With a bargain basement group of starters, no one was expecting much from the Oakland Raiders’ defense. They still couldn’t defend the pass or stop the run. But the area they struggled most in was rushing the passer.
Defensive coordinator Jason Tarver tried to make it work with just his front four. However, only 14 of the team’s 38 sacks came from the defensive line. On a both promising, yet bad note, all four of those starters are free agents.
Right defensive end Lamarr Houston, by far the best talent on the line, led the group with six sacks. Jason Hunter on the other end had three, and posted one of the worst seasons by a defensive player ever. Houston is the one of top priorities to be resigned, as he is a premier run defender and at least an average pass rusher. Hunter will be let go. Going on age 30 with rapidly declining talent, there are much better, younger options for Oakland to go with.
Currently the only two defensive ends under contract are Jack Crawford and Ryan Robinson. Crawford has been a backup for the past few seasons and hasn’t shown enough to the coaching staff to carve out any role on defense, which is a cause for concern on a team lacking talent like Oakland.
Robinson was an undrafted free agent who impressed with his pass rushing enough to make the roster. He only played 65 snaps during the season, but was exclusively brought in on obvious passing downs to rush the passer. While he didn’t show up on the stat sheet, he did show off some ability to flourish in a limited role.
Depth was a serious issue at end. When Jason Hunter missed time with an injury, neither Crawford nor Robinson was trusted enough to start in his place. Instead, the coaching staff moved defensive tackle Vance Walker to end.
As for the defensive tackles, Walker and Pat Sims did fairly well given the low expectations. Both graded out positively in Pro Football Focus ratings. Sims and Walker were both one dimensional run stuffers, although they didn’t help the defense as a whole improve in that area. Walker has shown some quickness pushing the pocket and has lateral agility to move down the line and shed blocks.
Sims played well defending the run. Both shouldn’t command huge markets in free agency, and Oakland could resign them as veteran stopgap solutions in the event they don’t nab a defensive tackle in free agency or the draft.
Behind Walker and Sims is a mixed bag. Stacy McGee, a 6th round pick last year, is the only defensive tackle under contract to have played a down for the Raiders. McGee played well through his rookie reason. He came to the team as an above average run defender, and improved steadily as a pass rusher as the season went on.
Daniel Muir saw the rest of the backup snaps at defensive tackle. Muir is a seven year journeyman defensive lineman. Known primarily as a run stuffer, he was used exclusively to give Sims and Walker a breather.
One silver lining is the two of the futures contracts the Raiders signed after the season: David Carter and Torell Troup. Carter, formerly of the Cardinals and Cowboys is a former nose tackle who earned praise from Pro Football Focus as a Secret Superstar for his unselfish work in run defense. Troup is a behemoth at 6-foot-3, 330 pounds. Both are far off fliers that might not make the team, but if they show something in camp, they could carve out roles as run defenders.
What is curious is that, depending on the personnel resigned by Oakland, their defensive line could be 3-4 like in nature. None of their players are particularly adept at rushing the passer, and all are better run defenders. Could Oakland be looking to transition to a 3-4 for 2014?
Defensive line is one of the great rebuilding projects for the Raiders for 2014. While resigning Houston and maybe one of Walker or Sims could fill a few starting spots on the defensive line, Reggie McKenzie knows he needs to infuse talent completely. Assuming one or both of Sims and Walker returns, any combination of them and McGee would be enough to hold the middle of the line.
McKenzie instead should focus attention on finding another defensive end to pair with Houston. (Assuming Houston returns as well.) Disrupting the quarterback is a vital part of any defense and the Raiders need a player that can constantly get to the quarterback.
While there are big names McKenzie can go after, such as Michael Bennett, Greg Hardy, or Michael Johnson, McKenzie knows he can find cheaper value. There are both cheap veteran (Will Smith, Jared Allen) and young (Everson Griffin, O’Brien Schofield) options at end.
Obviously if Jadeveon Clowney is available at the sixth pick, it would be asinine for McKenzie not to take the highly talented prospect. However, if he misses out, there are later options in the draft such as Kony Ealy, Dee Ford, Marcus Smith, Michael Sam, Jackson Jeffcoat, and Aaron Lynch.
Having every starting spot open at a position is never good, but for the Raiders, it means they have the opportunity to bring in fresh faces to rev up the pass rush.