Packers general manager Ted Thompson then pulled a surprise later in the first round, trading up with the New England Patriots to take USC linebacker Clay Matthews with the 26th pick. The Packers sent their second-round pick and both of their third-rounders to the Patriots, receiving the first-round pick and a fifth-rounder in return.
Thompson called Raji a rare combination of size and power, saying he was mildly surprised that the former Boston College star was still available. And while it wasn't immediately clear where Raji will fit in the Packers' new 3-4 defensive scheme, Thompson said they'll find a place for him.
"He has the ability to take people backwards, where they don't want to go," Thompson said. "He also has the quickness to go around them. He's a very powerful player. It's unbelievably hard to find the combination of the skill set he brings. The good Lord just didn't make many people like this."
"I just feel honored to be selected by such a great franchise with so much tradition," Raji said.
After the Packers' defense bore the brunt of the blame for a disappointing 6-10 season in 2008, the team brought in a new defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, and is in the process of switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive alignment.
By taking Raji, Thompson passed on the chance to draft Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree -- a player many analysts considered perhaps the most talented in the draft.
"We think a lot of Michael Crabtree and a couple other guys," Thompson said. "Yeah, it was a difficult call. But we feel confident we did the right thing."
The pick was relatively well-received by Packers fans who had gathered in the Lambeau Field Atrium for a draft party, marking the first time in two seasons that Thompson's first-round draft decision wasn't roundly booed.
"They're getting soft," Thompson said jokingly.
Fans didn't like the last first-round pick that Thompson used on a defensive tackle (Justin Harrell in 2007), and they've been right so far. Harrell has played in just 13 games because of injuries. And fans certainly didn't like Thompson's decision to trade out of the first round last year.
Thompson said public opinion matters -- but only to a point.
"The Jets picked a pretty good quarterback, and I saw people in New York booing that," Thompson said, referring to USC's Mark Sanchez. "What matters is all the work that our staff puts in and all the miles that our scouts travel, and when it comes down to, 'Can you get a good player?' We think we were able to get a good player."
"He's more than a space-eater," Thompson said "He's a little bit more than that. We're excited about him."
The Packers' defensive line was one of the team's biggest strengths in their 2007 run to the playoffs, but it has since grown thin. Thompson has always valued drafting the best player available over filling an immediate need, but he said need does factor in when a team has two players rated similarly.
"It's always going to be a factor," Thompson said. "It's not that it doesn't factor in. But you don't take a lesser player, in your opinion."
There were concerns about Raji's character coming into the draft. He was ruled academically ineligible to play the entire 2007 season and faced questions about his work ethic from scouts. However, reports that Raji failed a drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine were false.
"I couldn't help but be frustrated," Raji said. "How that all came about, I still don't understand."
Raji said his reputation crumbled almost overnight.
"I didn't feel like that was right," Raji said.
Raji's parents both are pastors, and his father originally is from Nigeria.
"It was different," Raji said of his upbringing. "They're a lot stricter than most parents."
Thompson called Raji engaging and bright and said he was comfortable with the information the team had gathered about the player's character and background.
"He's a good guy," Thompson said.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press