For Raji, pride still matters

B.J. Raji had options. In fact, he had better ones than he’d had the year before, when he wasn’t coming off a major, season-ending injury.

“I actually, ironically, had more interest this time around than last year,” the Green Bay Packers veteran nose tackle explained following the first open organized team activity practice of the offseason earlier this week. “I’m talking about as far as the contending teams. I had two, three playoff teams.”

Not only that, but while Raji wouldn’t say so, one of the teams to show the most interest in him was none other than the defending Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots. They’d just parted ways with longtime starting nose tackle Vince Wilfork and saw Raji, an East Coast native who’d played at Boston College, as a younger replacement with lots of good football still to play – after a couple of down seasons and a ruptured biceps tendon that he suffered in preseason and wiped out all of 2014.

For some, a fresh start would have been in order. But not for Raji. Not after the way he’d seen the team’s season end – with the excruciatingly painful loss to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game – and not after he’d spent the season as a de facto assistant coach and glorified cheerleader.

“I just wasn’t comfortable leaving this place in the shape that it was in, the perception about the defense, the perception of myself,” Raji explained. “If I was going to leave this place, I wanted to be able to say, ‘Yeah, those guys really get it.’ I didn’t want to leave with questions. As a person, having a lot invested in this program, if it is ever time to leave, I want to leave on a good note.”

The ninth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, last season was supposed to be Raji’s renaissance. He was moving back to nose tackle – his natural position – after shuttling up and down the Packers’ defensive line in previous years. He’d accepted a one-year, $4 million prove-it deal, and through the first three weeks of training camp, he was doing exactly that.

The old Raji – the playmaking, hip-shaking, State Farm ad-costarring Raji, circa 2010 – appeared to be back.

Then, Raji suffered the biceps injury, on a seemingly mundane play in the Packers’ Aug. 22 preseason game against Oakland. Talking with reporters this week, Raji blamed himself for the injury, explaining that he thought it was caused by a lack of flexibility. To rectify that, he got serious about the yoga classes he’d half-heartedly tried in the past, and he’s seeing results.

“With my [lack of] mobility I think that was one of the reasons I got hurt. My arm wasn’t able to bend back with the right proper flexion. I jumped on that and I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” explained Raji, who turns 29 on July 11.

“One of things I noticed when I did my self-scout was my range of motion and my flexion. I don’t know if you remember but back in 2010, 2011, I was 1,000-snap guy, I was an 80 percent [playing time] guy. And I guess all that wear and tear kind of stiffened my muscles. So I noticed that my range of motion and my flexion weren’t as good as when I first got here in ‘09. And even with our tests here, some of my numbers weren’t as good as when I was a rookie.”

Doctors gave Raji a six-month post-surgery recovery timeline, so when OTAs kicked off this week, he was raring to go. While teammates coming off major injuries were held back in certain areas – most notably 11-on-11 sessions – Raji was full-go for every drill and team period.

“It felt great, man – running around and hearing that whistle blow. I’m not standing around watching,” Raji said. “I actually running to different drills.”

But it’s not just where Raji is physically that has his coaches excited. While he was a good teammate and stuck around to support the rest of the defensive line – something that other players on season-ending injured reserve have not done in the past – and tried to take positives from that experience, it’s clear the year out of commission is fueling Raji, too.

“I like his attitude,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I felt last year he was having a good camp. And the thing about BJ is, he was here in all the meetings and everything last year when he was on injured reserve. I think when a guy goes through that, they’ve got that added incentive because they appreciate being able to be out there and compete.

“So, I like where BJ is at right now, and I hope he can get back and get started with the same kind of training camp he had last year. I’m excited about seeing him get back into things.”

As is Raji. He’s been assured by Capers and the defensive staff that he’ll play nose tackle, even with fellow inside man Letroy Guion having been re-signed. With a one-year, $1.75 million incentive-laden deal, Raji understands his role and believes he’s poised to have the type of season he’s sure he would’ve had last year.

“[I know] what this kid can do when he’s locked in. And I plan on displaying that,” Raji said. “I don’t anticipate getting 60 snaps a game again. I don’t anticipate that. But I do think this can be a great unit, and that’s the most important thing.”

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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