According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Packers and Raji agreed to a one-year deal worth $4 million Friday, three days into a free-agency period that obviously wasn't kind to the former first-round pick.
A one-year deal in the second tier of salaries probably wasn't what Raji had in mind, but his disappearing act in 2013 destroyed what could have been a sizable market. However, there are benefits for both sides in a one-year pact.
Raji will receive a second chance at a contract year; an opportunity to re-establish his value and prove to both the Packers and any team in the market come next spring that he's worth a long-term deal.
The Packers get a second-chance of sorts too. Instead of wasting Raji as a two-gapping defensive end in the base 3-4 defense, as Green Bay has done for the better part of the last three years, the Packers can now slide their former top pick in 2009 back to nose tackle, his best position.
Raji's value could certainly use the boost that operating more as a one-gap tackle could provide.
A mountain of a man at 6'2" and 337 pounds, Raji possesses the rare quickness to shoot gaps and make plays behind the line of scrimmage. But as a two-gapping block-eater the last few seasons, Raji has become an afterthought on the Green Bay defense.
His last quarterback sack came way back on Thanksgiving of 2011, a stretch of 39 games (including the playoffs). And since the start of the 2011 season, Raji has just three sacks, four passes defensed and zero forced fumbles, with an average of less than 1.5 tackles per start.
He played over 600 snaps in 2013, but Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him out as the No. 43 overall 3-4 defensive end (out of 45 qualifying players). He ranked dead last against the run and had just 13 quarterback disruptions. His three tackles for losses were fewer than both Tramon Williams and M.D. Jennings (four), members of the Packers secondary.
|Tale of Two Rajis: 2009-10 Raji vs. 2011-13 Raji|
|Snaps||QB Disruptions||Sacks||PFF Grade|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Raji's complete lack of impact dried up his market and forced him into another prove-it season. But returning to the Packers, who appear ready to play him in his best fit, might end up helping him.
General manager Ted Thompson picked Raji ninth overall in the 2009 NFL draft, just months after hiring Dom Capers to install the 3-4 defense in Green Bay. A wide-bodied but surprisingly athletic tackle from Boston College, Raji was immediately plugged in as the team's new nose tackle.
For two years, Raji flourished in the role. His best year came in 2010, when he tallied a career-high six sacks and 35 quarterback disruptions. During four postseason games, he added another 16 disruptions and his famous pick-six in the NFC Championship Game.
Yet in future seasons, the Packers played Raji more and more as a defensive end in the base defense. He held up blockers but did little else. At times, it looked like Raji was just going through the motions.
A return to the nose could re-energize his career.
Few centers can individually match Raji's combination of size and quickness. And while playing in a three-man front lends itself to double-teams, the opportunities for Raji to shoot gaps and go one-on-one with centers drastically increases by playing head-on with the center.
It's possible the Packers will also entertain the idea of playing Raji more on obvious passing downs. He routinely came off the field in those situations over the last few season. However, the Packers seem to have others—Mike Daniels and Datone Jones, for instance—who are still better fits in an attacking role in the sub-packages.
In the base defense, the Packers could begin 2014 with Daniels and Jones flanking Raji in the middle. Former second-round pick Jerel Worthy and 2013 fifth-round pick Josh Boyd will also be in the mix. Ryan Pickett, who played mostly on the nose, is a free agent.
Re-signing Raji gives the Packers options up front and somewhat cools the immediate need along the defensive line. And a second chance to get something right is probably worth the $4 million investment.
Raji needs another incentive-packed season to redevelop his own value. The Packers need to find a better way of coaxing impact from Raji.
One way or another, this one-year deal allows both an opportunity to fulfill those goals.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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