The nose tackle position piqued my interest lately. With the move of Ryan Pickett to defensive end, the Green Bay Packers are going with second-year man B.J. Raji to man the nose.
With that move, the Packers went from the (listed) 6-2, 340 pound Pickett to the 6-2, 337 pound Raji. The difference in size may be negligible, but Raji at least appears to be slightly smaller than Pickett to the naked eye.
Moreso than the size of Raji, by taking a look at the hypothetical depth chart at nose tackle, the pecking order looks like 6-1, 315 pound Anthony Toribio followed by 6-1, 319 pound Aleric Mullins. They're the only other players listed as "NT" on the Packers' official website and, by all appearances, they've taken most of their reps at that position (even if they might practice at end from time to time).
The question is, are the Packers making a move to smaller, stockier, more squat nose tackles or is there just a lack of nose tackles in professional football that are both good and big?
Defensive tackles that play the 3-4 have been historically bigger than their 4-3 counterparts. Take a quick look at some of the better 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL:
- Casey Hampton of the Pittsburgh Steelers–6-1, 325
- Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots–6-2, 325
- Jamal Williams of the San Diego Chargers–6-3, 348
- Kris Jenkins of the New York Jets–6-4, 349
Raji is ranks right up there with the aforementioned nose tackles in terms of size, but Toribio and Mullins are noticeably smaller from both a height and weight perspective.
There's several ways to look at this issue. Even though a guy like Toribio might technically be considered second on the depth chart, in reality he might be much further down the line. If Raji would happen to suffer a significant injury, for example, Pickett would–without a question–slide back over to nose tackle.
In addition, guys like Johnny Jolly (6-3, 325) and Justin Harrell (6-4, 315) have also taken occasional reps at nose tackle at practice as well. It stands to reason that fringe players like Toribio and Mullins would be even further down the food chain in favor of a Jolly or a Harrell if push came to shove.
There's also the possibility that the Packers' hand is being forced because good nose tackles are just in plain, old short supply. One source of evidence conceivably comes from the several nose tackles who received the franchise tag this offseason at the risk of their teams losing them to free agency. Those players included Pickett, Hampton, Wilfork and the 49ers' Aubrayo Franklin.
More proof from that line of thinking comes from draft analyst Scott Wright of NFL Draft Countdown, quoted in an article at the Palm Beach Post.
"There's no question it's a tough position to fill, and one big reason is a lot of teams don't run a 3-4 (defense) in college," Wright is quoted as saying. "It's hard to find guys with that combination of size, athleticism and strength. They're a rare breed."
But could there be any possibility that defensive coordinator Dom Capers is experimenting with a bit of paradigm shift in the size of his nose tackles?
An offseason interview with Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey is enough to consider that maybe nose tackles don't need to be huge behemoths to succeed in the 3-4.
“Don’t think that the guy that plays nose has to be a 330 or 340 pound guy,” said Gailey. ”We’re not going to take good football players and stand them over there beside me on game day. We’re going to put our best players on the field. If you have to put a smaller guy on the field to play there then you move him and do some different things with him. There are a lot of different ways to skin the cat and that’s what we’ll do. We’ll get our best football player on the field and let them play.”
That seems to be what the Packers had in mind when they flip-flopped the positions of Raji and Pickett.
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