GREEN BAY - B.J. Raji knew something was up.
When the veteran nose tackle came back to town to sign his one-year to return to the Green Bay Packers on March 14, he spent a few minutes with coach Mike McCarthy while agent David Dunn and team contract negotiator Russ Ball crossed t's and dotted i's.
"And before I got done, I said, ‘Hey Coach, are we going to go after any other free agents?' And he kind of like, smirked," Raji recalled last week after the team's first open organized team activity practice of the offseason. "And he said, ‘Yeah, we've got some things up our sleeve.' And the next day, I get home back east, and I obviously saw the big news. And I was happy."
That big news, of course, was the signing of defensive end/outside linebacker Julius Peppers. Raji's return the day before didn't generate the same excitement. He'd started the year as part of a "Big Three" – along with fellow Dunn clients Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews – that one NFL GM had said the Packers "had to" sign. But after another disappointing season – he hasn't had a sack in 35 games, dating back to Nov. 24, 2011 against the Detroit Lions – his return to Green Bay felt like an I guess we'll take him back kind of deal.
Raji, though, insisted he had other teams interested in him, and given that he did take several days to mull the Packers' one-year, $4 million offer (with another $2.5 million in incentives), that's certainly plausible.
"Obviously I've had some time to think it over, and I felt this was the right decision for me," Raji explained. "I liked our chances this year. This was even before I heard anything about Julius, and I still liked our chances coming back. Coach called me a couple times to express that they wanted me back and things, and I decided to come back.
"There was some interest [from other teams]. That's why I don't look at it as, ‘Oh, I'm coming back for one year.' It was, I chose to come back for one year. I had some options – I'm not going to get into that, but I had a few teams who were interested in me – but I decided to come back because I'm a guy that, obviously I have my own private matters to worry about, but ultimately I think I'm most happy when I'm winning football games."
That is one thing the Packers have done a lot since Raji came aboard. They've made the playoffs each of his five seasons, including winning Super Bowl XLV in 2010, and are 55-24-1 in regular-season play since taking him with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. And to hear Raji tell it, winning will make him that much more appealing when he is back on the free-agent market next spring.
"The way ball is going now – not just myself – a lot of people are starting to realize that the market isn't what you and your people are estimating it to be. From that you have to make the best decision for yourself," Raji said. "Some guys take the money that's out there. Myself, I'm not always all about the money, I'm more about putting myself in position in the future and winning. To be quite honest, a lot of guys weren't top 10 picks so they don't have the luxury of deciding to leave the money and come back.
"You look at the last couple offseasons, the guys that got paid the highest at that position typically went deep into the playoffs. I guess there's some correlation with teams that do well and guys that typically have a chance at free agency. Even the way the last couple years have gone with us, the last three years we've won the division, and that's our focus this year. But we want to get back to the NFC Championship and further, not one-and-done like it's been the last couple years."?
A bigger contribution from Raji would help that. With each passing year since his interception for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game at Chicago in January 2011, his role has diminished. Raji confirmed that one of the reasons he returned to Green Bay was the team's promise that he'd return to nose tackle, where he feels he can be productive again after spending less time head-up on the center and most of his time as a three- and five-technique tackle.
"I'd be lying to say it wasn't a major factor in my decision to come back," Raji said. "Yes, they're going to move me back inside, and that obviously to me played a big factor, but ultimately the pieces around me was another factor. I just thought this was the best opportunity for me, this year. I believe going back inside and doing some things I am accustomed to doing a few years back, I just felt like this is a good move for me."
It's still unclear, though, what Raji's role will be in the defense this season. Packers coach Mike McCarthy estimates the Packers have played their base "Okie" defense only 24 percent of the time over the past three seasons, meaning Raji's role would be limited if he only saw action in the base defense. But with veteran Ryan Pickett not having been re-signed, it should open up more snaps for Raji, who'll turn 28 in July.
"I think that's his natural position is the nose. Obviously, when had him and Pick on the same team — both good football players — you don't want one sitting on the bench," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "I think B.J. likes it here, and I really like B.J.'s attitude right now. He's been a good leader in there. He's one of the older guys now. When he came in here as a rookie, I said, ‘You're not going to believe how fast you're going to be the oldest guy in this room.' Me being in this league for 20 years, guys don't realize how fast they're going to be the oldest guy in the room because everyone's careers are pretty short.
"[His role] will be somewhat different in that he's going to be on those nose more. He was on the nose some last year but he'll be on the nose more. I think he feels real comfortable down there."
And he feels comfortable in Green Bay, where he's back for at least one more year. What happens a year from now is largely up to him.
"I know our numbers defensively the last couple years weren't what they were in '09 and '10, but you look back, [the Packers have won] the last three division titles and the Super Bowl. You can say what you want, but we've had success here. There really was no need for a major change.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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