Not long into the 2013 season, two players clearly were atop the Green Bay Packersí list of 2014 free agents: defensive lineman B.J. Raji and cornerback Sam Shields.
As the long, grinding regular season closes with the 7-7-1 Packers remarkably playing in Chicago Sunday for the NFC North Division title, one remains a must re-sign, but the otherís future with the Packers has become surprisingly tenuous.
Though the Packersí defense ranks No. 26 in yards allowed and is tied for No. 21 in points allowed, Shields has been a top performer and at age 26 looks like a still-ascending player.
But as the teamís run defense has collapsed this season, so has the play of the defensive line. And Raji, who leads the line in snaps (574), has had a muted impact during his contract season.
Raji now presents Ted Thompson with one of the most difficult free-agency decisions in his nine years as the Packersí general manager. And barring an 11th-hour recovery and run in the playoffs, a Packers defensive line that only a couple of months ago looked like one of his teamís strengths now could be in for an overhaul this spring.
The Packersí run-stopping issues started against these same Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter of the Nov. 4 matchup at Lambeau Field ó the game in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone that sidelined him for seven weeks. The Bears put away the game by running the ball down the Packersí gullet, and the Packersí defense has been on mostly a downward trajectory since.
Chicago led that game only 24-20 when it faced a first-and-10 from the 50 with 5:04 left. The Bears then ran the ball on nine straight plays, gained 46 yards and bled the clock to only 50 seconds remaining after kicking a field goal.
From that point on, the Packersí run defense has been more liability than asset. Including that game, the Packers in the last eight weeks have given up an average of 161.8 yards a game. To put that in perspective, thatís essentially the same as the Bears have averaged allowing all season (161.5 yards), and Chicago ranks last in the NFL in run defense.
The outcome of Sundayís game could hinge on whether one of the defenses unexpectedly slows the other teamís standout halfback: the Packers against Matt Forte, who is among the top dual running-receiving backs in the game, or the Bears against Eddie Lacy, who as a rookie already ranks among the gameís top runners.
Whatís hard to fathom is, early this season the Packers looked revitalized on defense, mainly because of their defensive line. The addition of Johnny Jolly gave them the same look as during their Super Bowl run in 2010, when the midseason signing of Howard Green gave the Packers three 330-pound-plus behemoth run pluggers ó Raji and Ryan Pickett were the others ó for the base front of their 3-4 scheme and turned around their run defense down the stretch.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers opened this season with Jolly, Raji and Pickett forming a similarly huge front wall that was difficult to run on. At their high point, after Week 7, the Packers ranked No. 3 in the league in rushing yards allowed and yards allowed per carry.
Yet, in two months theyíve crashed to Nos. 26 and 27, respectively. And while thereís plenty of responsibility to go around for the Packersí defensive shortcomings, the line play has moved higher up the list as the season has rolled on. So now Thompson might be looking at major offseason turnover at this key position group, with his decision on Raji being the linchpin.
At age 27, Rajiís not old, though heís not far from the point at which some NFL players start to decline. Of more concern is that in a contract season, Raji has been hard to notice. He ranks fourth among the teamís defensive linemen in tackles (30), has no sacks and three quarterback hits.
Part of that no doubt is Capersí scheme. The primary duty of linemen in his 3-4 is to occupy blockers so the linebackers can make plays. That type of two-gapping ó taking a blocker head on and defending the gap on either side ó doesnít lend to good personal statistics.
Raji also doesnít get as many pass rush chances as he used to because his play in their nickel personnel has been reduced to primarily on early downs, when thereís more of a threat to run even if the offense is in passing personnel. Thereís also a decent argument that his squat build is better suited to playing nose tackle in the base 3-4 instead of end ó Pickettís been the primary nose tackle since í11.
But that doesnít explain why at other times in Rajiís career, most notably during the stretch run and playoffs of the 2010 Super Bowl season in the same 3-4 scheme, he was an easily identified difference maker. Thereís been little sign of that this season from a player who just a few months ago appeared to be line for an upper-end contract.
On the other hand, Raji is representative of the big-man theory that Thompson espouses every year at draft time: that there arenít many people on the planet with that kind of size and athletic ability, so you better get them while you can. That Raji leads the defensive line in playing time ó heís taken 57 percent of the Packersí defensive snaps, ahead of No. 2 Mike Danielsí 48 percent ó says heís doing things the Packersí defensive coaches like.
Thompson tried to extend Rajiís contract earlier this year. A league source said Rajiís agent had serious talks with the Packers over the summer, though the source couldnít confirm the Packersí reported offer of $8 million a year. Raji balked, and now thereís no reason to think that kind of deal from the Packers awaits him.
Thompson no doubt would be loath to let a player of Rajiís size and ability walk in free agency for only a compensatory draft pick. But based on this year, how much investment in Raji can Thompson justify?
The franchise tag for defensive tackles last year was $8.45 million. That price looks too steep even for only a one-year commitment. And that option wonít be available if Thompson canít work out a contract with Shields and uses the tag on the cornerback.
So the open market could end up determining Rajiís price, along with whether heíd prefer to play in another scheme. Perhaps heíll find another buyer and price to his liking. Or maybe heíll re-sign with the Packers for far less than heíd anticipated last summer. But the chances for his departure are much higher than they were a few months ago.
As for Pickett, the 13-year pro was one of Thompsonís rare big-money signings in free agency, and an inspired signing he was. Since 2006, Pickett has been a rock against the run and stabilizing force in the locker room.
But even if heís defeated the NFLís actuarial tables by playing into his mid-30s, Pickettís age (34) is finally showing. Heís not sliding down the line to make tackles several gaps away, as he often did in previous seasons, and at his age these things will only get worse in the coming years. Itís starting to look like his distinguished career is coming to a close.
As for Jolly, early in the season he was one of the NFLís celebrated characters for making the Packersí roster after missing three years because an NFL drug suspension. For about half the season he was making a difference in their run defense, and his love for playing and competing was an infectious addition to the locker room.
But his performance peaked early, and then he sustained a neck injury against Dallas on Dec. 15 that ended his season. He also turns 31 in February. Maybe Thompson will bring Jolly back on a one-year contract, but he just as easily might decide to thank Jolly for his service and move on.
The Packers have a fourth defensive lineman, C.J. Wilson, who also will be a free agent in the offseason. If they donít re-sign him, the only linemen theyíll return are rookies Datone Jones and Josh Boyd and second-year pros Daniels and Jerel Worthy.
Daniels is a keeper and by far the best pass rusher on the line ó his seven sacks lead their linemen, and his 13 combined sacks and quarterback hits are most on the team.
Boyd, a fifth-round pick this season, is showing promise as an active run defender as his playing time has spiked recently. Boyd has played 56 snaps in the last two games combined, compared to Jonesí 21, and arguably should be a starter.
The Packers pegged Jones early in the season as an inside rusher in their dime personnel, so his impact has been limited. They drafted him with much larger plans, and you have to wonder why they havenít put him out there in other packages to see what he can do, though his role presumably will take a big jump next year.
Worthy has played only nine defensive snaps since his return in late November from knee reconstruction surgery, so judging the 2012 second-round pick is nearly impossible after his nondescript rookie season last year.
If Raji, Pickett and Jolly all leave after this season, the Packers have too many needs elsewhere to rebuild their defensive line only through the draft. Safety and inside linebacker are high-priority positions. Tight end and receiver arenít that far behind. And the offensive line, outside linebacker and cornerback positions always need restocking.
Thompson normally would as soon cut off a finger as sign even a mid-level free agent, but this offseason he might have to on the defensive line.
--firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.