The Oakland Raiders placed an emphasis on upgrading their defensive line on Thursday by inking a pair of veteran pass-rushers to two-year deals. Defensive end Justin Tuck was the first splash for the Raiders during free agency after a nightmarish first two days.
LaMarr Woodley was second to come aboard on a two-year deal worth a maximum of $12 million, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Woodley will replace the departed Lamarr Houston more so than Tuck because he’ll play Houston's right defensive end position.
Woodley was an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme, but the line between the two schemes has become much more blurred in recent years. Woodley will put his hand in the dirt, but there are few other differences between the two positions.
The signing gives the Raiders two pass-rushers who are superior to any pair they've had since 2006. Head coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver should be doing backflips as they finally have a couple of players who can get after the quarterback.
Despite a lack of talent over the past two seasons, the Raiders managed to improve from 30th to 16th in defensive sack percentage, from 4.5 to 6.5 percent. Having Woodley and Tuck should keep that trend going in the right direction.
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When Woodley was healthy in 2013, he was one of the better pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebackers in the league. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Woodley had five sacks, eight hits and 24 hurries of quarterbacks on just 196 snaps last year. Only Jerry Hughes, Elvis Dumervil and Aldon Smith had a higher pass rush productivity rating.
In almost three times as many opportunities, Houston produced just six sacks, 16 quarterback hits and 41 hurries. On a per-snap basis, Houston was about half as productive as Woodley when rushing the passer.
Woodley isn’t as good against the run as Houston, which could be a concern. Whereas Houston has been one of the best 4-3 defensive ends against the run over the last few years, Woodley struggled against the run in 2013.
Woodley has been better against the run in the past, but never quite to the same level as Houston. Injuries could have played a role in Woodley’s struggles. When he was fully healthy, he was a disruptive player.
The switch to putting his hand in the dirt as a defensive end could either help or hurt Woodley against the run. The good news for Woodley is that one outside linebacker who will be in run support behind him will be Kevin Burnett, who is a great run defender.
In fact, Pro Football Focus gave Burnett the second-best grade against the run last year among 4-3 outside linebackers. Sio Moore, who may also play behind Woodley, was also impressive against the run.
The Raiders are more than willing to sacrifice a little run defense for pass rush, especially in a division with quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. Given the linebackers are more than capable of compensating for the loss—the Raiders may not even notice a difference.
Along with Tuck, the Raiders also added two defensive leaders. Woodley knows what it takes to have a great defense—he was a part of three No. 1 scoring defenses and one No. 2 scoring defense in his seven years with the Steelers. During the same period the Raiders' best finish in points allowed was 20th.
“I feel like we bring leadership and experience to this defense,” Woodley told the local media via conference call. “Me and Justin (Tuck) both have played in two Super Bowls. He has won two, I’ve won one Super Bowl but we know what it’s like to be on a winning team, and we know what it takes to get there.”
The Raiders have so many needs that general manager Reggie McKenzie can’t fill them all in one offseason. McKenzie realizes that having the right environment for young players to develop is important. He can speed up that process by having as much leadership in the locker room as he can get.
“Sometimes when you have to change the course of the locker room a little bit, you have to bring guys in that have been there and who have won and played in Super Bowls,” Woodley said. ”Guys in this league want to play in a Super Bowl, they want to have that feeling and sometimes you have to bring guys in that know how to get there.”
Both Tuck and Woodley mentioned how important getting back to a Super Bowl was to them. While the Raiders may not be close to contending, they are no doubt happy to have a couple defensive leaders to show their young players what they have to do to get there.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained first-hand.