BJ Raji, Clay Matthews picks could make 2009 draft one of Green Bay Packers most successful

Jan. 7, 2011
Kareem and Pete preview the Packers and Eagles gam...
Kareem and Pete preview the Packers and Eagles gam...: Kareem Copeland and Pete Dougherty preview the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles playoff game this Sunday.

The Green Bay Packers have selected twice in the first round of plenty of NFL drafts, 14 times in fact.

Their history shows how difficult it is to strike gold even picking so high. But it’s hard to do any better than General Manager Ted Thompson in 2009, when he selected B.J. Raji at No. 9 overall and Clay Matthews at No. 26.

Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious, that Matthews and Raji are early in their careers and need to stay healthy and playing at a high level for several more years before landing 2009 among the Packers’ best all-time drafts.

But let’s also acknowledge that both already are performing at or near an elite level and are the biggest of several reasons for the Packers’ jump to No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed this season from No. 7 last year. They’re the kinds of players great drafts are made of, and if their current play holds up over time, they’ll probably push ’09 into the top 10 Packers drafts and rival 1957 for the best of the franchise’s 14 shots at two first-round picks in the same year.

That 1957 draft was one of three straight that rank as the top three in team history and provided a core of outstanding talent for Vince Lombardi’s championship teams in the ‘60s. (There’s a good argument that the architect of those drafts, Jack Vainisi, deserves to have his name next to Ron Wolf’s in the inside façade at Lambeau Field, but that’s a subject for another day).

The Packers had two first-rounders in ’57 because the NFL had given each team a bonus pick, the first pick in the draft, in consecutive years from 1947 to 1958. The league held a lottery each year, with the winner receiving the first pick overall and forfeiting its last-round pick. Once a team won, it was out of the drawing thereafter. The Packers didn’t win until they were the only team left in the lottery, in ’58, and the league dropped the bonus pick after that.

With the bonus pick they drafted halfback Paul Hornung, and then with their own pick, at No. 4 overall, took tight end Ron Kramer.

Hornung is a Pro Football Hall of Famer who probably was the key player on Lombardi’s teams through ’65, in which time they won three NFL championship games and lost in another.

Kramer was a freak athlete on par with the top tight ends today. He’s listed at 6-feet-3 and 234 pounds but according to reports was at least 250 pounds, and was an outstanding runner who averaged 16.0 yards a catch over the best four-year stretch of his career. On top of that, his ability to handle outside linebackers one-on-one was the key block in Lombardi’s famous sweep. Kramer’s undistinguished first four seasons in the NFL kept his productive years too short to get in the Hall of Fame, but he was as good a tight end as there was in the game from 1961 to 1964.

After that, the Packers’ best double first-round draft probably was 1978 with James Lofton (No. 6 overall) and John Anderson (No. 26). Lofton is in the Hall of Fame; Anderson’s career was diminished because he broke his left arm in each of his first three seasons and he never played in a Pro Bowl, but he was a starter for 11 of his 12 years in the league.

Some of the Packers’ other better double first-round years were 1966 (Gale Gillingham and Jim Grabowski), 1968 (Fred Carr and Bill Lueck), and 1977 (Mike Butler and Ezra Johnson).

Among the worst were 1980 (Bruce Clark, George Cumby) and 1967 (Bob Hyland and Don Horn).

If Raji and Matthews still need years of high-level play to catch Hornung and Kramer, they’ve had the more immediate impact. Hornung showed promise his first three years — he averaged 4.9 yards a carry and scored five touchdowns on 129 carries his first two seasons — but he didn’t become a difference maker until Lombardi arrived in 1959. Kramer’s first four years were mostly a washout with one season spent in the Air Force and a couple of others on the bench in Lombardi’s dog house.

Raji and Matthews, on the other hand, are key starters in their second seasons and could form the keystone of the Packers’ defense for the next five to eight years, if they stay healthy and hungry.

Thompson’s decision to draft Raji in large part came down to the value of big men — the planet only produces a limited number of huge men who are good athletes, so when you get a chance at one you have to take him. Thompson’s swing and miss with the same reasoning on Justin Harrell at No. 16 overall in 2007 didn’t deter him in ’09.

When the Packers’ pick came up at No. 9 overall, Michael Crabtree was available — he went No. 10 to San Francisco — but concerns with the receiver’s prima donna behavior meant Thompson probably wouldn’t have taken him even if Raji had been gone. Thompson more likely would have traded down a few spots and taken Matthews, or even considered Matthews there if no good trade offer came along.

After Raji’s bland rookie year, hindered by a contract holdout and ankle injury, defensive coordinator Dom Capers made an inspired decision to move Raji from defensive end to nose tackle in his 3-4 scheme. Lining up over center, at the heart of the offense, has allowed Raji to be his disruptive best. Though there were few signs in training camp he was going take off, take off he has. With his every-down role and four sacks in the last five games, his play the second half of the year probably warranted a spot in the Pro Bowl.

Matthews, in the meantime, went from a strong rookie season to an elite player this year. His pass rushing deservedly gets most of the attention — he finished No. 4 in the NFL in sacks with 13½ — but he also blows up the occasional play in the run game.

So how good were those picks? If the 2009 draft were held over, and GMs knew what they know now, there’s good reason to think both players would go in the top five.

Matthew Stafford still would go first, and Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman might be next. Quarterbacks are hard to find. After that, Matthews. And after Matthews? The best options are Raji, Washington’s Brian Orakpo, Minnesota’s Percy Harvin and Crabtree.

For depth, the ’09 draft still needs time. If offensive lineman T.J. Lang or outside linebacker Brad Jones turn into a long starter, that certainly would help move this draft up the charts. But with Matthews and Raji, it’s already on its way to being a big day in Packers history.

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