Raji's exit surprising, return unlikely

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers' B.J. Raji runs onto the field during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015.

B.J. Raji’s announcement was a stunner.

For more than a year, the former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman had been talking and behaving like a player trying to prolong his career, not possibly end it. He’d made a major commitment to improving his diet and conditioning, and he’d talked of playing into his late 30s.

He didn’t appear anywhere near ready to step away from the game, whether it ends up being for only a year or for good.

B.J. Raji ready for 'different challenge'

But walking away he is. In a written statement Monday, Raji cited his waning commitment to the rigors of football. He elaborated on that to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin’s Ryan Wood, saying that recent conversations with his mother and aunt, who are suffering from serious health issues, reminded him to live to the fullest and follow his passions rather than pursue more money just for money’s sake.

I don’t know whether Raji will return to football in a year. He called his departure a “hiatus,” though he didn’t sound likely to come back to the game in his conversation with Wood. Maybe his feelings will change after being away for a year. We’ll see.

But he also will be 31 by the time training camp starts in 2017. He’s a huge man and very well could get bigger without training for football. So what kind of shape will he be in 12 months from now? Not that it would be impossible for him to return in 2017, but it would be difficult. He’d have to be highly motivated.

As surprising as Raji’s hiatus/retirement is, maybe it shouldn’t be. There’s an assumption that football players love playing football, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Some and perhaps many are far more ambivalent. This is a physically brutal game. I suspect a good number play because they’re good at it, and the money, social status and perks are great.

Put it this way: A few years ago I was talking with a highly respected former Packers player about his long career in the NFL. He said he loved the camaraderie and competition of game days but considered the rest of the week drudgery. He found football fulfilling but not enjoyable.

With the money high draft picks and good players make today, they don’t have to squeeze every possible season out of their bodies to set up themselves and their families financially. Some choose to anyway, but Raji has not. He made about $34.5 million in his seven years in the NFL. Even after taxes and agent fees, he’s set for life and then some.

B.J. Raji's statement on taking 'hiatus'

As for the Packers, they might have lost Raji in free agency, so there was a possibility he wasn’t returning to their defensive line anyway. But Raji said they made a very competitive contract offer, so if he’d decided to play there was a pretty good chance it would have been with them.

With Raji, the Packers’ defensive line figured to be one of their better position groups, in part because of the re-signing earlier in the offseason of Letroy Guion. Raji’s departure takes a bite out of that depth.

Last season Raji played 444 defensive snaps, which was behind only Mike Daniels’ 706 among the Packers’ defensive linemen. He was their starting nose tackle in their 3-4 personnel and a regular in some of their nickel defensive groups — that is, when they had to match up with three receivers but wanted run-stopping defensive linemen on the field, too.

Raji, Guion and Mike Pennel also provided the Packers with three 320-plus pounders for what proved to be a strong goal-line and short-yardage defense. Raji might have been their most effective player in those settings. He had a knack for getting lower than his blocker and submarining a yard or two into the backfield. He rarely made the tackle, but he often forced the running back off his track, which in those tight settings could be the difference between a stop and touchdown or third-down conversion.

The Packers return their best defensive lineman, Daniels, plus Guion, who by the end of the season was playing as well as Raji. The promising Pennel is suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, so not having Raji will make it tougher for defensive coordinator Dom Capers early in the season.

The Packers’ other defensive linemen of note are Datone Jones, who plays primarily on passing downs and might see some time at outside linebacker; Josh Boyd, who’s returning after missing most of last season because of a severe ankle injury; and Christian Ringo, a sixth-round pick last year whom the Packers liked enough to give a raise from $6,600 per week to the rookie minimum of $25,588 a week when another team tried to sign him to its 53-man roster late last season.

The Packers were a decent bet to draft a defensive lineman in the early rounds this year. Without Raji, those odds only go up. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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