Expanding on our initial observations from Packers minicamp:
During the Green Bay Packers' run to the Super Bowl two years ago, we noted the extraordinary stamina of defensive tackle B.J. Raji. That season, according to Pro Football Focus, Raji played 1,092 defensive snaps -- more than 85 percent of the Packers' total plays and the third-highest mark among NFL defensive tackles.
Those numbers dropped only slightly in 2011, and Raji's 937 snaps corresponded to a 79 percent of play participation. My visit to the Packers' minicamp this week suggested the Packers have connected those two years of wear and tear to Raji's drop in production last season (three sacks and 22 tackles), and they are taking active steps to bring his work in 2012 to a more manageable level for a 340-pound man.
"He's played a lot of football for us," coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's a big man. It was definitely a challenge for him. I think he can handle it, but I don't think we can go six years at that pace, or even five years at that pace. So it's something we talked about. ... We really need to get back to quality over quantity there."
I'm sure some of you will look at Raji, note he will be 26 when the season begins and wonder why he would be worn down by playing eight of every 10 plays. After all, Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots played 86 percent of his team's snaps last season. The Baltimore Ravens' Haloti Ngata played 77.3 percent of the time.
But everyone and every scheme is different, and what Wilfork and Ngata did isn't necessarily a fair comparison for Raji. I suspect his downturn in 2011 had at least something to do with increased attention from opponents, especially after the free-agent departure of Cullen Jenkins. Regardless, an extra series or two of rest per game might be necessary if he consistently faces that kind of attention.
The Packers' thin depth chart last season didn't make that a reasonable possibility, but the volume of newcomers in 2012 suggests the Packers will have some credible options to use in Raji's place. Rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, along with veterans Anthony Hargrove (post-suspension), Mike Neal (post-suspension) and Daniel Muir could all be factors.
"That's an opportunity we can only benefit from," McCarthy said. "There should be some improvement there [in the defensive line's play]."