The free agent legal tampering period is upon us. And by this time next week, most all the top free agents on the market will have signed on the dotted line with some team. The defensive end class got a lot of clarity in the past few days as teams signed players to franchise tags and released other players.
Most teams can always use more pass rush and the Raiders are no exception. Their top pass rusher, Khalil Mack, is a linebacker by trade, Aldon Smith (also a linebacker) is suspended until November, Justin Tuck is retired, and the status of Mario Edwards' neck injury is still unknown. Adding another good defensive end to the mix would make the Raiders feel a lot better about this unit heading into next season.
Here are the top names who could receive serious interest from the Raiders:
Malik Jackson, Broncos
"The guy has really blossomed as an NFL talent in his 4 years with the Broncos. He's played all over the line (mostly DT in a 4-3 and RDE in a 3-4 one-gap scheme). He's one of those guys who is a presence up front and you can count on to make plays.
Pros: Great run stuffer, talented pass rush skill, understands scheming and technique all along the defensive line.
Cons: He seems to be a guy who may not perform once he gets his big contract (my opinion from reading his language and body language in interviews). Also, he needs to be in a rotation. Even the snaps he got this year were a little too much, but with as much talent as was around him, it was easy for him to just hold his gap on some plays to get a breather.
This guy is a great defensive lineman. He's also played very cheap for his 4 years with the Broncos. Wherever he lands is going to be very lucky to have him on their team." - Michael Sadaraine, Mile High Report
Over the past three seasons, this Northridge California (Los Angeles) native, has been a force at the defensive end spot for the Broncos. Two of those three seasons, his team played in the Super Bowl - the first of which with Jack Del Rio as the defensive coordinator.
That season under Del Rio's tutelage was Jackson's first season getting meaningful reps and the fifth round pick out of Tennessee (Reggie McKenzie's alma mater) put up 6.0 sacks and 50 combined tackles (37 solo). Jackson added another sack in the Broncos' playoff win over the Chargers and had 5 tackles in the Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks. In the Broncos' Super Bowl win last month, Jackson had five tackles, all solo, to help the Denver defense dominate the Panthers.
This 6-4, 284-pounder's skillset should sound familiar to Raiders fans. It is very much like the 6-3, 285-pound Mario Edwards Jr. Which means, either Jackson could be added in case Edwards doesn't recover from his neck injury, or bookend Edwards on the other side. Rotating in Denico Autry (remember him?) as well and the Raiders would have a relentless trio of pass rushers at the defensive end spot.
Olivier Vernon, Dolphins
Vernon's situation is a curious case for the Dolphins. He's a well-rounded defensive end and a proven starter, and he's really kind of a throwback in terms of the grit, tenacity and physicality he brings to the position. The problem is that his camp believes he's worth $14-15 million per year. Most Dolphins fans would agree that while Vernon's production in four seasons has been very good, it hasn't been $14-15 million-a-year good.
In terms of skill set and style, Vernon's game is built on strength, hand-usage and positioning. You won't find many 4-3 defensive ends who are stronger at the point of attack, and Vernon boasts good length and plays with heavy mitts. When he gets into a lineman's frame, bad things typically happen in the backfield.
Despite his ideal frame and considerable strength, Vernon is only average when it comes to first-step quickness and overall suddenness. He isn't a freak athlete in terms of speed and explosion, but he's certainly quick enough to penetrate with a good jump, proper technique and active hands. He's also a capable run defender, though many Dolphins fans wanted to see more from him in that regard. - Keith Beebe, Phinsider
As the franchise tag window was set to close, the Dolphins needed to do something to try and keep their top flight pass rusher. But the Dolphins, being severely cap strapped thanks in large part to ‘winning' the Ndamukong Suh sweepstakes last year, didn't really have the money on hand to give Vernon the Franchise tag which carried with it $15.7 million in guaranteed money. So, they went with the transition tag instead.
As I noted this week, what the transition tag means is a team can step in and sign Vernon to an offer sheet which, with their current salary situation, the Dolphins would be hard pressed to match. Few teams have that capability more than the Raiders, who also have been known of late for frontloading contracts to ease the burden in future years.
If the Raiders want this 25-year-old with 29 sacks in four seasons, they can get him. I'd be shocked if they don't at least try.
Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants
Lately, JPP is known more for having a few less fingers on one hand from a July 4 fireworks accident than he is for being a former All Pro with 43 career sacks. Any team that looks to sign him will have to make sure he can still be the dominant force he was when he had all of his digits.
The Giants' 2015 Franchise player, JPP played the final eight games of the season with his hand wrapped. Over that time, he collected just one sack, in large part due to not being able to get a quarterback in his grasp. Following the season he had an additional surgery to try and improve his grip.
That's what workouts are for. You have him in, test his hand to see how it affects his abilities as a pass rusher, and then consider what kind of contract (if any at all) you're willing to give him. It could be a one year deal to see if he can return to form, which the Raiders have given to the likes of Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree last season.
What a find it would be if this 27-year-old former All Pro could recover his former elite status.
Chris Long, Rams (cut)
The three above players have known their impending free agency was upon them for some time. Long was cut by the Rams in a salary cap move. And just before he would have suited up in the city where his dad played pro ball. Now, as it happens, he has the option to go from the city in which he grew up to joining the team upon which his dad spent his entire Hall of Fame career.
Long has had a couple of down seasons the past couple of years, with some of that being due to injury. When he was at his best from 2010-13 he was one of the NFL's elite pass rushers, averaging double digit sacks without missing a game during that 4-year period.
At nearly 31 years old, he has at least a short contract left in him to come in as a veteran pass rusher much as Justin Tuck did two seasons ago. He would offer at very least a rotational pass rush rusher and insurance plan should Mario Edwards Jr's neck turn out to be a serious issue. At most, he could return to his form of 2013 and keep the Raiders from missing a beat with Tuck's retirement.
Mario Williams, Bills (cut)
This was always going to be the eventual outcome between the Bills and Williams, because Williams was never worth the record-setting contract that Buffalo signed him to in March of 2012. He is not a franchise cornerstone, because he is not a team leader type. He sort of marches to the beat of his own drum, which is why, despite a solid career, he's never lived up to his enormous athletic talents.
Motivation also seems to be an issue for him. When he fully buys in, like he mostly seemed to do in 2013 and 2014, he played at a high level. When he didn't, like in 2015, he disappeared for huge stretches and complained about his role while not playing especially well.
Williams needs to figure out exactly what he wants from a team, it's coaching staff, and its defensive scheme, and then find the closest possible fit to that ideal on a free agent market. He can still play. He just won't be worth the money he commands unless he lands in the right spot, in my opinion. - Brian Galliford, Buffalo Rumblings
Even with his play last season, on the field, he is one of the best in the game. The Bills got a new coaching staff last season, led by Rex Ryan and suddenly Williams was asked to drop into coverage a lot. He may have handled it better than he did, but there is no question he had a reason to be disgruntled. He is a defensive end who should be rushing the passer or protecting against the run, not chasing around tight ends and running backs on routes.
As Galliford notes, he would need to find a team that fits him, as he had for the first nine years of his career which saw him named to four Pro Bowls and a first team All Pro just two seasons ago. If I went from arguably my best season to being misused by a new staff, I might be a bit peeved as well.
The question now becomes, if that attitude would be enough to keep the Raiders away. Keep in mind, the Raiders went hard after Ndamukong Suh last year and he isn't exactly known for his positive attitude.
Williams is not a ‘leader' for sure. In that regard, he is no Justin Tuck. Though he is the same age as Tuck was when he signed with the Raiders, only Williams has 36 more career sacks.