If B.J. Raji can possibly return to his 2010 form, it could make a major difference for Green Bay in 2014.
After three straight seasons of underwhelming statistics, it's difficult to expect Green Bay's B.J. Raji to suddenly be dominant. A permanent move back to nose tackle should help Raji tremendously, though.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
By Paul Imig
Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers' success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find the entire series here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team's 25 best players, but rather it's a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player's position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
It doesn't take that great of a memory to recall when B.J. Raji was a dominant player on the Green Bay Packers' defense. During the 2010 season, Raji was just that. Most people will point to his 6.5 sacks that year, and while that was impressive, that's far from the only thing Raji did well. While playing more than 85 percent of the snaps, Raji did everything that could have been asked of him on the Packers' way to winning the Super Bowl. As Green Bay's nose tackle, Raji posted numbers that still hold as his career-highs with 39 tackles and three passes defensed, in addition to his sacks.
Raji's snaps have dropped in the three seasons since, playing as few as 58.6 percent of the defensive snaps in 2013. He didn't have the big sack totals or other eye-popping numbers in 2012, but that was a positive season for Raji. The 2011 and 2013 seasons, however, were mostly disappointing for him.
Raji is No. 16 on this list because if he returns to his 2010 form -- which he's more than capable of doing, the Packers are a drastically better team for it. Players of Raji's size (6-foot-2, 337 pounds) who can move like he does don't come around often. Now it's up to Raji -- with some help from defensive coordinator Dom Capers putting him in the right spots --- to make a difference for Green Bay's defense.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
After three consecutive seasons of forgettable statistics (including zero sacks each of the past two years), it's difficult to expect Raji to suddenly have 6.5 sacks again. A permanent move back to nose tackle should help Raji tremendously, though. He believes it's the best spot for himself, and the Packers obviously believe it's where he has the best chance of re-discovering the top-notch form that he displayed in earlier seasons of his career.
Green Bay re-signed Raji this offseason to a one-year, $4 million contract. That should have Raji plenty motivated. Though, he should have been plenty motivated last season going into the final year of his previous contract.
With the combination of Raji's NFL experience and age, this is among his last chances to earn himself a multi-year, big-money deal. There was no team banging down his doors this offseason, leaving Raji to settle for the Packers' short-term offer. He undoubtedly wants teams to see him in a much more positive light next offseason, because if he doesn't achieve that, Raji could be stuck settling for one-year contracts throughout the rest of his career.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
Green Bay's backup at nose tackle is Letroy Guion. As part of the Packers' free-agent spending spree this offseason (note the hint of sarcasm), general manager Ted Thompson inked Guion to a one-year, $985,000 contract. Guion spent the first six years of his NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings, so he's seen plenty of Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and the rest of the NFC North's top players. Despite that vast level of NFL experience, Guion is just turning 27 years old in late June.
The rest of Green Bay's defensive line doesn't exactly do what Raji will be asked to do, but that group includes Josh Boyd, Datone Jones, Mike Daniels, Jerel Worthy and rookie Khyri Thornton. Mike Neal and Julius Peppers will both be playing a hybrid role that includes some time on the defensive line next to Raji. The Packers' only other option at defensive tackle is Mike Pennel, an undrafted rookie free agent who will need a very good showing during training camp to make the active roster.