Packers hoping for Raji rebound
Mike Daniels was sitting in a hot tub at Lambeau Field this offseason when he noticed B.J. Raji walking down a nearby hallway.
It came as a surprise to the Green Bay Packers' third-year defensive lineman. Raji, an unrestricted free agent, didn't have much reason to be circling team headquarters in the middle of March.
Unless, of course, he was signing a new deal.
"I might have jumped out of the hot tub," Daniels said. "I was like, 'Oh, yeah. You coming back?' He said, 'I'm going to sign right now.' Oh, I was so excited, so excited."
Daniels has heard the criticism thrown Raji's way about his performance last season. About how the former first-round pick hasn't recorded a sack in two seasons and how he finished with the fewest tackles (17) in his five NFL seasons.
The performance deflated Raji's market. After reportedly turning down an offer for $8 million per year from the Packers last season, Raji signed a one-year deal for $4 million to return with only $500,000 guaranteed.
Raji said he spoke to four or five teams, but returned to Green Bay with the understanding he'd slide back to nose tackle in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 defense.
The changes might not stop there, though. The defense's frequent use of the nickel and dime subpackages could lead to Capers lessening his grip on the traditional two-gap scheme in which the defensive linemen are responsible for gaps on either side of them to free up linebackers in pursuit.
"We have more of an aggressive mentality," Raji said. "In the past we kind of played the traditional read-and-react defense, similar to what Pittsburgh continues to run. So we tweaked that a little bit so we can use our gifts as far as attacking the line of scrimmage."
Whether that means Raji will be used more on passing downs like he was during a 6½ sack-season in 2010 remains to be seen, but the Packers would like to get more out of him than last season.
Utilized mainly against the run in the base defense and big nickel subpackage, Raji was a part of one of the best run-stopping units in the league through the first two months of the season alongside Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly.
However, the two veterans wore down and the unit fell from third to 25th over the last 10 weeks. Raji played in all 16 games, but also struggled during the final stretch. Pro Football Focus ranked him near the bottom half of qualifying 3-4 defensive ends in run-stop percentage (12 stops on 312 snaps).
Although they're continually praised for their leadership, Pickett or Jolly haven't been re-signed. Instead, the Packers seem determined to press forward with younger, more versatile linemen.
That makes Raji, 28, the oldest full-time defensive lineman on the roster, but his conversion back to nose tackle is something he and the coaching staff believe should allow him to revert to his earlier form.
"Now it's my job to go out there and work," said Raji, who made his only Pro Bowl appearance at nose tackle in 2011 before moving down the line. "I feel very comfortable in close quarters and that's pretty much what the nose position is. ... I haven't played in years so it's going to take some time, but that's why we practice."
At 6-foot-2 and listed at 337 pounds, Raji wasn't an ideal fit as a five-technique in a three-man front, but larger linemen have been a staple of Capers' zone-blitz defense.
To expedite his transition back to a 1-technique lining up on the outside shoulder of the center, Raji focused on being more explosive coming off the ball this offseason.
Two lockers down, Daniels said he's noticed something different about Raji, too. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but a bit more intensified demeanor.
"He's been criticized. I don't like that. He doesn't like it," Daniels said. "He's here for work. He's about his business and he has a different attitude than he's had. His attitude was always good, but it's even better now. I'm excited to line up next to him for another year and really see what we can do."
Raji agrees that the departure of Pickett and Jolly has required him to take on more responsibility on a defensive line that possesses only two players with more than three years of NFL experience.
Raji still doesn't consider this a make-or-break season, but says he has his individual goals. The Packers signed veteran Letroy Guion as a possible rotational guy, but are counting on Raji to rebound.
"We want to get back to the championship game," Raji said. "We want to get back to the big stage and obviously the big one. I guess I have come with a different mentality. I want to be more of a leader and help this defense get back to where we were."
Raji is optimistic for what this season holds. The same goes for his teammates who are excited to see him make the switch back to his natural position.
"Didn't he go to the Pro Bowl last time he was a nose tackle?" Daniels said. "There goes your answer."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.