The Oakland Raiders are less than a week away from two of their best players becoming unrestricted free agents. Defensive end Lamarr Houston and left tackle Jared Veldheer will both be able to start talking with other teams in just a few days, which could lead to their departures from the team.
Although the Raiders still have an exclusive window to negotiate with Veldheer and Houston until March 8, the odds that one or both of them could be on their way out of town increased when the team decided not to use the franchise or transition tag on either of them.
The Raiders only add to their long list of needs at two key positions if Houston and Veldheer both hit the open market.
While not tagging either player may be the fiscally responsible thing to do, it also adds considerable pressure on general manager Reggie McKenzie during free agency. The Raiders will have an even higher volume of needs, and priorities may have to shift away from improving in other areas to find a left tackle and defensive end.
Unlike a winning team, the Raiders have to do a lot more work convincing free agents to sign in Oakland. Shifting priorities could have an impact on the team’s ability to sign certain players.
If it comes down to using a league-high $65.1 million in salary-cap space, per overthecap.com, to do the convincing, it negates the purpose of not overspending on Houston or Veldheer in the first place.
Left Tackle Options
After not giving a tag to Veldheer, it would be easy to leap to conclusions about how the Raiders value him. Although some of these assumptions are natural, it would be a mistake to assume that the Raiders don’t value him at all.
According to Albert Breer of NFL Network, via overthecap.com, the franchise tag for an offensive lineman is $11.7 million and the transition tag is $10 million. That’s an awful lot for a player that missed 11 games with a torn triceps last year. Veldheer wasn’t a top left tackle for the five games he played in 2013, so paying him like one doesn’t make much sense.
ProFootballFocus (subscription required) gave Veldheer a negative-5.5 grade in 2013 with a terrible game in Week 17 accounting for most of it. Veldheer surrendered a sack and 10 hurries with all but one hurry by Denver Broncos’ defensive end Robert Ayers—a player not considered a great pass-rusher.
Veldheer has proven to be a consistent producer that the Raiders would like to retain, but it’s hard to justify him being worth $10 million per year, which the transition tag would guarantee in 2014. The only two left tackles who have contracts with a cash value north of $10 million in 2014 are Joe Thomas and the recently extended Jason Peters.
Even with a rise in the salary cap in 2014, Veldheer has to be realistic with his value. As free agency approaches, both Veldheer and the Raiders are likely to put their best offers on the table. It's likely the two sides will come to an agreement, but if it doesn’t, there are a few left tackles hitting the market this year.
Perhaps the most appealing option is Baltimore Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe, who is just about two months younger than Veldheer. Like Veldheer, Monroe wasn’t given a tag, but the Ravens would love to have him back.
Another option would be to sign on of the more veteran left tackles on the market. Branden Albert has the highest profile, but Anthony Collins did a good enough job at left tackle that the Cincinnati Bengals chose to slide Andre Whitworth inside to guard last season.
|Alternative Options at Left Tackle|
|Player||Former Team||Age||PFF Grade||PFF Rank (5+ Games at LT)|
Given there are options at the position in free agency, and that the Raiders have plenty of cap space to be one of the top bidders on them, it made sense to not tag Veldheer. The Raiders obviously feel like they can get a quality left tackle for significantly under $10 million.
Last season, the highest-paid left tackle as far as average per year was $8.5 million to Jake Long. Even with a roughly 8.1 percent increase in cap, that’s only $9.2 million on average. Long’s deal was for four years, but a longer five-year contract would likely cut that average down to around $8 million with the increase in cap space.
While the Raiders have plenty of cap space, that doesn’t mean they should overpay by $2 million. Any extra money can be used to on other free agents or saved for a future signing.
In this situation, there is no way the Raiders don’t sign a left tackle unless they plan to draft one with the No. 5 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Defensive End Options
The options at defensive end are a lot less clear than at left tackle. This is partly due to a thin market at defensive end, Houston’s unique skill set and how a defense can adjust to different personnel.
Prior to last season, Houston was primarily a left defensive end. This fit Houston’s skill set as one of the best run defenders at the position, but he wasn’t a great pass-rusher. On the left side in 2102, Houston had 4.0 sacks.
Last season, Houston flipped to the right side and dropped weight, but while he continued to be a great run defender, he also proved that he was better off on the left. Houston had just 6.0 sacks, but played a lot more snaps than he did the year before.
With a franchise tag number of $13.1 million and a transition tag number of $10.6 million, it’s hard to blame the Raiders for not using either of them on Houston. Even if a healthy market develops for Houston, it’s highly unlikely he’s going to make anything approaching the franchise-tag number.
|Free-Agent Defensive End Comparisons|
|Player||Former Team||Age||PFF Grade||Pass-Rush Grade||Run-Stop Grade|
A player like Michael Johnson could provide the same type of production as Houston, but he isn’t expected to come cheaply on the open market. Michael Bennett is a player who could provide the same type of production against the run, but far more of a pass rush is also available.
The one free agent at the position flying under the radar is Everson Griffen, who had 8.0 sacks in 2012 and 5.5 sacks in 2013. Griffen is just 26, which is actually younger than Houston. Jared Allen and Brian Robison in Minnesota have overshadowed Griffen, but he has played well enough to become a full-time starter.
An option like Allen, Justin Tuck and Red Bryant could also be suitable replacements for Houston, but are also much older, and thus wouldn’t be the best signings as replacements. The problem here is the scarcity at the position and the Raiders’ need to fill both their defensive end spots and not just one.
While the Raiders were smart to not give the franchise or transition tag to Houston or Veldheer, they now have a lot more work to do in free agency than previously expected. The Raiders can avoid the added pressure by agreeing to long-term deals with one or both players prior the start of free agency on March 11.
What kind of market these will be for Houston and Veldheer should start coming into focus when they can talk with other teams on March 8, at which time the two sides can narrow the contracts terms down to something that might work for both sides.
As it becomes increasingly likely that Houston and Veldheer will test the market, expect the Raiders to bring their best offers to the table to retain them.
If the Raiders end up losing one in free agency, there are expected to be plenty of other options. The Raiders have the cap space to make something happen with whatever players they want, so the fact that the negotiations with Veldheer and Houston could run into free agency could favor the team.
Unless otherwise noted, all salary-cap information via overthecap.com.