The Oakland Raiders have a lot of work to do this offseason. With a projected $63.6 million in salary cap space according to Spotrac and a talent-deficient roster, general manager Reggie McKenzie finally has the flexibility to improve the roster in free agency and a full deck of draft picks.
Defensive end Lamarr Houston and left tackle Jared Veldheer will also be free agents when the new league year starts March 11, and they can start talking to other teams on March 8. Veldheer is arguably the Raiders' best player on offense, and Houston their best player on defense, so McKenzie also has work to do to make sure the Raiders don’t get worse before they get better.
As frustrating as it might be for Veldheer, Houston and the Raider Nation, waiting to re-sign Veldheer, Houston and any other free-agent-to-be is the smart thing to do. The Raiders gain very little by re-signing them before the deadline and risk derailing the rebuild before it even gets started.
"It’s tough when that kind of stuff happens, because it goes against everything that’s been said about being a cornerstone of the team that (they’re) going to build around," Veldheer said. "It doesn’t back up those words with the right action."
It all makes sense from Veldheer’s perspective, but the team obviously doesn’t share that perspective—nor should it. In reality, it’s in the team’s best interest to wait for the following reasons.
One of the reasons the Raiders got into the mess that McKenzie just finished cleaning up was by overpaying players. It wasn’t just one bad contract; it was a roster full of bad contracts. Richard Seymour, Michael Huff, Stanford Routt, Tommy Kelly and Kamerion Wimbley are just a few of the players who were never worth what late owner Al Davis paid them.
Right now, the Raiders can only bid against themselves for the services of Veldheer and Houston. The two can test the market, so if the Raiders want to prevent that, they will need to pay a premium.
Starting Feb. 17, the Raiders will have a two-week window to apply the franchise tag to one player they don’t want to lose. The problem with the franchise tag is that it creates a built-in advantage in contract negotiations for the player, because the team is effectively declaring the player is one of the best five players at his position.
The franchise-tag values for Houston ($12.5 million) and Veldheer ($11.1 million) are also significantly more than the Raiders should be willing to pay. It’s not smart to use the tag unless that player is actually a top-five player. The alternative is to try to come to an agreement on a long-term contract, but until a player can gauge his value on the open market, the team and agent are throwing darts in the dark.
"I’d like to have some urgency and move this along so it doesn’t creep up to that date where something has to happen that’s not in the long term," Veldheer said on 95.7 The Game, via CSN Bay Area.
If Veldheer or his agent think there is even a remote possibility the team will use the tag, they are going to keep their demands high until it becomes clear the team will not use it. The team has no advantage in a situation like this, so to re-sign a player early only means bidding against itself.
Even if the team comes to the table with a good offer, the agent is going to wonder if it is trying to get a deal. If the agent is quick to accept the deal, the team wonders if it overpaid. If there is a good offer on the table for Veldheer and Houston, it will take time before their agents realize it.
It can be good for teams to hold off on offering a deal until they get an idea of how a market is going to develop for those players. That market can develop as soon as March 8, but it could just as easily take weeks.
A market may not develop for a variety of reasons, including team needs relative to their salary-cap space and strength of the draft. Players may also price themselves out of the market that does develop for their services.
|Cap Space 2014-2016|
|Year||Salary Cap||Rollover||Player Spending||Dead Money||Cap Space||New Spending|
|2013 Data via Spotrac.com|
With over $60 million in salary-cap space, some people may not think overpaying by a couple million is a big deal. That used to be true, but the last collective bargaining agreement changed all that. The salary cap used to be use-it-or-lose-it, but now teams can roll over salary-cap space every year.
In the old model, the Raiders could just front-load the contracts of Veldheer and Houston and not worry about overpaying by a couple million because they couldn’t dream of using all their cap space this year. Teams built in bogus incentives into contracts at the end of every year in order to get future cap considerations.
In the new model, any amount of overpayment for a player hurts the team this year and in future years. Not only is that player on the books for several more years, but the money that is overspent is unavailable to be rolled over to the next season.
The teams that are good at managing their salary cap will have a chance to get ahead, but the teams that overpay will fall further and further behind. Even after a productive offseason, the Raiders can roll over a copious amount of cap space that will help them in future seasons.
Evaluating the Alternatives
With over a month until Houston and Veldheer can hit the market, there is no rush to sign them. Deadlines have a tendency to speed up talks because both sides become more willing to give ground. This is partially because the team and the agent get an idea of how the market will develop for that player.
In the next month, the pool of free agents will change. Players will be released, re-signed and franchise-tagged. It doesn’t make sense to pay Houston or Veldheer several millions more than a comparable player who may be available.
Right now, there are a large number of decent alternatives to Houston and Veldheer. Several are quality options who should keep prices reasonable for their services.
|2013 New Contracts at Left Tackle|
|Player||APY||Guarantee/Year||Guarantee %||2012 PFF Grade||2013 PFF Grade|
Left tackles Branden Albert, Jordan Gross, Rodger Saffold and Eugene Monroe are potential replacements for Veldheer who should hit free agency in March. Compared to most years, it's a deep market for left tackles, which should keep prices down. It's very possible the supply will be more than the demand at the position.
Last offseason, Ryan Clady, Jake Long, Jermon Bushrod, Sam Baker and William Beatty received new long-term contracts. The average guarantee given to these five players was $14.5 million with an average salary per year of $8.1 million.
With a nearly flat cap, the five left tackles hitting the market this season are likely to see similar contract terms. Five years for $41 million with $15 million guaranteed would be the projected average contract for the top five left tackles on the market. More generally, a $35-50 million contact over five years with between $12-19 million in guaranteed money.
|Projected Contracts at Left Tackle 2014|
|Player||APY||Guarantee/Year||2013 Guarantee %||2013 PFF Grade|
|Average (3% Increase)||$8.25||$3.00||36.4%|
|Spotrac.com & ProFootballFocus.com|
Based on his injury last season, Veldheer would likely fall on the lower end of the spectrum. Based on his performance in 2012, he’d be a lot closer to the upper end of the spectrum.
Either way, the Raiders have several other quality options to consider in free agency.
It’s a bit harder to find a replacement for Houston than Veldheer because he has a unique skill set. Houston is more a complementary pass-rusher who does his best work against the run. There may not be many players like Houston, but the Raiders also aren't married to his style.
The other difference between Houston and Veldheer is that the Raiders will be looking for two defensive ends this offseason, so it would be nice if they can retain the one starter they already have. Defensive ends Brian Orakpo, Michael Johnson, Anthony Spencer, Justin Tuck, Jared Allen and Michael Bennett would all be great additions, but they are all older than Houston.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap is probably the most comparable player to Houston in the league as far as age and ability. Dunlap signed a five-year, $39.4 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed last offseason. That’s an average per year of $7.9 million with $2.3 million guaranteed.
|Example Contracts for Lamarr Houston|
|Player||Age||APY||Guarantee %||PFF Grade Pass||PFF Grade Run|
|Spotrac.com & ProFootballFocus.com|
With a 2.68 percent increase in the salary cap, a similar contract for Houston would roughly equal $8.1 million per year over five years, or a total of $40.6 million, with $11.7 million guaranteed. Some may argue that’s a lot for a defensive end like Houston, which is precisely why it makes sense for the Raiders to take their time re-signing him.
Former Raiders defensive end Desmond Bryant signed a five-year, $34 million deal with $12 million guaranteed with the Cleveland Browns last year and could be another contract example to consider. Something along those lines would make sense for both the Raiders and Houston.
However, the passing game drives the league, so Houston may not be a hot commodity because he's not a great pass-rusher. A market for him may never develop, so the Raiders may be able to get him for cheaper than expected. If not, they can use that money to bring in a couple older players for a fraction of the long-term cost.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy is the only high-quality player who could potentially hit the market who is younger than Houston. Hardy may still get the franchise tag, but if he doesn’t, the Raiders could prioritize signing him. Landing a player like Hardy would make Houston less important to the team even though they need two quality defensive ends—further driving down what the Raiders are willing to pay.
Given the options that are available, rushing to re-sign Veldheer and Houston before it’s clear how their markets will develop and who will be available isn’t smart. Waiting until closer to the start of the new league year before making any decisions is the right way to approach re-signing them.
Starting on March 8, the Raiders can start contacting free agents they are interested in signing to determine their asking prices. Until then, little can happen that would cause the Raiders, Veldheer or Houston to change their position.
The Raiders have plenty of cap space to sign Houston, Veldheer or replacements. Just because the two sides may be far apart right now doesn’t mean that gap can’t narrow over the next month or two.
With so much cap space, the Raiders will sign a few good players this offseason, and agents would be crazy not to check to see if the Raiders have interest in their clients. The odds are good that if the Raiders want Veldheer and Houston back, they will be back, but there’s no sense in making that decision prematurely.
Unless otherwise noted, all salary-cap data via Spotrac.