Where should Justin Houston sign?
By: Chris Thomas
In recent memory, it is hard to recall so many extremely talented free agent players still available at this point of the offseason. The reasoning may be that teams wanted to wait till after the draft to see if they could fill the remaining needs on their roster in the early rounds. Teams may also want to wait till training camp to see if the players on their roster have developed to a point where they could fill that need. On top of that in recent years veteran free agents have decided to wait till after the draft and training camp to sign with teams so they can look at a team’s overall roster before signing and skip training camp and get ready for the season with their own personal trainers.
One of the deepest positions in this free-agent class is edge rusher. Multiple former Pro Bowl edge rushers are still on the market. There are a couple of teams around the league who could still use another pass rusher off the edge. Here is where the top free agent edge rushers could land.
Justin Houston to Baltimore Ravens
Before free agency started in March, Justin Houston was viewed as one of the best free-agent edge rushers. However, due to his age and slight decline, teams may have been hesitant to give Houston a long-term big money contract. But that being said Houston showed last year that he is still capable of being a player opposing offenses need to plan for. After racking up eleven sacks in his first season in Indianapolis, Houston had eight sacks this past year after the Colts traded for DeForest Buckner in the offseason. The pairing of Houston and Buckner was disruptive enough to give Indianapolis one of the better defenses in the league last season.
A team that has not done enough to replace the pass rushers they lost in free agency is the Baltimore Ravens. During free agency, the Ravens lost both Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon who both signed large deals with the Las Vegas Raiders and New England Patriots. Ngakoue and Judon had 9 of the teams 39 sacks last season. Along with Jihad Ward, they were three of the six payers that had three sacks or more for Baltimore last season.
They did manage to resign situational pass rusher Pernell McPhee and former second-round pick Tyus Bowser. But neither McPhee nor Bowser has shown the capability to play like a true number one pass rusher on a playoff team. The Ravens did use their second first-round selection (31st overall) on Penn State edge rusher Odafe “Jayson” Oweh. The hype around Oweh as a prospect was his athletic testing and high ceiling, but in year one he will likely be better in a rotational role.
Baltimore hasn’t been a stranger to signing veteran defenders over the years. Houston would arguably be the Ravens’ best pass rusher next season depending on how Calais Campbell plays. His eight sacks from a season ago would have led the Ravens last year and he could very well lead the team in that category if he were to sign there. The transition to Baltimore’s defense wouldn’t be that large considering Houston was largely looked at as just a 3-4 outside linebacker before landing in Indianapolis. Actually, the reason why Kansas City let him go was because of the fear that he would not be able to fit in with Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defensive scheme. Bringing in Houston could be more than a bridge until Oweh can take on a full-time role. Houston could be what boosts this defense to play at a top-10 level this season. He has Pro Bowl upside and could very well make people question why he didn’t land with a team earlier in the offseason.
Prediction: Justin Houston signs with the Baltimore Ravens for one year $7.5 Million
Melvin Ingram to Pittsburgh Steelers
Throughout his career, Melvin Ingram has been a player who is good for about just under ten sacks a season who is capable of playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level and put up double-digit sacks. Going into this season it seemed unlikely that Ingram would play his way into another huge contract. He was likely going to land somewhere as a veteran secondary pass rusher. However, a season riddled with injuries limited Ingram to seven games. He also did not have a single sack on the season. The knee Ingram injured that put him on IR twice is likely the reason why he remains unsigned. If Ingram’s knee heals, he could be a valuable addition to a defense.
The Pittsburgh Steelers arguably had one of the worst offseasons last year. Not only did they lose four of their five starters along their offensive line, but they also lost two starting cornerbacks, and edge rusher Bud Dupree. To replace those players Pittsburgh is betting on the players they have drafted in the middle rounds over the years that have shown the ability to potentially become starters for them. 2020 third-round pick Alex Highsmith is expected to take over for Bud Dupree this coming season. After Dupree tore his ACL last year, Highsmith was thrusted into the starting lineup. He had 48 tackles and two sacks in five starts. But since Pittsburgh believes they are in a win-now mode they should try to bring in a veteran to compete with Highsmith for the job starting opposite T.J. Watt.
Ingram appears to be the perfect veteran for Pittsburgh to bring in to compete with Highsmith for one of their starting edge rusher roles. Over the course of his career, Ingram has been very consistent over the last couple of seasons averaging 8.6 sacks a year between 2015-2019. That type of production is good enough to take away attention from premier edge rusher T.J. Watt and keep this defense playing near an elite level. At the worst, Ingram and Highsmith rotate rough out the season, and as the year progresses Highsmith develops into a full-time starter while Ingram reverts into a situational role. If Ingram signed to a low-risk contract he could be the real difference-maker this upcoming season.
Prediction: Melvin Ingram signs with the Pittsburgh Steelers for one year $5.5 million
Olivier Vernon to Dallas Cowboys
One of the forgotten free agents that hit the market this offseason is former Cleveland Browns edge rusher Olivier Vernon. He had nine sacks in 14 games this past season which is his highest total since he had 11.5 during his second season in the league in 2013-14. It was so unfortunate that during Week 17 Vernon tore his Achilles. Vernon was a vital part of the Browns’ defense this past season and could have gotten a large payday. His Achilles injury may be a large part of why he remains unsigned, but the fact that he has not been able to stay healthy and finish a 16 game regular season since 2017-18 may have derailed his market.
The Dallas Cowboys are one of those teams that could finish near the top or bottom of the league this year. It is hard to predict how they will finish the season. They are expected to have an elite offense but may be held back by their defense. Besides replacing Mike Nolan with Dan Quinn and drafting a couple of defensive rookies early, what else has Dallas done to improve their defense this offseason? How much better is Dallas’ defense this season compared to last year? After evaluating their roster, the answer is not much better.
The one position Dallas did not address this offseason is pass rusher. Since getting his huge contract from the Cowboys, DeMarcus Lawerence has been extremely inconsistent putting up five sacks in 2019 and six and a half sacks this past year. A trend Dallas has had the past couple of seasons has been adding a veteran pass rusher later in the offseason to pair up with Lawrence. In 2019, Dallas traded for Robert Quinn who had a borderline Pro Bowl season and got a huge payday after that. Last year Dallas signed Pro Bowler Everson Griffen to a deal but dealt him once it became clear that Dallas would not be contending after Dak Prescott’s injury. Dallas could do the same by adding Oliver Vernon this offseason. If Vernon is healthy and added to Dallas’ defense it gives them an extremely athletic pass-rushing duo who are dynamic enough to put up between 15-20 sacks combined next season.
Dallas desperately needs a veteran player opposite Lawerence because there is uncertainty whether Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, or third-round pick Chauncey Golston could fill that void.
Prediction: Olivier Vernon signs with the Dallas Cowboys for one year $5 million
Everson Griffen to Kansas City Chiefs
At this point last season one of the best available free agents was former Minnesota Vikings pass rusher Everson Griffen. Late in the offseason, Griffen signed a one-year $6 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys. He had 2.5 sacks in his seven games with the Cowboys but then was traded to the Detroit Lions for a conditional sixth-round pick. Griffen started two out of seven games with the Lions and had 3.5 sacks for them. So overall in 14 games, Griffen had six sacks which is solid for a secondary or rotational pass rusher.
The biggest theme for the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason was upgrading the trenches after their loss in the Super Bowl. Kansas City primarily focused on adding to their offensive line but has made some upgrades to their defensive line as well. They retained former first-round pick Taco Charlton and made the extremely underrated signing of former Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed. The Chiefs have an elite group of defensive linemen including Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Jarran Reed, and great run defender Derrick Nnadi. According to NFL.com’s Kevin Patra, the Chiefs are planning to use Jones as an edge rusher this season opposite Frank Clark while playing Reed and Nnadi primarily in the middle. Jacob Lang of the St. Joseph News-Press reported that Jones has wanted to play defensive end for the Chiefs, but played in the interior because they had Justin Houston and Dee Ford at the time off the edge. Over the last four seasons, Jones has developed into one of the elite pass-rushing interior defensive linemen in the league. Jones has averaged 9.6 sacks a season since 2017.
So if Jones has been so dominant rushing the passer from the interior, why would the Chiefs try to move him around the line instead of keeping him at his natural position on the interior and finding another player to put opposite Frank Clark. Jones deserves the right to lineup at defensive end in a couple of packages a game, but it may not be the best thing for him to move all over the line.
Very few defensive linemen are able to play on multiple spots across a defensive line. It seems like almost every season a star defensive lineman signs with a large money deal with a new team and that team tries to play him in a different role than he is accustomed to and that player struggles. Jones may be one of the few players who can transition to a different role on the defensive line. But signing a veteran like Everson Griffen could give Kansas City a security blanket at edge rusher in case Jones is unable to transition well to his new role and lines up in the interior for a majority of the season. Griffen showed last year he is still capable of producing at a starting level and could rotate with Taco Charlton off the edge opposite Frank Clark. If he can mimic the production he had last season on this dominant defensive line it could be well enough to not consider this a major need or hole on the roster until they address it the following offseason.
Prediction: Everson Griffen signs with the Kansas City Chiefs for one year $4.5 million