Injured nose tackle uses downtime to mentor undrafted rookie

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B.J. Raji always has been drawn to scouting. It's kind of a side job he's had during his five years in the Green Bay Packers' employ.

The 6-foot-2, 337-pound nose tackle isn't filing reports or serving at the right hand of Ted Thompson, but he's taken an interest in the inner workings of NFL personnel departments and has been known to watch film with team scouts on occasion.

Those sessions serve a dual purpose. They allow him an in-depth look at some of NFL's top defensive linemen and a glimpse at how front offices are run. Even in the team media guide, Raji lists becoming a general manager as a long-term aspiration.

The 28-year-old Raji has had plenty of time to see the big picture since tearing his right biceps and landing on injured reserve. He could have rehabbed somewhere warm or headed back home to Edgewater, N.J., but decided to remain in Green Bay instead.

After all, there's a young room to mentor even if that's not the term he prefers to use. There's also defensive lineman Mike Pennel, a particularly interesting prospect Raji has taken a shine to.

The undrafted rookie out of Colorado State-Pueblo stood out to Raji early in the offseason program. At 6-foot-4, 332 pounds, Pennel is the largest active player in the NFC North based on listed height and weight.

Naturally athletic for a man of his size, Pennel also is the closest thing the Packers have to a traditional 3-4 nose tackle.

"I just see a lot of potential in him," Raji said recently. "I've been calling him a young — I don't want to put a lot of pressure on him by saying this — but I always called him like (Albert) Haynesworth. He has that build. He has an attitude to him, and he has ability.

"With him, it's just technique and being consistent with that because he's so strong and powerful. If he can hone that it in, he'll be a very good player."

The Packers gave Raji a one-year, $4 million deal this offseason to be the cornerstone of the Packers' remade line. His absence has hurt the NFL's worst-ranked run defense, but hope is not lost among the linemen.

Unlike last year when veterans Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly gradually wore down, the Packers are counting on young defensive linemen like Pennel to only get better.

First impressions

Every year, the Packers welcome a dozen or so undrafted free agents into their offseason program.

With bonuses ranging anywhere from a pat on the back to the high side of four figures, there's always a handful of players who beat the odds and make the team's opening 53-man roster. Early on, Raji and a few other veterans had Pennel pegged as a favorite.

Although he finished his college career at the NCAA Division II level, Pennel had big-time credentials as a highly coveted recruit at Arizona State. However, he spent his first two college seasons at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College when he didn't qualify academically at ASU.

Raji can relate to a certain extent. He missed the 2007 season at Boston College for academic reasons before developing into a first-round prospect his senior year with the Eagles.

Pennel arrived on the Sun Devils' campus as a junior. He spent one season at the school before transferring back home to Colorado after suspensions for breaking team rules and not meeting standards of behavior.

His size and talent made him a unique $3,500 investment for the Packers after May's draft. It paid off, too, when he became first undrafted defensive lineman to make the opening 53 since Daniel Muir in 2007.

"He's a small-school guy, but at the same time, he played at a Division I college at one point," defensive lineman Datone Jones said this week. "His work ethic goes unnoticed. He has the chance to be really special if he just keeps working on the small things. It showed a lot last game that he has a lot of grit. He has a lot of heart. He's not afraid of anything and really wants to be great."

Pennel stated his case for a roster spot before Raji torn his right biceps in the team's third preseason game against Oakland. Instead of panicking to re-sign Pickett (34 years old) or Jolly (31), the Packers committed to their youth movement.

Letroy Guion, a sixth-year veteran, took Raji's spot in the starting lineup, but the Packers knew every linemen who made the roster was going to be relied upon, including Pennel.

"You knew he was a big, physical body," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "... He's competed very well through training camp, well enough to make the team. We just think young guys like that just need to continue to get a lot of snaps and they'll get better."

'Invaluable' advice

Pennel's bond with Raji started three days into his tenure with the Packers. Right after rookie minicamp wrapped, Raji started relaying snippets of advice here and there to the rookie.

Many of the leadership responsibilities Pickett and Jolly carried fell to third-year lineman Mike Daniels and his thundering baritone voice. Daniels is a 6-foot, 305-pound workhorse, though. He's not a nose tackle trying to move 330 pounds in a flash.

That's why Pennel has appreciated having Raji within arm's reach during meetings. The direction mainly comes from defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, but it helps to have a teammate to bounce questions and ideas off of.

When Pennel saw his first NFL game action in last Sunday's 38-17 win over Chicago, it was two bits of advice from Raji that stuck in his mind during his 22 defensive snaps: Don't think. Play ball.

"He's kind enough to share his knowledge with Mike," Trgovac said. "If you're a young kid coming in from where he's coming in, that's invaluable.

"B.J. has always been a good leader in that way. He's got a little bit more time now, so obviously he sees a little more time with him. I think he sees Mike's potential, so he likes working with him."

Raji shies away from the title of mentor. That's fine. Pennel doesn't mind using it for him.

"Any advice coming from a Pro Bowl nose tackle, you take into account," Pennel said. "Even though he doesn't like to use the word mentor, I will. He's been a mentor to me and teaching me how to be a real pro. Every little thing he says, I try to take into my game."

Drawing comparisons

Scouts love comparisons. Each year, draftniks across the country connect dots from one prospect to an established pro.

Raji has done the same in comparing Pennel with Haynesworth, the former All-Pro defensive lineman. It's not that he wants to put too much pressure on the rookie — he just wants Pennel to realize how high his ceiling can be.

Haynesworth's name became infamous for the seven-year, $100 million deal he signed with Washington in 2009, which can make it difficult to recall how disruptive he was earlier in his career with the Tennessee Titans.

Gifted with incredible size (6-6, 350), Haynesworth averaged 39 tackles and 3½ sacks during each of his seven seasons with the Titans. His 2008 season (51 tackles, 8½) was one of the best in recent NFL history for a nose tackle.

Since Raji started using the comparison, Pennel has made it a point to occasionally pop in a tape of Haynesworth.

"If he's saying it, I try to listen to him," Pennel said. "I've tried to watch some Albert Haynesworth tape after he said that. I've been trying to emulate anybody I can being a rookie. It's just the start. I have a long way to go, but hopefully I can get a couple Pro Bowls under my belt someday."

New parts, fresh start

Pennel, 23, has a long way to go to validate the early praise, but history has shown he'll get a fair chance at doing so in Green Bay.

The way Thompson conducts his business, the Packers prefer to fix problems in-house. They're not signing unrestricted free agents and rarely trade for stop-gap help.

That draft-and-develop approach is what brought Pennel to Green Bay in the first place. With the run defense giving up 163.0 yards per game, it's up to those young players to right the ship, especially when returning players like Josh Boyd (knee) and Jones (ankle) are out with injury.

The Packers are confident they're close. In lieu of high-priced free agents, they're turning to undrafted linemen like Pennel and Miami alumnus Luther Robinson, who combined for 61 defensive snaps in Thursday's 42-10 win over Minnesota.

"I think it just shows that little bit of hard work has paid off and the coaching staff is finally trusting me a little bit," said Pennel, who has four tackles in two games. "It was a good feeling to get my feet wet, but hopefully we can keep it going for the rest of the season, increase my play and take better steps every day."

Raji is still there for questions. Professionally, Raji understands his 6- to 9-month recovery likely means another prove-it deal next offseason. He'll turn 29 in July.

There's a lot of football to be played and factors to be considered, but the coaching staff said it liked how motivated Raji was early in camp to rebound from a disappointing 2013 season.

If everything works out, maybe, just maybe, he'll line up next to Pennel someday.

"I don't want to influence him because, at the end of the day, you have to be who you are, that's what got you here," Raji said. "But if he has any questions that he wants to ask me, being that I have a little bit of experience at the position, Trgo's a good resource as well.

"I'm not trying to overflood him with my thoughts … but if he has anything he wants to ask, I'm more than happy to help."

— whodkiew@pressgazettemedia.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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