The annual August tradition of the Green Bay Packers losing a key player to major injury has continued.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, starting nose tackle B.J. Raji tore his bicep during the first half of Green Bay's 31-21 win over the Oakland Raiders Friday night. Adam Schefter of ESPN confirmed Saturday afternoon that the injury will cause Raji to miss the 2014 season.
Packers NT B.J. Raji is out for the season, as many suspected, with a torn bicep.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 23, 2014
The Packers were counting on Raji, who played most of the last three seasons at defensive end, to return to nose tackle and rediscover his disruptive ways for a new-look defensive line.
Given a one-year, $4 million "prove it" contract to stay in Green Bay, and provided the chance to return to his most natural position, Raji had an opportunity to rebuild his value while also giving the Packers an active player between Datone Jones and Mike Daniels, two new starters at defensive end.
Now, Dom Capers' first-team defense must adjust on the fly in less than two weeks before the Packers travel to Seattle for the season opener on Sept. 4.
The options to replace Raji are limited and mostly uninspiring.
Here's a sampling of what general manager Ted Thompson could do in light of Raji's season-ending injury:
Bring Back Ryan Pickett
The Packers did not re-sign Pickett this offseason, instead choosing to get smaller and younger along the defensive line. The 34-year-old, 340-pound Pickett did not fit into Green Bay's vision up front, and the team did not explore a contract renewal.
Plans can change when the unexpected happens.
Pickett played almost 500 snaps along the Packers defensive line last season, with most coming as a nose tackle, the position Raji filled. While Pickett provides next to nothing in terms of pass rush, his wide body does demand two blockers on most snaps—and especially against the run. The Packers are not as big at defensive end as in recent years, so having a large, experienced option on the nose could be beneficial.
However, the Packers would be all but sacrificing their commitment to changing the philosophy of the defensive line. Pickett is the polar opposite of the young, quick and versatile linemen now coveted in Green Bay.
In early July, Pickett acknowledged the adjustments happening at his position.
"You can't blame them," he said, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "They're moving forward. They're bringing in guys that do different things. That's what they're supposed to do."
There's a reason the Packers decided to make changes up front. Pickett, among others, simply wasn't very good in 2013.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pickett ranked 54th out of 69 qualified nose tackles last season. He received negatives grades against the run and pass after tallying just 16 stops (or tackles that constitute an offensive failure) and five quarterback hurries. He ranked 41st in stops and 54th in hurries among nose tackles.
Pickett told Dunne he still has interest in playing football in 2014.
Bring Back Johnny Jolly
This remains an unlikely option, as Jolly played defensive end in the Packers' 3-4 defense, not nose tackle. But Jolly flashed at times last season, and he's a big body Capers could try on the nose to take up blockers.
One big hurdle: Jolly is returning from a bulging disk in his neck that ended his 2013 season and required fusion surgery. According to Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Jolly was cleared for football activities in late June, but he still received little to no interest from NFL clubs.
The Packers eventually signed Letroy Guion in free agency and drafted Khyri Thornton in the third round of the 2014 draft, which all but shut the door on a return.
While light on his feet for a 325-pounder, Jolly turned 31 years old in February. He missed three years of football while dealing with drug convictions and an indefinite suspension from the league. After making the team last summer, he went on to play 294 snaps over 13 games.
If Jolly isn't an option, the Packers could look to scavenge a nose tackle during final cuts. If Guion isn't ready for Week 1, Green Bay may need to add a veteran.
Stick with Next Man Up
Raji's most likely replacement comes straight from the Packers roster. Green Bay has been down the injury road many times in recent years, and in most cases, the "next man up" was called on before an outside addition.
Among the most likely candidates to slide into Raji's role are Josh Boyd, a fifth-round pick from 2013, Guion, who was signed from the Minnesota Vikings this offseason, and Mike Pennel, a 332-pound undrafted free agent who has impressed the club throughout the summer.
Boyd (6'3", 310 pounds) is second on the depth chart at nose tackle. He took over after Raji left the contest Friday night. Despite playing sparingly early on, Boyd came on at the end of last season, seeing most of his 117 snaps during the final quarter of the year.
Guion was added in free agency to provide depth and versatility, but he hasn't participated in a practice this training camp because of a hamstring injury. He was mostly ineffective at nose tackle for the Vikings.
What should the Packers do after B.J. Raji's injury?
Pennel is the wild card of the bunch. He has admirable size at 6'4" and 332 pounds and possesses the rare power-quickness combination the Packers also liked in Raji. This preseason, Pennel has lived in opponents' backfields, although his competition has been mostly second- and third-stringers.
Essentially, the in-house roster options come down to a second-year player with roughly 100 career snaps, an injured veteran who is likely to start the season on the PUP list and an undrafted free agent.
That said, the upside of those three is likely more attractive to the Packers than reversing course and re-signing either Pickett or Jolly.
Losing Raji is undoubtedly a blow, especially against the run when Green Bay lines up in a three-man front. But the Packers play so much sub-defense—in the nickel and dime packages—that losing a nose tackle isn't a deathblow. Jones and Daniels will still see much of the action as base ends and interior rushers.
Still, good defenses are built on being strong up the middle. The Packers must now move forward without Raji, a player who was looking rejuvenated in the middle of Green Bay's restructured defensive line.