The much-anticipated start to free agency for the Oakland Raiders ended with a thud on the first day, as the team signed former New York Jets right tackle Austin Howard. The Raiders spent the majority of Tuesday focused on offensive linemen.
The second day was a nightmare, but they rebounded on the third day by signing pass-rushers Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley.
As first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Raiders gave Howard a five-year, $30 million contract with $15 million guaranteed. As is often the case with the first report, the amounts are inflated—even the guaranteed money.
It’s a big chunk of change for a low-profile right tackle and the move prompted widespread scorn from Raider Nation and the national media. The problem is no one waited to see the structure of the deal before freaking out.
According to Over the Cap, Howard’s 2015 base salary and $5 million roster bonus are guaranteed for injury only. That means the Raiders can get out of the deal after one year and $8 million or choose to pay Howard $7 million in 2015.
Howard would be cheaper thereafter, with cap numbers of $5 million at most and no guarantees from 2016 to 2018. It’s front-loaded to take advantage of the Raiders’ salary-cap space, but it isn’t a salary-cap monstrosity we’re used to seeing the team give to unproven players.
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While it’s easy to bash general manager Reggie McKenzie, the deal makes a lot of sense for the rebuilding Raiders. The cliche is that good teams build from the inside out and the Raiders are doing just that so far.
The media and fans aren’t always privy to what other teams are willing to spend or how teams set values on free agents. Whether the Raiders overpaid or not is impossible to determine at this moment.
Now that we know the details of Howard’s contract, the structure of the deal is good for Howard and the Raiders.
If he earns the $7 million in the second year of his deal, the Raiders will get three cap-friendly years at $5 million or less. If not, the Raiders will just release him before the roster bonus is due in 2015.
The Raiders are betting on their ability to evaluate talent, Howard is betting on himself and if they are both correct, everybody wins. If they are both wrong, the Raiders wasted $8 million they could have spent elsewhere.
Howard’s deal pays him like one of the best right tackles in the NFL, so the Raiders will have high expectations for him.
Howard is a player that can do it all, but has had trouble putting it all together at the same time. A deal that rewards him for doing so makes sense, but the out after one year protects the Raiders if he doesn’t. Even though McKenzie protected himself with the structure of the deal, missing on Howard will give fuel to his biggest critics.
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Pro Football Focus (subscription required) indicates that Howard allowed 10 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 31 quarterback hurries in 2012. He struggled in pass-blocking, but was a good run-blocker. PFF graded him out as the ninth-best offensive tackle as a run-blocker.
Things changed in 2013. According to PFF, Howard struggled in run-blocking, but improved as a pass protector. Howard allowed just two sacks, 15 quarterback hits and 21 hurries last season.
If Howard can put it all together in 2014, the Raiders may have made the right move.
Howard turns 27 later this month, so he’s entering his prime years. The Raiders got decent play out of Tony Pashos last year at right tackle, but he’ll be 34 in August. McKenzie’s plan at left tackle blew up in his face when Jared Veldheer joined Arizona, but he got a young player with upside on the right side.
Offensive line coach Tony Sparano also has experience with Howard from his time with the New York Jets. Howard wasn't drafted, but signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010 with the Philadelphia Eagles under then-head-coach Andy Reid, who now works with general manager John Dorsey in Kansas City.
Dorsey and McKenzie's worked together for years in Green Bay before they became general managers.
How would you grade this move by the Raiders?
PFF's Steve Palazzolo believes the gap in importance between left and right tackles is narrowing. While the Raiders tried to upgrade both spots, their willingness to give Howard a big deal shows that they may agree.
It’s also worth noting that the Raiders may bring in a veteran quarterback this offseason. One option is the left-handed Michael Vick, meaning Howard would play on the blind side. If that happens, Howard's performance becomes even more important.
Linebackers Von Miller and Justin Houston—the two best pass-rushers in the AFC West—also come off the right edge more than the left. Having a good right tackle is more important in the AFC West than it might be in other divisions.
The Raiders have young tight end Mychal Rivera, who isn’t the best blocker, but is worth keeping him on the field for his ability in the passing game. A blocking liability at tight end means more pressure is on the offensive tackles.
The right tackle is more often the tackle next to the tight end, further increasing the importance of the position.
It’s a lot of money for a right tackle, but if the Raiders are correct, the move will help the offense in 2014. It’s easy to ignore the importance of signing Howard and make a big deal out of the problem at left tackle, but that would be a mistake.