One of the biggest problems with the Oakland Raiders in 2012 was the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Due to salary cap concerns, the Raiders were forced to jettison their top pass-rusher last year, and they didn’t have the cash or draft picks to address the problem.
Reggie McKenzie tried his hardest to put a bandage on the problem by signing Dave Tollefson, but the pass rush was still anemic. McKenzie went out and signed veteran defensive end Andre Carter, but that didn’t help much either.
Fixing Oakland’s pass rush is going to take a lot more than signing a couple of bargain-bin free agents. It’s going to take a free-agent pass-rusher the Raiders probably can’t afford or a top draft pick to solve the problem, but the Raiders don’t have the cap room or draft picks to address every need.
The best pass-rushers on the team were probably Richard Seymour and Desmond Bryant last season, but not only are both defensive tackles, but they are also both free agents. The Raiders will desperately try to re-sign Bryant, but his value is rising.
Oakland’s best blitzer is linebacker Philip Wheeler, and he’s also a free agent. If the Raiders are going to fix their pass rush, they are going to need to retain their good players. The last thing the Raiders need is to take two steps forward and one step back.
There are a few ways to address a need for a pass-rusher: sign a free agent, trade for one or draft one. Not really any different than any other position, except the NFL puts a premium on the ability to rush the quarterback. Premium position usually means more commitment, and more commitment means more money and higher draft picks.
The Raiders could make a run at veteran pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, who will not return to the Colts, according to NFL.com. Freeney was a bad fit for the Colts’ 3-4 scheme and is much more of a natural fit for Oakland’s 4-3 defense, but Freeney isn’t going to be cheap.
A good starting point on the discussion for what it would take to land Freeney is the deal John Abraham signed last year. According to a tweet by Joel Corry of the National Football Post, Abraham signed a three-year, $17.5 million deal last March that included $3.5 million in escalators.
To land Freeney, the Raiders would likely have to commit between $5-7 million per year for the next three years. While Freeney would provide the Raiders with the pass rush they need, they are going to have a lot of trouble affording his caliber of free agent. It’s also a substantial risk because Freeney is only going to steadily decline as he gets older.
A much better option is to draft a pass-rusher, but there might not be a 4-3 defensive end pass-rusher in the draft worth the third overall pick. If that assessment is correct, then the Raiders are going to have to get creative to address their need for a pass rush like they did in 2012 and just hope they are more successful.
A Complex Fix
The Raiders will have to tackle the issue with multiple players instead of just one. The only starters in the front seven on the roster are Tommy Kelly, Lamarr Houston and Miles Burris. Kelly is one candidate to be released for salary cap considerations.
Having five or six open starting positions in the front seven is both a blessing and a curse. The Raiders can bring in players to run just about any type of front they want, especially because Houston fits in a 4-3 or a 3-4. The Raiders will probably need their young players to step into larger roles in 2013.
Re-signing Bryant is a major priority because he was arguably the team’s best pass-rusher in 2012. According to ProFootballFocus, there were only three interior pass-rushers more productive than Bryant: Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Williams. The Raiders will hope Bryant can duplicate his success as the full-time starter.
Beyond re-signing Bryant and Wheeler, the Raiders have options. The Raiders could draft Bjoern Werner and stick him opposite Houston at defense end or Star Lotulelei and stick him next to Bryant. The Raiders could try to find a free agent defensive end, but any good one is going to cost a pretty penny.
A more cost-effective way for the Raiders to generate a pass rush is to use more three-man fronts while bringing in linebackers who are pass-rushers. Houston and Bryant would both thrive in a three-man front. Dion Jordan would be a very versatile player who could be a rush end, 3-4 rush linebacker and drop into coverage.
McKenzie has several needs to address, but there is no greater need than the one for a pass rush in Oakland. A better pass rush helps the secondary, helps the team force more turnovers and therefore helps the offense. Finding a pass rush is without question the Raiders’ top offseason priority.