B.J. Raji considers himself retired from the NFL. In a 532-word statement that read like a retirement letter, the free-agent defensive lineman called his decision to step away from the league a "hiatus." They are different words, but the same sentiment.
Raji may return to football after the 2016 season. He may not. Right now, his focus is family. Raji’s mother and aunt – the two women that raised him, he said – are battling serious illnesses. He wants to be there for his family, he said, in the flesh. Not just financially.
But Raji made it clear his family’s health crisis is not the only reason he’s getting out of football before his 30th birthday. There are other interests he wants to pursue, priorities he might put before football.
In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin on Monday, and later in the lengthy statement released through his agent, Raji never said he would return to football after the 2016 season. He never said he wouldn’t. Rather, Raji did what smart people do. He refused to close the door on any future opportunities.
Why leave that door open? Because Raji doesn’t know how he’ll feel this fall. He has played football for 16 years, more than half his life. The 2016 season will be the first he misses since becoming a teenager. The notion that a retirement must be permanent is absurd. Some of the greatest athletes ever to compete have retired and then returned. Remember Brett Favre? How about Michael Jordan? Raji would not be breaking new ground if he returns. He’s aware he might miss the game dearly once the season starts, but he might not. Football is grueling on the mind, body and soul.
Whether he stays retired or returns, the Green Bay Packers must find a replacement. General manager Ted Thompson re-signed defensive end Mike Daniels in December and defensive end Letroy Guion last month, before he knew Raji would step away from the game. But the Packers' defensive line depth is thin behind Daniels and Guion, especially if Datone Jones moves to outside linebacker.
The Packers already have lost defensive end Mike Pennel to a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. So they faced the need to replace Pennel even before Raji’s announcement. Fortunately, the upcoming NFL draft is loaded with potential starting defensive linemen. Analysts have labeled it the best pool of defensive line prospects to come along in years.
Here are five potential replacements for Raji the Packers can pursue in the draft. It’s worth noting Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson or Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins might top this list, but the Packers would have to get lucky for either of them to fall to No. 27.
1. Jarran Reed, Alabama
Reed didn’t make much sense before Raji’s announcement. Standing 6-foot-3 and 307 pounds, Reed is a versatile, stout defensive lineman who can slide out to defensive end but is better as an interior tackle. He doesn’t provide much of a pass rush, but may be the draft’s best run stuffer. He's an enforcer along the defensive line, the same role Raji filled with the Packers. With Raji gone, Reed could fill the void. Reed said he formally interviewed with the Packers at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, though he could be taken before the Packers get a turn to draft him with the 27th overall pick.
2. Andrew Billings, Baylor
Billings isn’t the biggest nose tackle, standing 6-foot-1 and 311 pounds. But he’s about as strong as they come. The Baylor junior put up 31 bench-press reps of 225 pounds at the combine, most among the draft’s elite defensive line prospects. He also has 33-inch arms. Considering his brute strength, a 5.05-second dash wasn’t too shabby, either. Billings has the power to hold up against the run, and he had 5.5 sacks among his 14.5 tackles for loss last season. His draft stock could continue to rise, but Billings would be an ideal fit if he’s available when the Packers are on the clock.
3. Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech
The measurables certainly match up. Butler is massive, standing 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds. Like Raji, he’s a load to deal with inside. But Butler also might be a better option to slide outside. He can line up over the offensive tackle in a five-technique, and he has the potential to offer more pass rush than Raji. Butler combined for four sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss as a junior and senior, fine pass-rushing production for a player his size. He also impressed at the Senior Bowl in January.
4. Kenny Clark, UCLA
At the combine, Clark pointed to Mike Daniels as someone he uses to model his game. The UCLA junior never shared the field with former Packers first-round pick Datone Jones in college, but Clark said he’s familiar with the former Bruin. So the Packers connections are there. Clark lined up mostly as a nose tackle in UCLA’s base 4-3 defense, and he projects as an interior pass rusher in the NFL. He was effective getting to the quarterback in college, recording 5.5 sacks among his 10.5 tackles for loss last season. Clark said he’s comfortable playing nose or one-technique shaded over the center in the NFL.
5. Austin Johnson, Penn State
Speaking of pass-rush production, few interior defensive linemen got to the quarterback as often as Johnson last season. Johnson had 6.5 sacks among his 15.5 tackles for loss as a junior, before choosing to forgo his final season at Penn State. Even still, Johnson is projected to be more of a run defender than pass rusher in the NFL. He has ideal size at 6-foot-4, 314 pounds and could sneak into the first round.
The Packers can’t simply lock in on a defensive tackle with their first-round pick. They have other, even more dire needs at tight end and inside linebacker. Thompson, as he does every year, will use his first pick to get the most value. He almost certainly will follow the best-player-available mantra.
But Raji’s departure gives the Packers one more thing to consider entering the draft. At the combine, Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn’t hide his excitement about the current defensive line class. Draft one defensive tackle? How about two, McCarthy said. McCarthy wanted his team to add “big men” up front, and that was before losing the 337-pound Raji.
With Raji no longer in the picture, the Packers would be wise to start replenishing their defensive line.
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