GREEN BAY — For most of last year and much of the offseason, they were grouped together. In fact, one opposing general manager, when asked about the Green Bay Packers being their typical uninvolved selves in unrestricted free agency this spring, replied simply, "They've got to sign 'The Big Three.'"
As it turned out, there were really only two priorities: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose five-year, $110 million extension made him the NFL's highest-paid player in late April, and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who received a five-year, $66 million extension about 10 days before Rodgers' payday.
The third amigo, of course, was supposed to be defensive lineman B.J. Raji. Not only does Raji have the same agent as Rodgers and Matthews — David Dunn of Athletes First — but like Matthews, he had one year left on his rookie contract. Unlike Matthews, Raji was reportedly told by the team that he wouldn't be getting an extension. Rather, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport
, the Packers told Dunn that after some "early talks," they will let him play out the season.
Raji, the ninth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, had expressed confidence just the week before at one of the team's open organized team activity practices, saying, "I'm not really going to talk contracts. Obviously, the Packers are a great organization and I'm sure they'll do right by me. I'll just leave it at that."Instead, despite having $16.3 million in salary-cap room after Rodgers' and Matthews' deals, the Packers instead signed safety Morgan Burnett to a four-year, $24.75 million extension that included an $8.25 million signing bonus and ties Burnett to the Packers through the 2017 season. Raji, meanwhile, will have to prove he's worth a big contract; he'd also be a candidate for the franchise tag, which for 2013 was $11.175 million for defensive ends and $8.45 million for defensive tackles.
Whatever the case, the Packers need Raji to tilt the field for them. The defense has been criticized for not being physical enough, and that starts up front. The question is whether the Packers will get a disgruntled Raji, who's upset at Burnett skipping him in the contract line, or a motivated Raji, intent on cashing in — with the Packers or elsewhere.
The way he sounded last month, Raji could be the latter.
"I'm just raring to go," he said during OTAs. "Anytime a season you win your division for the second straight year and you end up losing in the divisional round, especially with the expectations we have here, it's never a good feeling. I had some time to get off and come back with the mentality that I want to dominate like I have in the past. I'm going to help this defense play great defense every game."
Raji said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and head coach Mike McCarthy both told him he played better in 2012 than he did in 2011, even though he was chosen for his first Pro Bowl team in 2011 and his statistics didn't indicate it (zero sacks, 45 tackles). He led the linemen in snaps (768) despite missing two games with an ankle injury. He did have 25 quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
"I did not have a sack last year but according to Trgo and Coach McCarthy, they felt last year was probably one of my best pass-rushing years. So go figure," Raji said. "Obviously, I'd love to have the numbers to support that. But ultimately, I'm just about winning. Hopefully, I can help us win next year by having some more sacks."
Part of the Packers' plan to make Raji more productive, as has been the case in previous seasons, is to actually cut back on his snaps. That's been a talking point for three years running, though, and it hasn't happened with any consistency.
Now, though, the coaches feel that the addition of first-round pick Datone Jones and the emergence of Mike Neal will give them more options in their sub packages, and Raji could also get a breather on base downs, even with Jerel Worthy unlikely to be back until midseason after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the regular-season finale. Veterans C.J. Wilson and Ryan Pickett are early-down mainstays, with second-year man Mike Daniels, fourth-round pick Josh Boyd and a reinstated Johnny Jolly also factoring in.
"It's a little early to talk about depth charts, but those are guys that are going to fighting for those positions," Trgovac said.
At the same time, Raji isn't one to ask out of a game, and he'll have to balance his desire to play a lot to prove himself worthy of a big deal with the idea that he might be more productive on the downs he does play if he rests more. Either way, Trgovac made it clear to Raji the most glaring need for improvement.
"I actually sat down with Trgo at the end of the season and went down the list of things he felt we needed to improve on and one of the things he emphasized is I have to do a lot better job of shedding blocks, particularly in this league of guys who latch onto you," Raji said. "Obviously, as the season goes down for whatever reason, he thought I wasn't getting off blocks like I have in the past and that's one of the things I've emphasized this offseason is shedding blocks and making more plays."
If he does, the Packers will benefit, and so will Raji's wallet.