’s a lot like Ryan,” McCarthy said. “You’re talking about two very big men that have natural pad level because of their stature but have exceptional foot quickness. Once again, just to have the flexibility of having players that can play more than one position, that’s what we’re looking at, and you can’t really get away from the fact that, how much time are you really going to be in base defense? More and more each year these offenses are challenging you with the vertical passing game and sub groups and so forth. So having the opportunity to have players play more than one position is a big part of our success on defense.”
Jolly’s status probably plays a role, too. There’s a possibility he’ll be suspended by the NFL for at least a couple games to start the season. Given Justin Harrell’s uncertain health and the prospect of draft picks Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson not being ready to play a marquee role in Week 1, giving Pickett the flexibility to move outside makes sense.
“Right now, when you look at our depth, our three best players are Pick, B.J. and Cullen,” Trgovac said. “We want to get the three best on the field. Who knows, maybe in the third week of this, Mike tells us to flip them back and make sure Pick’s getting enough work at nose. Right now, we just want them to have the ability to play both of the positions.”
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