Guion, Raji should supply good bang for buck

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion (98) reacts after making a tackle in the first quarter during Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Letroy Guion and B.J. Raji re-signing with the Green Bay Packers on Monday wasn't particularly big news around the NFL and didn't cost the team big money for their one-year deals.

They were important signings nonetheless.

Foremost for general manager Ted Thompson, the return of Guion and Raji means the Packers don't need immediate help on the defensive line. Thompson still might draft there — both players could be gone after next season — but it's not a primary need requiring a high pick.

The line now is the Packers' deepest position on defense, and Thompson can gear his draft to inside linebacker, outside linebacker and cornerback.

The signings weren't expensive though perhaps a little higher than I'd have guessed. Guion's one-year deal reportedly is worth $2.75 million, and Raji's is $3.5 million to $4 million if he reaches most or all of his incentives. But Thompson had more than enough money — the signings will leave the Packers with about $16.5 million in salary cap room — and one-year deals carry no risk to future caps. So why not?

The view here is that Guion was the more important of the two. Though he seemed like an afterthought when Thompson signed him for $1 million on the free agent market last spring, he helped save the Packers' season after they lost Raji to a season-ending torn biceps in training camp.

In fact, once Guion worked his way into shape after missing most of camp because of a hamstring injury, he played harder and better than Raji had the previous three years.

Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji (90) during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field.

Guion's arrest in early February for possession of almost three-quarters of a pound of marijuana hurt his value in free agency, a lot. It's the reason he signed for only one year. But that doesn't mean you don't want him on your team. As suggested by quarterback Aaron Rodgers' endorsement of him after the season, Guion showed a love for the game that won over his teammates.

The big question is whether he'll have trouble abstaining from pot now that he's likely to be tested up to 10 times a month in the NFL's substance abuse program.

It's a given Guion will be suspended to start the season and, according to an NFL spokesman, his arrest for felony possession of marijuana means the league is reviewing his case for violating either of its off-field disciplinary policies, substance abuse or personal conduct.

When former Packers defensive lineman Johnny Jolly was arrested for felony possession of codeine, the league disciplined him under the substance abuse policy. Assuming the same for Guion, the policy gives commissioner Roger Goodell wide discretion in the penalty, and thus Guion's impact this season.

Players who violate the substance abuse policy because of arrest are subject to suspension of "up to four games," absent aggravating circumstances. This is where Goodell's discretion is wide. "Up to four games" could mean less, but aggravating circumstances could mean more.

A four-game suspension would be far more disruptive to Guion's '15 season than, say, a two-gamer, even though the difference appears small. In training camp, teams aren't only evaluating players, they're also preparing for the first four regular-season games. When a player is suspended for the first month, they don't play him as much in practice and preseason games, and then he's away from the team for four weeks, so his football conditioning suffers.

It generally takes at least a week back from suspension before the team activates him, and then for the next several weeks his playing time is limited because he's not yet sharp and in game shape. So a four-game suspension in effect usually means a player won't be much of a factor for half the season.

A two-game suspension, on the other hand, would allow Guion more work in camp and keep him away from the team for only two weeks thereafter. His conditioning wouldn't slip much, so the Packers would get close to a full season from him.

And what if Goodell decides that the amount of pot, which was a felony under Florida law, is an aggravating circumstance? He could tack on another game or more. So while the usual suspension for a player who never has been in trouble seems to be four games, you never know.

Raji is a worthwhile signing because of his potential. In 2010, his second year in the league, he was one of the Packers' best defensive players the second half of the season and during their Super Bowl run. But from 2011-13, his play was only OK.

Part of that was the Packers played him out of position as an end and three-technique type rather than a nose-tackle in their 3-4 personnel. The closer he is to the ball, the better he can use his first-step power to disrupt.

Still, he wasn't as effective in the Packers' nickel defense as he was in '10, either. So position doesn't account for everything. Yes, Raji started strong in camp last year back playing more as a nose before he sustained the torn biceps. But he'd been borderline dominant early in the previous three camps as well and didn't carry that over to the regular season.

Still, the Packers have to feel good about re-signing him. He's an athletic big man (330-plus pounds) with a lot to play for. A strong season could earn him a good contract in free agency next year. And he and Guion playing together adds a run-stopping dimension on the defensive line that coordinator Dom Capers lacked last season.

The Packers now are fairly deep on the defensive line. Mike Daniels remains their best inside pass rusher and defensive lineman overall. Datone Jones hasn't played up to his first-round draft status but is an OK rusher who might improve in his third season. Third-year pro Josh Boyd is a viable rotational player.

Barring injury, the Packers won't have to rely on second-year pros Mike Pennel (undrafted last year) and Khyri Thornton (a third-round pick), so if either or both get on the field much it will be because of his play. Pennel is a big man (6-4, 332) who appears to be the more promising of the two. Thornton didn't do much of anything as a rookie before his season-ending hamstring injury in the preseason finale.

So if Thompson ended up paying a little more for Guion and Raji than you would have expected at the start of free agency, in the bigger picture it still wasn't much. Now at a minimum, defensive line shouldn't be among his concerns on that side of the ball when it's time to draft this year's class.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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