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Deal on the table for B.J. Raji

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
November 17, 2013

GREEN BAY—Defensive lineman B.J. Raji has been offered a long-term contract worth $8 million a year.

A source said agent David Dunn, who also represents Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, received that offer from the Green Bay Packers several months ago.

Dunn, acting on behalf of Raji, has turned it down more than once in ongoing talks with team negotiator Russ Ball.

Raji wouldn’t confirm or deny the $8 million offer.

“I’m not going to talk about contract,” he said at midweek.

With an average of $8 million, Raji would climb from eighth at $5.2 million to fourth on the Packers’ salary list behind Rodgers ($22 million), Matthews ($13.2 million) and cornerback Tramon Williams ($8.25 million).

It’s early, and like many players Raji seems to be shooting for the top of the market. Provided Raji isn’t injured, time is on his side, and he can use the threat of unrestricted free agency in mid-March to his advantage.

Raji, however, would have to be willing to walk away for ultimate leverage. Sometimes players get what they are seeking plus much more at market. Other times, player and agent overvalue themselves and come up short.

The problem for Raji, and all players in the National Football League, is the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that proved to be a major victory for the owners. The salary cap is expected to be flat or increase just slightly for yet another year, and more realistic agents have come to terms with this and are bracing clients for disappointments in unrestricted free agency.

At this point, it looks to be a deep group of defensive tackles coming free in mid-March. The depressed market at the position figures to be in the $4 million to $6 million range.

Dunn broke the bank twice in Green Bay, but Rodgers and Matthews were face-of-the-franchise talents. Thanks largely to their union, players are finding out the money just isn’t out there.

An executive high up in personnel for an NFL team was asked, given the market forecast for 2014 and beyond, if Raji should take the $8 million.

“Damn right he should,” the scout said. “For $8 million he should be signing. Who is his agent?”

Another high-ranking personnel chief thought it would be a no-brainer for Raji.

“I would take it if I was him,” the personnel director said. “Why? I’m with an organization I know and love. I’m probably not going to get that good a deal in the open market. My skill set is perfect for that defense. I’m very familiar with the defense.”

The Packers are in no hurry, either.

While it’s true the Packers have a ton of players (16) headed for unrestricted free agency, and eight are starters, their targets are Raji and cornerback Sam Shields.

Shields is in much the same situation as Raji, balking at a competitive offer from Green Bay in hopes the team will go higher or the market will fall his way in March.

With the combined cap salaries for Rodgers and Matthews climbing from $18.7 million to $29 million next year, the Packers could be stressed more than usual. But even if the Packers don’t get Raji or Shields to bite before the end of the year, the $9.86 million they currently are beneath the cap can be carried over into next year.

Green Bay could apply the franchise tag on Raji, which was $8.45 million for defensive tackles in 2013 and might be worth somewhat less next year. However, the entire amount would count against the cap.

For now, at least, Raji is in charge. The Packers have made a strong offer, so he knows they very much want him to anchor their defensive line for years to come.

A shrewd, deep-thinking individual, Raji has seen his role change dramatically since the Super Bowl season of 2010, which was his second and finest year.

He played nose tackle in the 3-4 base defense that year and was a fixture alongside Cullen Jenkins on passing downs. Playing an exorbitant 85 percent of the snaps, Raji played tremendous football.

Just look at his numbers. Due in part to registering 7 of his 11 sacks that year, his pressures per snap rate of one every 32.4 was the best of his career. His tackles-per-snap rate of one every 13.7 also was his high-water mark, he batted down a career-high three passes, scored on a critical interception in the NFC Championship Game and drew high praise from coaches, teammates and opposing scouts alike.

The next year, Raji moved from playing shaded over the center to the three-technique position as Ryan Pickett shifted back to nose tackle. From 2011 to the present, the base defense has featured Pickett at nose, Raji at three-technique and first C.J. Wilson and now Johnny Jolly at five-technique, or generally working against a tackle.

Raji played even more snaps per game in 2011 (55.5 to 53.5), and his playing time remained extreme (79.8 percent). However, his pressure rate (one every 47.6) and tackle rate (one every 19.7) declined sharply.

Scouts from the three other NFC North teams said late in the 2011 season that Raji didn’t play as well as he did in 2010.

“I look at those numbers,” said Raji, perusing a sheet with his year-by-year statistics. “It’s not a coincidence that my best statistical year was when I was a nose. Right now, on first and second down, we’re asked to grab guards. Dom (Capers) likes his linebackers clean. That’s my job right now.”

Coach Mike McCarthy’s goal to lower Raji’s exposure came to fruition in 2012. Once a regular in sub packages, Raji was removed because McCarthy fretted about overusing him and also had Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels to rush inside.

Raji played 61 percent of the downs, and had slight increases both in pressure rate (one every 39.4) and tackle rate (one every 14.7).

Through nine games this season, Raji is down to 56.2% playing time, his pressure rate (one every 72.6) is by far the worst of his career and his tackle rate is one every 14.2.

As perceptive as Raji is, he has a pretty good idea what the future would hold if he re-signs with Green Bay.

Daniels is a budding star as one inside rusher, and Datone Jones was drafted in the first round to be the other. Worthy seems to have done some good work with his body, and for now waits in the wings.

The Packers will be paying Daniels at some point, and if he keeps producing it’ll be a mega-deal.

That puts Raji fourth on the list for “Jet” rushes, which is the Packers’ term for when a defensive lineman basically has carte blanche to get after the quarterback.

“This year, B.J. hasn’t had very many,” said Mike Trgovac, who coaches the defensive line. “He hasn’t been in on third down.”

Even if McCarthy were to change defensive coordinators, odds are he’d retain the 3-4 scheme. He wanted to introduce the 3-4 when hired in 2006 but Ted Thompson overruled him on the basis of too much change.

If the Packers bring back Pickett at a reduced one-year rate, Raji would remain the three-technique. The assumption is that the only way Raji would return to nose would be if Pickett departed.

Why wouldn’t Raji enter free agency, sell his versatility to find a new home in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, get a slew of “Jet” rushes, start putting up numbers again and have some fun?

“That’s a decision I have to make when the time comes,” said Raji. “But for right now I’m a Packer, and what they ask me to do I’m going to do. That’s what part of being a team player is.”

Over the last five years I’ve discussed Raji with about 25 scouts and offensive coaches across the league. It’s hard to arrive at a consensus, but maybe the best way is to say they like the guy but they don’t love the guy.

Here’s what an NFL personnel man had to say about Raji last week.

“No, I don’t see him as that ($8 million player),” said the scout, who has done breakdowns on Raji for the last five years. “I would have thought that early in his career. Those guys should get better. For a contract year I don’t see him being a difference-maker.

“I remember looking at him in the Senior Bowl from years back. He dominated college blockers in drills. I thought he was a great get for the Packers.

“You have to keep in mind the 3-4 is a concept where you’re trying to free up athletes in the linebacking corps to make plays so there’s a lot of unselfish play that takes place. But I thought he would be a dominant guy.

“In fairness to him, he does collapse the pocket a lot. His man’s butt is leaning on the quarterback’s knees a lot. And if you try to run at him and he doesn’t want you to, he’s going to win against most guys.

“Pickett is probably a better pure run stopper but Raji is more of a complete player. I just don’t see him making plays. Daniels makes more plays than Raji even comes close to making.”

He hasn’t had a sack since Nov. 24, 2011. In 3,457 regular-season and postseason snaps, he has recovered one fumble and hasn’t forced any.

An AFC scout went through the list of nose tackles, three-technique tackles and larger five-technique ends and rated 20 better than Raji and three as his equal. When asked to consider those 23 players, another NFL personnel director rated 15 ahead of Raji and two tied.

When asked to describe how one of the premier wide-bodies was playing the game, a scout said, “He commands double teams. When he’s single-blocked he basically dominates by physically controlling them. He makes plays with his feet and at the point. He hustles. He plays consistent.”

Raji, 6 feet 1 inches and 338 pounds, is durable, having missed four of 81 games. Trgovac said he would vouch for Raji’s conditioning (“he has made weight every week”), effort, leadership and desire.

As strong-willed as Raji is, has he ever been a cancer in the locker room?

“To be completely honest, now you can’t say that,” Raji replied. “Maybe two years ago, I could give you that. That’s when I was really having a hard time grasping my role in the defense.

“Now I have the perspective that all Dom (Capers) wants to do is win. He never promised me I would lead the league in sacks every year. He drafted me because he felt I could do what he asked me to do in his defense. I owe him that.”

It’s quite possible that Dunn and Raji are using the five-year extension Cincinnati gave to defensive tackle Geno Atkins in September that pushed his average pay to $10.67 million and guaranteed him $15 million.

The difference is that Atkins is a great pass rusher, the Bengals had to allocate cap room to reach CBA spending minimums and Andy Dalton, their quarterback, hasn’t been paid yet.

Green Bay’s admiration for Raji as hub of their interior defense and solid citizen was made clear by their offer. The coaching staff likes the edge the massive Jersey guy brings. They want him back.

It’s up to Raji to determine if he wants the Packers.



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