From around Week 11 on into the NFC Divisional Round, the Packers received arguably the most effective string of performances put forth by the 2009 first-round pick. Impossible to block against the run and surprisingly slippery and explosive as a pass-rusher, Raji was providing all the evidence necessary for the Packers to eventually sign him long-term.
Fast forward a full year and it stands to wonder whether or not the Packers will have their 337-pound lineman back in 2014.
While Raji should be a perfect player for Green Bay's 3-4 defense, his lack of production over the course of his contract season—combined with a potential desire to play in a more friendly defensive system—has opened up the distinct possibility of Raji bolting town as an unrestricted free agent this coming spring.
Look no further than the $8 million a year deal he has turned down on more than one occasion, per Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for confirmation of that last part.
Several scouts and personnel people told McGinn that Raji would be crazy not to take such an offer. Certainly, the deal would represent a significant pay raise while also bumping Raji into the top percentage of player salaries in Green Bay and also among other defenders at his position.
For comparison's sake, consider that New England Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork is making $8 million per season on his current five-year, $40 million deal.
Staying savvy in contract negotiations demands leverage, and it's certainly reasonable to believe Raji balked at any initial offer—no matter how substantial—in hopes of raising his price as the threat of unrestricted free agency crept closer.
But it's also just as reasonable to think Raji, who was blossoming into an NFL star in 2010, wants a situation where he has more of a chance to stand out, especially on the stat sheet.
In Green Bay, Raji isn't asked to make every run stop or provide 10 or more sacks a season. Instead, defensive coordinator Dom Capers uses Raji's massive frame and the inherent respect given to such a large, explosive individual to keep his linebackers clean in the 3-4 set.
It's tough but necessary work, and it rarely lends itself to making the kind of splash plays that big-name defensive players live for.
The Packers have also consistently limited Raji's pass-rushing opportunities in hopes that keeping the big man fresh will mean a greater impact when he is on the field.
In 2010 and 2011, Raji's two most productive pass-rushing seasons, the Packers rushed him on an average of 528 snaps per season. That number dropped to just 366 in 2012, and he's on pace for just 289 this season.
|Pass-Rushing Snaps for B.J. Raji, 2010-2013|
|Pass-Rush Snaps||Total Snaps|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
On obvious passing downs such as 3rd-and-long, No. 90 is usually on the sidelines.
Asked to do yeoman's work along the defensive line and then pulled off the field in favor of Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy in passing situations, Raji isn't exactly requested to do the things that make defensive players household names.
Maybe that fact doesn't bother Raji.
“The older I get, the more I understand that it’s really all about team,” Raji said, via Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin.
For now, his perspective remains a mature one. It's team-centered and positive. But will that change once the chance to be a free man on the open market develops?
“When I was younger, I would look at guys on TV and say, ‘If I was in that system, I would be doing this, this and this,'" Raji said. "Now, the older I get, I just appreciate the game, I have the utmost confidence in my ability."
The system. It's a factor in this saga that can't be ignored.
There are simply not many defensive linemen who have Raji's combination of size and ability to move. These attributes make him ideal to play in the 3-4, as offensive lines typically need two blockers on Raji every snap.
But instead of taking on double-teams every other play, could Raji make a bigger impact in a system that allows him more freedom to attack? He has the skill set to not only clean up a defensive line, but also to be a difference-maker. There are big, explosive defensive tackles causing havoc all over the NFL in 4-3 alignments.
Isn't it possible that Raji turned down a very fair and qualifying offer from the Packers before this season because he's ready to play in a more big-man-friendly defense? Certainly, Raji can see how players such as Geno Atkins and Ndamukong Suh are used in four-man fronts.
McGinn reported that the Packers offered the $8 million a year deal "several months ago." It'd be interesting to learn if such a deal is still on the table for Raji and agent David Dunn.
An inconsistent career has spawned a familiar inconsistent season for Raji, despite the fact that he's in a contract year and in need of a splash to earn a big paycheck.
His dominant stretch in 2012 now seems like a distant memory.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Raji is currently ranked 44th out of 45 qualified 3-4 defensive ends. And no player at his position has graded out worse over the last five weeks, as Raji has provided a total of just three pressures and one "stop," which PFF considers a tackle constituting a negative play for the offense.
In terms of run-stop percentage, Raji is 24th out of 28 qualifying defensive ends. His pressure created per snap comes in 37th out of 42.
Overall, Raji has created just 11 pressures over 225 pass-rushing snaps, or only one pressure for every 20.5 snaps. His 11 pressures include zero sacks; in fact, Raji hasn't recorded a quarterback sack since November of 2011.
|B.J. Raji through 13 Games in 2013|
|*Raji hasn't recorded a sack since Nov. 2011|
Line up Raji next to Johnny Jolly, who had been out of the league for three years and is now making just $715,000 this season, and you get a better sense of how disappointing Raji has been in 2013.
Raji has played 512 snaps this season, which is the most among the Packers defensive linemen. Through 13 games, he has recorded 14 tackles (11 solo), three tackles for loss and zero sacks, fumbles forced or recovered and passes defensed.
Jolly has been on the field for 288 snaps, or just more than half as many as Raji. But Jolly already has 21 tackles, one sack, five tackles for losses, one pass defensed and one fumble recovered. He trumps Raji in every category.
Even Ryan Pickett, who plays a similar role as Raji on a snap-to-snap basis, has more tackles, stops and passes defensed, despite playing more than 100 fewer snaps.
Raji insists that he's now asked to do more in keeping his linebackers clean, per McGinn. During his earlier days, the Packers set him loose as an attacking nose guard.
But keep in mind, during a seven-game stretch to end last season, Raji put together 20 pressures and 13 stops. Where did that player go?
His 2013 numbers make it difficult to dismiss Raji's statistics as a product of position or scheme. Others playing similar roles in the same system are outperforming the former first-round pick. And Raji has produced in the role in the recent past.
For $8 million a year, Raji better be making more big plays than—at the very least—his peers along the same defensive line.
Scouts that McGinn talked with seem to be split on Raji as a player.
"I just don't see him making plays," one personnel man told McGinn. "Daniels makes more plays than Raji even comes close to making."
This season, Daniels has 30 pressures and 18 stops—both tops among the Green Bay defensive line. His four tackles for losses are second to Jolly.
Back in October, Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac categorized Raji's 2013 season as "excellent."
He might be singing a different tune now in December, as the Packers have dropped to 25th in stopping the run since Raji and the rest of the defensive line have been mostly manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Since the start of November, Raji has just four hurries and four stops. He's been a non-factor.
It's now possible that only three games separate the Packers and the end of their season. At some point in the coming months, both sides will need to make a decision on whether Raji will be back in Green Bay next season.
Raji might have already made his intentions clear. And his play this season might just persuade the Packers to let him follow those intentions.