The 2013 season wasn't ideal for defensive lineman B.J. Raji, but he and the Green Bay Packers are banking on better days ahead as they agreed to what's expected to be a one-year deal, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Network confirmed the report, and added contract details to boot:
Raji, who was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft out of Boston College, instantly made a positive impact on Green Bay's defense upon his arrival.
He racked up 39 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2010, and he followed that up with a Pro Bowl nod in 2011. Ever since that point, however, Raji's play has steadily declined.
Raji hasn't recorded a sack since 2011, and he finished 2013 with a career-low combined 17 tackles despite playing in all 16 games. That made the 337-pound behemoth potentially expendable, but the Packers decided to give him an opportunity to regain his form.
There are plenty of potential reasons for Raji's drop-off, but the biggest may be Green Bay's failure to utilize him properly. Raji primarily played defensive end last season rather than nose tackle, which obviously wasn't a great fit for him.
Prior to Raji and the Packers agreeing to terms, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that Raji would move back to his natural position in the event of a new contract:
That bodes well for the 27-year-old, as he can now focus on taking up blockers, stuffing the run and rushing the quarterback from a spot in which he feels far more comfortable.
ESPN's Adam Schefter initially reported on March 6 that Raji and the Packers were closing in on a one-year deal before he hit free agency. Despite that, Raji was still willing to test the market if need be, per Rapoport:
Ultimately, Raji decided that staying in Green Bay was the best move for him, especially since his role figures to change for the better in 2014.
In many ways, Raji has nobody to blame but himself in terms of having to settle for this contract. According to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Raji could have signed a multi-year deal worth $8 million per year during the season, but he declined.
Now that his missteps are in the past, though, Raji has an opportunity to earn a big contract moving forward.
Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin believes that could be a positive thing for all parties involved:
Everything is seemingly in place for Raji to excel once again, which means he has to prove that he is capable of doing so. Raji was once considered to be one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the game, but his reputation has taken a huge hit.
Per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, former St. Louis Rams general manager and current ESPN analyst Billy Devaney was less than impressed with Raji when discussing back in February the merits of the Packers potentially re-signing him and cornerback Sam Shields:
I'm sure Green Bay's working hard trying to figure out a way to keep both of these guys, but to me, keeping the corner that has speed and can cover over a defensive tackle that is pretty much just a guy, that's a no-brainer. You've got to keep the corner.
It's hard to hear Raji referred to as "just a guy," but his lack of production in 2013 makes it difficult to argue with that label at this point.
When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, Raji was one of the driving forces behind it. The Green Bay defense refused to take a back seat to the offense led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but that spark has been missing over the past few seasons.
Raji's play has an impact on the entire defensive unit. When he is on his game, it opens things up for everyone else, especially linebackers like Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk. When Raji is bad, though, it makes life far more difficult.
From Green Bay's perspective, this deal is low in terms of risk, but the reward could be huge. The Packers are fully aware of what Raji is capable of, and with a potential move back to his sweet spot, they will cross their fingers and hope that he returns to form.
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