Raiders free agency preview: Defense
It’s Week 12, which can only mean one thing: Raider Nation is getting excited about free agency.
The winless Raiders are out of the playoffs, so, there’s not much else to do but look deep into the future.
Free agency isn’t an exact science. Every team is looking for bargains, players that haven’t quite reached their peak but will be getting there soon.
The outcomes of free agency weigh heavily on which teams with savvy scouts and enchanting negotiators.
The Raiders appear to have that, but are in a hard spot. No player wants to come to a team that hasn’t had a winning record in over 10 seasons. The only thing that, in general, can entice them to come is money, something Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie doesn’t want to dole out if he doesn’t have to.
Even then, there were multiple reports last season that Jared Allen received the biggest offer from the Raiders — $9 million — and turned it down. That’s not good, when a 32-year-old defensive end turns down a mansion in the Oakland hills to play for the Chicago Bears for less money.
Allen took a full million less to play in Chicago, and while there may have been other reasons — his career is nearly over, he’ll get to play against his former team at least two more times, and Chicago had an established quarterback — it underscores that many players do not want to dress in Silver and Black.
Oakland did, though, sign LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck, two pass rushers who could be enshrined in Canton at some point. They have a quarterback with a lot of promise in Derek Carr. Khalil Mack and Sio Moore are two of the best young linebackers in the league.
So, there’s something to build upon, and some players have to know that. Here’s what the Raiders need on defense, position by position:
The Raiders tried to fill this need with Antonio Smith last offseason. The need remains. Oakland needs a dominating force to dictate where the ball is going to go and make sure opposing quarterbacks fear the rush.
Defensive tackle is arguably the Raiders’ biggest need. They’ve been unable to stop the run, and while there have been several injuries at linebacker, it all starts up front. It’s on the interior linemen to nail down the gaps and force runners outside, where Mack, Moore and the edge rushers can seal the deal.
There are a few premium defensive tackles who will be hitting free agency this year, but none more intriguing than Ndamukong Suh. A 306-pound freak of nature in his fifth NFL season, Suh’s best years may be behind him. But even with a slight drop off, he’s still the most feared interior rushers in the game.
Suh will be a free agent, and will not be re-signed by his current team in Detroit. The reason is that Detroit’s salary cap situation is becoming unmanageable, with Calvin Johnson scheduled to make nearly as much as Peyton Manning, and their second wide out, Golden Tate, set to make more than $5 million in 2015.
The only way around this is if the team were to cut Calvin Johnson, which is wildly unthinkable. The team also owes quarterback Matt Stafford $62 million over the next three seasons. Suh has seen a decrease in sack production since his 10-sack rookie season, though he’s also had more help in the years following.
The team used their first-round picks on defensive linemen and linebackers every season since drafting Suh, thus others being credited for a solid team effort.
Terrence Knighton, another Denver player, is an impact guy who should hit the market. He’s not as talented as Suh or McCoy, but would be an upgradable asset.
Gerald McCoy, who right now might be the best defensive tackle in the NFL, re-signed with Tampa Bay for seven years in a monster $98 million deal with over half the deal in guaranteed terms. This will not be the starting point for any other defensive tackle, but is certainly the ceiling.
The Woodley and Tuck project just hasn’t worked. Perhaps this can be attributed to incredibly poor play in the secondary, but teams have been able to run the ball at will against the Raiders. That’s unacceptable, especially when you’re paying $12 million a season to starting defensive ends.
At defensive end, one name stands supreme: the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul. Prime. The problem, though, is JPP will be re-signed unless contract negotiations encounter a severe breakdown.
To be fair, the defensive end market is rather barren when being realistic about who will actually hit free agency.
The Raiders will likely draft a defensive lineman early on and there are a few that stand out. Justin Ellis, who Oakland drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, could step in right away on the end. He’s been starting games already, and could help collapse the pocket with his size.
But that’s not ideal.
They do have one defensive lineman who’s been consistently productive, Pat Sims. He works hard and it shows on the field, and Sims should be kept. The odd man out in this scenario would be Antonio Smith, who will be 34 years old in 2015.
The Raiders lost Nick Roach for the season when he sustained a concussion this past August, and all indications are that he won’t be as reliable as he once was.
At inside linebacker, the big man on the market will be Brandon Spikes. A former Patriot and current Bills linebacker, Spikes will be 28 in 2015. That’s not great — especially considering the need is being created by a severe concussion to Nick Roach. Spikes doesn’t have jaw-dropping numbers.
He’s not a hard hitter, and isn’t feared. But he’s consistent and fundamentally sound. Something the Raiders need at middle backer.
Another name to know is Mason Foster. He’ll be 26 in 2015, and is the preferable option. He’s fundamentally sound, and hasn’t peaked yet. That’s important.
The team could consider drafting an inside linebacker, especially if they trade out of the top five, which is where they’ll land at their current win rate.
Another thing they could do, though, is sign an outside linebacker or two, and work them inside. It’s not an unusual thing to do, and considering the disparity in salaries between the inside and outside linebacker position (see below), would be effectively frugal.
So long as it works.
The Raiders boast some of the best numbers against the pass in the league. Don’t let that fool you. Their secondary is in shambles, and, even if D.J. Hayden comes around, they’re going to need a big push to be respectable in the NFL.
On one hand, they desperately need cornerback D.J. Hayden to succeed and drafted three defensive backs this last year. On the other, the team can’t afford to miss.
They can’t lolly-gag in a division with Peyton Manning, Alex Smith and Phillip Rivers. They just can’t. They also need to replace Tyvon Branch, who’s been injured for the better part of three years, and Charles Woodson, who is certainly considering retirement.
For the safety position, two men immediately stand out: Devin McCourty and Christopher Conte. Both are hard-hitting, impact players with awesome resumes. They also have youth on their side.
At 25 years old, Conte has recorded two picks in each of the last three seasons, and is only getting better. McCourty comes with a tradition of winning, spending several seasons with the New England Patriots.
Another Patriots defensive back will hit the market, should he not be re-signed, Patrick Chung. With New England, Chung has been consistent and has shown real flashes of talent.
Possible 2015 Raiders Defense
All said and done, assuming the players aren’t retained by their current team (we did the math and most, if not all, should be available), the Raiders starting defense could look like this:
Total starting defensive salary: $62.8 million.
The Raiders have a number of players they may, and most likely will, move on from. Releasing these following players would create an extra $27 million in cap room:
Nine players total for a cap savings over $27 million. Cuts bring cap number to $58 million, less the $10 million in rollover, for a total pre-free agency hit of $48 million.
These are some of the deals considered in assessing the free market value of the aforementioned players.
Marcell Dareus is one of the best DT’s in NFL and has a fully guaranteed, yet incredibly cheap contract.
After the top five 43 OLBs, the price is very affordable. Both Raiders LBs Khalil Mack and Nick Roach are in the top 15, though neither have deals worth over $4.5 million a season.
Darrelle Revis is at No. 1, but with an oddly-constructed deal. We exclude him from the comps.
Salaries more than $1 million rounded to nearest $100,000. Data via OverTheCap.com.