Who (if anyone) is to blame for the absence of our top draft pick at training camp?
For the most part, Training Camp 2009 is off to a good start for the Packers. We all know who the quarterback is, the 3-4 defense looks like it will be a lot of fun to watch, and thus far none of our key players (knock on wood) have suffered serious injuries. The one big exception to all of this good feeling—the 340-pound fly in the ointment—is first-round pick (#9 overall) B.J. Raji, who remains unsigned.
One of the frustrating things about this situation is that it’s hard to find any one person to blame. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Here’s a rundown of the key suspects:
B.J. Raji: Before training camp, Raji said that he intended to report on time. Some fans have given him grief for failing to keep his word, but at the time he said this, Raji had no way of knowing that he would get stuck in the middle of a logjam, with players on either side of him unsigned and a couple of unusual situations that have led to an uncertain market. (More on that below.) Also, it’s hard to blame Raji when we don’t know how much money he is demanding. When he said that he intended to report to camp on time, we can assume that he didn’t mean he would sign any contract that was offered to him.
David Dunn (B.J.’s agent): Blaming an agent for being greedy is like blaming a shark for being hungry. But we don’t even know if Dunn is being greedy. It is an agent’s job to get a market-level (or above) deal for his client, and the market hasn’t been set yet. To his credit, Dunn has refrained from negotiating in the media or making negative comments. He’s kept such a low profile, in fact, that I wasted ten minutes on Google trying to find his name.
Ted Thompson: The same rule applies to Ted as it does to B.J. and his agent: We don’t know how much he is offering, so he can’t be blamed for excessive stubbornness. We do know that Ted has a history of lowballing people (Bubba Franks, Ryan Grant), which has tended to backfire on him, but we don’t know if that’s the case here.
The NFL: Now we’re getting somewhere. NFL rookies who are picked near the top of the first round receive ridiculous salaries. There needs to be a rookie salary scale to distribute more of that money to veteran players, who deserve it, and get the rookies in to camp on time. The good news is that the NFL is one of the better-run sports leagues, so there’s a chance that this problem could get fixed in the next collective bargaining agreement.
Al Davis: Davis's Raiders are so inept that their badness is beginning to affect other teams. By signing Darrius Heyward-Bey to a contract that was 20% higher than the contract of last year’s #7 overall pick, the Raiders threw the market into chaos for those teams who drafted immediately after them. It should be noted that the Raiders received an assist in their badness from the New York Jets, who signed QB Mark Sanchez, the #5 overall pick, to a deal that was well above the previous market value for that pick.
Michael Crabtree: The #10 overall pick is getting an early start on divahood, demanding to be paid as if he had been picked at least five spots higher than he was. It must be fun to live in a pretend universe, and Crabtree will have plenty of time for pretending if he makes good on his implied threat to sit out the entire season. Meanwhile, Raji’s agent is hesitant to negotiate a contract with the Packers, knowing that his reputation will take a major hit if the player taken one spot behind his guy gets a much larger contract.
The Jacksonville Jaguars: Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has explained how the Jacksonville Jaguars may hold the key to getting Raji signed—and that may not be a good thing. The Jags took OT Eugene Monroe at #8 overall, one spot ahead of Raji, and they are a cash-strapped organization that will be reluctant to follow the Raiders’ free-spending ways. Last year the Jags picked in the exact same spot, and their player was the last NFL pick to be signed—33 days into training camp. No doubt Ted Thompson is hoping for a lower amount for Monroe, which would give the Packers much more bargaining power. So maybe we should just settle into a nice comfy chair to wait this thing out.
This is a case where the blame game doesn’t do us a lot of good. It’s easy to say that these guys just need to get something done, but there are millions of dollars at stake here for both sides. And unfortunately, the market does not have the same priorities as the fans. At this point, the damage to Raji’s stock as a player is accumulating only gradually. In another week or two, the damage will accelerate, as Raji will most likely fall far enough behind his teammates to lose his starting job, and any further delay will directly affect how soon he can be ready to make an impact on the field. It’s a shame. He seems like a good kid. Sometimes there are no heroes and no villains. Just a lot of frustrated people, and that includes us.