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Exploring B.J. Raji's uncertain future

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It happens every so often in the defensive line meeting room. Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji will be in the middle of a film session, and they will look over and know exactly what's going through the other's mind.

They know their eyes are supposed to be focused on the opposing team's offense. They know they are there to learn the tendencies of the linemen that will try to block them, the gap the running back prefers to run through, how long the quarterback likes to hold the ball and so on.

But sometimes they can't help themselves. Their eyes will shift to the defensive linemen on the film, and they'll see them explode off the ball, dart into the backfield and get after the quarterback.

"Sometimes you watch other players and you're like, 'it might be nice to be able to do that,'" Pickett said. "They're able to get up field and people think they're known for pass rushing. We could do the same thing. Our system just doesn't call for that."

Does that explain why Raji has gone 33 games since his last sack, which came in Week 12 of the 2011 season?

He's perhaps the most interesting case study because of his contract situation. The deal that the former first-round draft pick signed when he came out of Boston College in 2009 will expire after this season, making him an unrestricted free agent.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that Raji and his agent, David Dunn, have turned down an offer from the Packers worth $8 million per season.

It's a risk, given that Raji doesn't have the numbers -- sacks or tackles -- that jump off the defensive statistics page.

Raji's role also has been reduced. Two years after playing 79.1 percent of the defensive snaps, Raji rarely plays in obvious third-down passing situations, and his playing time has dropped to 57.4 percent this season.

"I don't label myself as a two-down defensive lineman," Raji said. "I'm just a two-down defensive lineman for us this year."

The 27-year-old Raji hasn't complained about his diminished playing time nor has he shown any outward frustration despite the fact that his production has waned at precisely the time NFL players don't want it to -- in a contract year.

"He's been a very good leader for us this year," Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said recently. "I think he understands the value that he has to us. Now, at the end of the year, who knows?"

Raji would not comment on what the future might hold for him.

In Green Bay, he has bounced between nose tackle and the three-technique defensive end spot in Dom Capers' 3-4 defense. When the Packers picked him ninth overall, they envisioned him as the perfect anchor for the defensive line.

"When Dom and coach brought me here, they never ever told me I would lead the league in sacks at [defensive] tackle," Raji said. "They told me they liked my abilities, and they think I can fit in their scheme, so I'm cognizant of that, too.

"It's human nature, particularly when you're a competitor and when you're watching other guys around the league have monstrous years, sometimes you have to bring yourself back to reality and back to originally what the agreement was."

With that agreement about to come to an end, it's worth wondering if Raji would rather see what he could do in a scheme that allows defensive linemen more freedom rather than just eating up linebackers.

It's not as if Raji hasn't made big plays in his career. He had 10.5 sacks in his first three seasons combined, including 6.5 in 2010, when he looked like an emerging playmaker. In the playoffs that season, he made perhaps the biggest play of the NFC championship game when returned an interception for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears.

"I like Raji for sure, but he isn't the impact player he was just a few years ago," said former NFL scout Matt Williamson, who now works for ESPN. "Still, he is capable of greatness though and is immensely talented. I think Green Bay wants two giant defensive tackles to act almost like 3-4 nose tackles to just eat up a ton of space in the middle of their 'D.' Raji and Pickett do that well, and those guys don't grow on trees.

"I do think he is a better pass rusher than his number indicate and not playing on passing downs is an issue."

The Packers have just under $10 million in salary-cap space and can still use that for contract extensions before this regular-season ends. The Packers have a long list of players scheduled to be free agents, including the 34-year-old Pickett, and there's no indication they are close to deals with Raji or cornerback Sam Shields, perhaps their other top priority.

"I know my value [and] understand where we're at," Raji said. "But right now I'm focused on us and getting these two wins to get into the playoffs. That's how I've always gone about my business. It's taking care of the task at hand. I'm a firm believer of your resume speaking for you, and whatever's going to happen is going to happen."