Twelfth in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ free agents in advance of the start of the 2016 league year Wednesday.
The Green Bay Packers could tell B.J. Raji returned as a changed man last summer.
It was hard not to notice.
The former first-round pick remade his body after sitting out the 2014 season with a torn right biceps muscle. He dropped 10 pounds, worked tirelessly to increase his flexibility, and exemplified renewed dedication and maturity when he arrived for training camp.
Admittedly, Raji’s previous two seasons taught him a lot. In 2013, he became an afterthought playing base end. His production dipped to a career-low 17 tackles, costing him a shot at a lucrative long-term deal. He re-signed on a one-year, $3.5 million deal, but then tore his biceps in the preseason.
Raji returned on another one-year, prove-it contract after the last season. As promised, a starting position at nose tackle awaited Raji, who ended a three-year drought without a sack in Green Bay’s opener against Chicago and then had one of the best games of his career a week later against Seattle.
His biggest obstacle came in Week 5 against St. Louis when he strained his groin. It sidelined him for a game, but the 6-foot-2, 328-pound lineman felt grateful he didn’t pop it like he did his biceps muscle in the 2014 preseason. The day after the injury, he credited yoga for possibly saving his season.
The injury lingered through the middle portion of the year, but Raji started to look more like himself once the playoffs came around. While his numbers (22 tackles, a half sack) still didn’t match his best season in 2010 (39 tackles, 6½ sacks), his impact was felt in the run game and in the locker room.
Now, Raji returns to free agency for the third consecutive offseason. He’ll turn 30 this summer and certainly wants the long-term security he has been denied the last two years. The Packers took out an insurance policy should Raji leave when they re-signed Letroy Guion last month to a three-year, $11.05 million contract.
If Raji departs, Guion likely would step into the starting nose tackle position. If he returns, it provides the Packers with another inside line to defend against the run. Raji told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin in a text message that Guion’s extension was “well-deserved,” but acknowledged his own future was “uncertain.”
Raji and linebacker Clay Matthews were the first draft picks general manager Ted Thompson made after defensive coordinator Dom Capers was hired to install his 3-4 defense in 2009. The eighth-year defensive lineman has evolved with the scheme and become a student of the game over the past few seasons.
There’s mutual interest between Raji and the organization on a return. As ESPN.com first reported, Raji's representatives met with the Packers at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. In order to achieve a deal like they did with kicker Mason Crosby and Guion, however, the sides will need to find common ground on structure and value.
Time will tell if the market for defensive tackles is better than it was last offseason when Raji, Guion, Nick Fairley, Terrance Knighton and several other starting-caliber tackles settled for one-year deals.
While he rides out the free-agency wave, Raji said in January that he plans to lean on the lessons he learned the past year.
“Patience, but also, finding out all the information,” said Raji when asked what free agency has taught him. “Finding out who’s really interested, where they see you as, how they plan on using you. Because a lot of times you hear stories about guys are told one thing and when they get there it’s another. And that’s what I always wanted to avoid.
“So that’s what I weighed, I weighed obviously scheme, what the reputation of the coach is and what the players are saying about them and what previous players say about them.”
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B.J. Raji, 8th-year defensive tackle
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: 514 total (492 defense, 22 special teams).
The stats: 36 tackles with four sacks.
2015 salary: $2,687,500.