As he's wont to do, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel dropped a rather interesting nugget over the weekend regarding upcoming free agent B.J. Raji. As it turns out, the Packers' Pro-Bowl defensive lineman has been sitting on a multi-year contract offer for several months.
The deal would net Raji an average of about $8 million per season, enough to place him behind only Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and Tramon Williams on the team payroll. More significantly, it would keep stabilized a defensive front that may lose Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, and Johnny Jolly after the season.
It stands to reason that if Raji hasn't accepted the offer by this point, he and agent David Dunn plan to pursue free agency this summer. Historically for the Packers, the end game in these situations is the player departing for a bigger contract with another squad. Recent examples include guard Daryn Colledge, defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, center Scott Wells, and wide receiver Greg Jennings.
But McGinn raises an important question: What if this is Raji's best offer?
True 3-4 nose tackles rarely go underpaid, but Raji may not be a nose tackle. He held the position in 2010, his best season to date, when he played well over 80% of the Packers' defensive plays. He followed up that year with a lackluster 2011, and was moved over to the five-technique. Since the move, Raji's play has improved, but he's yet to achieve the same level of impact he had in 2010. Once again this year, Raji is positioned as a five-tech.
The value of the five-tech in a 3-4 defense varies from team to team. In some cases such as Houston, those players are the team's primary pass rushers and command -- or in J.J. Watt's case, will command -- a salary on par with the best defenders in the league. Those situations are rare, however, as 3-4 outfits generally use their defensive lineman as space eaters, freeing up the more athletic linebackers to make plays. For various reasons, Raji profiles as a space-eating defensive lineman rather than a pass rusher.
Assuming the market agrees, $8 million annually may be pricy for Raji. Even in the world of bloated contracts that free agency has wrought upon the NFL, the biggest deals for defensive players are reserved for pass rushers. Lane cloggers like Raji don't garner the same attention on the open market. Of the scouts surveyed, none valued Raji anywhere near $8 million per year. As McGinn put it, "they like the guy, but they don't love the guy."
Furthermore, next year's free agent class appears flush with defensive tackles, further depressing Raji's value. McGinn estimates a player like Raji is looking at offers in the $4-6 million per year range. Even at the highest end of that spectrum, Raji would be accepting less than his standing offer with the Packers.
In that scenario, Raji's decision comes down to a central issue: Is it better to stay in a familiar defense that doesn't glorify your position, or are you better off changing teams and be featured as a "jet" rusher? McGinn describes Raji as a "shrewd, deep-thinking individual" who understands his importance to the Green Bay defense. If the money's equal, he's probably more likely to stick around than leave town.
But whether that money is equal is still unknown at this time. With as many as two and a half months left to play, Raji's value could change considerably between now and this summer.