B.J. Raji entering critical season

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Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, July 21, 2013
GREEN BAY—The Green Bay Packers’ priorities were made clear early this offseason.
Clay Matthews received a five-year, $66 million extension. Soon after, Aaron Rodgers cashed in at five years, $110 million. The franchise players on offense and defense were identified and locked up long term.
Which leaves B.J. Raji in limbo. Green Bay wants to see more out of Raji before investing big bucks in the defensive lineman. The addition of Datone Jones might bring out the best in Raji, and—as he detailed earlier—Raji is putting a renewed emphasis on shedding blockers. Basic but important.
Raji thought he was in position to make plays in the backfield last year but couldn’t shake free to finish. If the stars align and Raji asserts himself as a dominant player, the Packers have the money to keep him.
Raji made it clear he’d “absolutely” like to stay in Wisconsin.
“Green Bay gave me my first opportunity, my first shot at this thing,” Raji said. “Obviously I’ve had a great run here. I love the people here. It’s a great organization, it’s a great city for football. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
It’s on the Packers to decide if Raji is replaceable or indispensable. The answer isn’t so cut and dried.
Take the final three games of 2012.
In general, explosive 340-pounders are rare, which is why teams gamble on this combination each April. Raji, four years in, clearly possesses elite quickness for his size. Even though his numbers have dipped since the breakout 2010 season, that has been evident. In Week 17, he discarded Charles Johnson to stuff Adrian Peterson for a 2-yard loss one play and then bench-pressed Brandon Fusco before ripping Peterson down for a 1-yard loss another play.
In the playoffs, he handled Fusco again for a near sack. And then he had a performance at San Francisco he’d like to forget. Raji turns heads and then can blend in.
Consistency, not talent, has been the issue. Flashes of brilliance, the flashes that warrant a lucrative extension, were too sporadic in 2011 and 2012. Green Bay wants to see Raji at his best week in and week out before making another investment—especially with starters such as Jermichael Finley, James Jones, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Sam Shields in contract years.
“I think I played some good ball (in 2012),” Raji said. “I’ll always be my worst critic. So I feel like I could always play better. But from coach (Mike) McCarthy and Mike Trgovac, they felt like last year was my best year here. So I was very happy with that. But also there’s ways you can always improve.”
Raji ramped up his pass rush the final month of last season. His goose-egg sack count is deceiving. Raji did have 19 quarterback pressures last season. And Raji would seem to have leverage now in the sense that the Packers don’t have a replacement in waiting, and players with his blend of size and skill are rare. Finishing in 2013 would go a long way in Raji getting a new deal.
Datone Jones’ presence could help. The last two Cullen Jenkins-less years, Raji hasn’t had an athletic pass rusher on the defensive line next to him. If Jones can demand attention, Raji could see more opportunities, too.
“I’ll always have the respect of my opponents, so there will always be attention,” Raji said. “Everything varies week to week. Everybody has a different scheme. Everybody has a different goal to attack you. But ultimately, like I said, the more talent you can get up front and around you, the better off you’ll be.”
And at some point, the Packers will have yet another decision to make in the front office.

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