When the offseason begins, defensive tackle B.J. Raji will be a pivotal free agent for the Green Bay Packers.
After missing all of 2014 with a torn right biceps, the seventh-year veteran and fan favorite has started 15 games for the Packers this season. His presence helped solidify the defensive line’s interior, especially during a disappointing second season in Green Bay for fellow defensive lineman Letroy Guion.
Raji could play his final game for the team that drafted him ninth overall in 2009 when the Packers travel to Washington for their NFC wild-card playoff game Sunday. His contract expires at season’s end and he said there have been no negotiations.
“Just because right now,” Raji said, “it’s not important. What’s important now is advancing and trying to get to a championship game and a Super Bowl. When this season comes to an end, it’s my belief that will be the time to discuss that stuff.
“I haven’t really even asked about it. I’d kind of like to see it play out, and whatever happens, happens.”
After experimenting with defensive end in 2012 and '13, Raji returned to his natural defensive tackle position in 2015 and had one of his best seasons in years. Coaches praised him for his conditioning, a renewed focus after last season’s absence. He will be 30 next season and could be a rock in the middle of the Packers' defensive line for the near future, but only if he re-signs.
The Packers are expected to enter the offseason roughly $25 million under the league’s 2016 cap. They’ve already signed their biggest free-agent prize, locking up defensive end Mike Daniels last month with a four-year, $42 million extension. Their payroll stands at $131.1 million after Daniels’ extension, and they will roll over $7.7 million in additional cap space.
Early cap estimates for the 2016 season are roughly $150 million.
Raji could command a contract worth multiple years and slightly more money than the $2.75 million he signed during the offseason. Vince Wilfork, a similar player, signed a two-year contract worth $9 million with the Houston Texans last season. Raji hasn’t matched Wilfork’s production, but his youth could fetch similar value. Wilfork will turn 35 next season.
Despite a solid season, Raji said he isn’t assuming any guarantees with his future.
“It’s rare that you can think like that,” Raji said. “Because you just don’t know what they’re thinking upstairs. You have no idea what they’re thinking. Obviously, the postseason can have some ramifications on that. I just learn in life just try to worry about things you can control. After the season, we’ll see what happens.”
Raji won’t be the only piece of the Packers’ offseason to-do list. They also must decide whether to re-sign cornerback Casey Hayward, outside linebacker Mike Neal, running back James Starks and kicker Mason Crosby, among others.
Crosby had another good season in 2015, making 24 of 28 field goals (85.7 percent) and each of his 36 extra points. He could be expensive for his position.
Hayward is one of the better slot cornerbacks in the NFL. His versatility has kept him on the field in a variety of roles. Hayward’s 933 snaps this season rank third on their defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Still, he’s likely expendable after general manager Ted Thompson spent his first two draft picks last spring on corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
It’s unclear how the Packers prioritize their free agents, but Raji could be at the top of the list. Coming off his injury, the most important thing for him to prove was whether he could get through an entire season. Raji’s contract included $1 million in per-game roster bonuses, paying $62,500 each time he was activated.
He received $937,500 of his roster bonus.
“Any time a player goes through 16 games,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “I think that’s obviously a huge threshold for all your players, and especially when you’re coming off an injury like B.J. had last year. I think he’s had a very good year.”
The Packers could try to maximize their value and sign Guion to a less-expensive contract. Guion had a career year in 2014, replacing Raji. He showed more interior pass-rush ability than Raji, finishing with a career-high 3.5 sacks in his first season with the Packers. After being suspended in his first three games this season, Guion has not recorded a sack.
While he doesn’t have the pass-rush burst he showed early in his career, Raji remains a stout run defender. The Packers finished 21st in the NFL against the run, but that was an improvement over the previous four seasons. One reason was quality play from their quality defensive line.
Daniels, having a career year, said it’s been beneficial to play next to Raji this season.
“B.J.’s been nothing but great for us,” Daniels said, “and I’m glad I got an opportunity to play with him again. He’s always been a very good player, very smart, and he does a lot of thinking out there. So I’m glad I have a guy like that. I can play next to BJ. As smart as he is, I don’t have to think as much, and I can just go like a bullet.
“So I’m glad to have him here. He takes care of himself. He does all the right things. For a guy to miss all of last season and to play the way he’s been playing this year, it just goes to show that he handles his business accordingly.”
Raji was especially effective early in the year. He injured his groin during a game against the St. Louis Rams in October and missed the following week against the San Diego Chargers. After resting over the Packers’ bye week in late October, Raji returned in the beginning of November and hasn’t missed a game since.
“It’s been a good year,” Raji said. “Early in the year, I played well. Then I kind of got nicked up. I’ve been real proud of the way I’ve been battling. I think we’re playing good as a unit. Nothing’s ever perfect, but I think I’ve been a warrior in there. I’ve been battling.”