The Oakland Raiders have a lot of money to spend, but they also have many needs. The Raiders need an infusion of talent at just about every position—likely even more than $60 million in salary cap space can buy.
While the Raider Nation has dreams about high-profile free agents, the Raiders have a lot of work to do just to put together an NFL-caliber roster. When free agency opens up March 11, the Raiders may not be targeting a few players at the top of the market, but dozens of players who will be more affordable.
Free agency is still about a month away, so the combine and re-signing key free agents will be the focus over the next few weeks. There is no rush to re-sign anyone, but when talks do fire up, the Raiders should start with defensive end Lamarr Houston.
There are several reasons why starting with Houston is the smart move for the Raiders. The needs of the team will play a huge role in the decision to bring back Houston, but he’s also a unique player. The Raiders have asked Houston to do too much, but his experience should only help him going forward.
If team need doesn’t drive a team to draft a certain way, there has to be another method to fill those needs. The most obvious method is to fill those needs in free agency—that’s why general managers on the hot seat will often go on a spending spree in free agency hoping to plug all their teams' needs at once.
Houston, We Have a Problem
Houston might be the most high-profile defensive player the Raiders need to re-sign, but he’s not the only one. The entire starting defensive line from last year is hitting free agency, so the Raiders currently have four starting positions to fill on the defensive line alone.
The Raiders may need a talent infusion, but at least at other positions they have a few bodies. On the defensive line, there are literally only a handful of players on the offseason 90-man roster. Of those players, the most experienced is defensive tackle David Carter, who the team recently signed to a reserve/future contract.
There are seven defensive linemen on the roster, but only Carter has more than two seasons of experience. Defensive tackle Stacy McGee, a rookie in 2013, actually has more starting experience than Carter. McGee also played the most snaps last year out of the seven defensive linemen on the roster.
|Raiders' Lack of Depth and Experience on Defensive Line|
|Player||Pos.||Experience||Games||Starts||Most Recent Start||2013 Snaps|
|NFL.com (Snap Data via ProFootballFocus.com)|
At defensive end, the Raiders have only three players with a total of four seasons, 19 games and zero starts of experience on the roster. Last year, those players played 196 snaps combined.
It doesn’t matter if the Raiders go after a couple defensive linemen this offseason—they still need Houston. With him on the roster, the Raiders at least have at least one legitimate starter. Houston has experience on the right and left side of the line and at defensive tackle in pass-rushing situations.
Houston doesn’t limit in any way what other players the Raiders consider bringing in on the defensive line, but he is one less position they need to worry about. Without Houston, there may not be four quality starts available on the open market who the Raiders can also realistically sign.
The biggest problem with Houston is that he’s not a classic speed-rusher from the end. Houston isn’t ever going to be a 20-sack player, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a good pass-rusher.
It’s silly to expect Houston to be a primary pass-rusher, but the Raiders haven’t had one since Kamerion Wimbley over two years ago. The Raiders have asked Houston to do more and more in the passing game with less talent around him, and he’s been successful.
The Raiders released Wimbley, defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly and versatile defensive lineman Desmond Bryant since they drafted Houston, but he has been the player who has stepped up. Houston has increased his share of the team’s quarterback sacks, hits or hurries in each of the last four seasons—all three from 2011-2012.
Despite the talent around him deteriorating over the last few years, Houston has been able to improve his ability as a pass-rusher. Houston’s quarterback hurries have increased every season, and his quarterback hits are trending in the right direction.
Even Houston’s sack total has inched up, which is a good sign because he switched from left defensive end to right defensive end in 2013. Houston was going up against left tackles who are typically more talented than the right tackles he faced over the first three years of his career, but he still managed to improve.
Not only is Houston improving as a pass-rusher, but he’s also one of the league’s premier run defenders. Since Houston entered the league in 2010, he has the best total ProFootballFocus.com grade (subscription required) of any 4-3 defensive end in football.
Houston also grades out as the top 4-3 defensive end against the run over the last three years. Only Rob Ninkovich had a better run-stopping grade over the last two seasons than Houston.
|PFF's 4-3 Defensive Ends vs. the Run|
|Player||2010||2011||2012||2013||Last 4||Last 3||Last 2|
There’s value in consistency. Unlike other free agents who might have only flashed during a contract year, the Raiders know that Houston will at least be a very good run defender. The same skills he uses to defend the run so well also help him against the pass, but the Raiders need to give him some help.
Houston is best served sliding inside on passing downs, which means finding players who can get to the quarterback more quickly from the outside.
It’s quite possible that Houston would be more highly regarded if he didn’t play for the Raiders for the past four seasons. Houston compares favorably with Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Justin Tuck in his prime.
Unlike left tackle Jared Veldheer, Houston isn’t coming off a serious injury and lackluster performance in 2013. Houston hasn’t missed a game in his entire career—starting all but four of them.
Not only is Houston durable, healthy and productive, but he’s entering his prime. He’s is an underrated pass-rusher, a premier run defender and the Raiders need him badly.
When the time comes to start spending, the Raiders should start with Houston. To try to replace Houston is going to be just as costly, more difficult and will take time away from filling dozens of other positions of need.
The Raiders had 99 problems last year, but Houston wasn't one.
Unless otherwise noted, all pass-rushing statistics and grades via ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).