With the news last week that he tore his biceps and more than likely will miss the 2014 season, Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji continues to see his once promising career come even more off the rails.
When Raji was selected with the first of two first round draft picks in 2009, he (along with linebacker Clay Matthews) was heralded as one of the future stars of the new 3-4 defense that the Packers were moving to that season under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Coming out of Boston College, Raji was praised for his power and athleticism despite his size.
He was going to be one of the players on the defensive line opening it up for players like Matthews to rush the passer. Of course, to learn that as a rookie would require his participation in training camp. Thanks to the NFL not having the rookie pay scale it has now, it was not uncommon for rookies to hold out and Raji was one of them. He did not sigh his contract until August 14, well after training camp had begun.
Did this have any impact on how Raji performed as a rookie? Well, he was hampered by an ankle injury for basically the whole season and appeared in 14 games recording only 25 tackles and one sack. Not exactly earth shattering numbers for a player taken number nine overall in the draft.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy is a firm believer that players make one of their biggest leaps between year one and year two of their careers, so expectations for Raji in 2010 were pretty high. Raji had earned the starting nose tackle position in the offseason, thus forcing veteran Ryan Pickett to move to defensive end. Now that he was healthy, all the pieces were in place for Raji to live up to his draft position.
He became a folk legend that season as the Packers made their run to the Super Bowl XLV title. McCarthy, ever the creative offensive mind, began using Raji as an extra fullback during the playoffs and he dubbed himself “The Freezer,” a play on the nickname former Bears defensive lineman William Perry earned during the 1980s.
Raji even became an internet dance sensation after he made an incredible interception and touchdown against the Bears in the NFC Championship Game that effectively sealed the win and a trip to Dallas and the Super Bowl for Green Bay. The hip twisting touchdown celebration Raji performed soon went viral and not much later many fans were wearing shirts asking do someone to “Teach Me How to Raji.” Even Bucky Badger was impressed.
The Packers followed up their Super Bowl XLV win with a 15-1 regular season in 2011 and despite the defense struggling badly throughout the season, Raji earned his first Pro Bowl selection with 14 tackles and three sacks. Statistically, that was down from 2010 when he had 39 combined tackles and six sacks.
After 2011, Raji’s star was at an all-time high. The Packers had apparently found Gilbert Brown 2.0 and he was a hit with fans.
That star, as it often happens in the NFL, didn’t stay in the sky for long however.
Those three sacks Raji had in 2011 mark the most recent ones he has had. The Packers in 2012 decided to move him out of his natural nose tackle position and make him a defensive lineman. The theory was his size combined with his athleticism would make him a unique run stopping end who also could get pressure on the quarterback.
That theory didn’t work as Raji failed to record a sack for the first time in his career and the defense was constantly getting run over. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson shredded the Packers to the tune of nearly 500 yards combined in the two regular season contests. Raji had 26 combined tackles but he often failed to get penetration as a defensive end.
Green Bay decided that Raji would be moved back to his natural nose tackle position in 2013, where it was assumed he would revert to the form he showed in 2010 and 2011. Last season marked the final year of Raji’s contract and entering training camp, he was considered one of the more important players that the Packers had to re-sign.
General manager Ted Thomspon apparently agreed. In the offseason, the team offered Raji a contract extension that would have paid him $8 million per season. Raji decided to reject the deal, ever confident in his abilities. He thought he could dominate in 2013 and earn a much more lucrative contract.
Instead 2013 was a complete disaster for Raji. He had a career low 17 combined tackles and again failed to record a sack. He could not generate a pass rush and often was beat by opposing offensive lineman.
Garnering little interest from other teams in free agency in the spring of 2014, Raji signed a one-year $4 million contract with the Packers. That’s going to go down as one of the biggest pieces of humble pie served in recent NFL history.
Many were not sure what to expect of Raji in 2014. It was obviously going to be a do or die season for him and what he did in preseason would go a long way towards him re-establishing the faith both the coaches and fans had in him in 2010 and 2011.
Through the first two preseason games and throughout camp Raji looked like he rededicated himself and flashed the form he showed four years ago. It even led many fans to declare via Twitter “Where has THIS B.J. Raji been?!”
That enthusiasm was short lived however as Raji tore his biceps last Friday against the St. Louis Rams and is expected to be lost for the season.
It’s the latest chapter in a career that had a meteoric rise and just as meteoric of a fall. With Raji only on a one year deal, it’s unclear if the Packers will bring him back for 2015. With the improvement he showed in camp this year, one would think Thompson would give him one more shot but Thompson is unpredictable when it comes to bringing back players after these kind of injuries.
The rise and fall of Raji has been one of the most unique the Packers have seen. For a player to go from folk legend to despised to perhaps a phoenix rising from the ashes to a player (soon to be) on injured reserve is quite a roller coaster.
Does Raji’s ride have one more chapter in green and yellow? It’s impossible to tell right now but one thing is certain: Raji is a player fans will never forget.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke