Editor’s note: The Raiders have been right with the salary cap for a few years now. They have roughly $74 million in cap space heading into the start of unrestricted free agency next week. Teams can negotiate with other team’s players on Monday and formally sign them Wednesday. We’ll take a look at how the Raiders could fill several areas of need heading toward the NFL’s free-agent frenzy. This installment examines pass rushers.
The Raiders have one of the world’s best pass rushers in Khalil Mack. Outside that dominant threat, there’s little certainty who will help him rush off the edge. Justin Tuck retired. Aldon Smith is suspended until mid-November at least, and while the free agent and team seem set for a reunion, there’s no guarantee if/when he rejoins the fray. Mario Edwards Jr. has put some workouts on social media, but his mysterious neck injury calls future contributions into question.
Bodies and producers are needed this offseason through NFL free agency, where there are plenty of established options available. Here’s a look at who’s here, and who could be added to the mix over the next few weeks.
Khalil Mack: 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, two accrued seasons, Buffalo
Stats: 77 tackles, 15 sacks, two forced fumbles, two passes defense
Mario Edwards Jr. 6-foot-3, 278 pounds, one accrued season, Florida State
Stats: 42 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles, two passes defensed
Thoughts: This list of incumbents is shockingly small, but will double with the expected return of restricted free agent Benson Mayowa and exclusive rights free agent Denico Autry. That group did some real damage later in the year, led by Mack’s incredible surge despite personnel losses. Even if Edwards Jr. is back to full strength next year, the Raiders need additional help here, and free agency is a solid spot to look for it.
BIG TICKET ITEMS
Olivier Vernon (Dolphins): 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, four accrued seasons, Maimi
Stats: 61 tackles, 7.5 sacks
Good fit? Vernon is the precise type of player the Raiders prefer to invest in. He’s a young, productive player who doesn’t mind doing dirty work against the run. Miami applied the transition tag, meaning they can match any offer sheet given by another team. That means, if the Raiders want him bad, they must write a fat check. Is he truly worth top dollar, especially when Mack’s blockbuster extension won’t be far behind? Getting a 25-year old to join Mack, Edwards Jr. (if his neck is okay) and Smith down the road would create one ferocious pass rush for years to come.
Mario Williams (Bills): 6-foot-6, 292 pounds, 10 accrued seasons, North Carolina State
Stats: 19 tackles, five sacks
Good fit? Williams was cut by Buffalo after a dismal season where he clashed with Rex Ryan, the first time in four years he had less than 10 sacks. Williams has plenty left in the tank at 31, and while he’d require a pretty penny, a bid couldn’t get ruined by a transition tag as it could for Vernon.
Charles Johnson (Panthers): 6-foot-2, 282 pounds, nine accrued seasons, Georgia
Stats: 12 tackles, one sack
Good fit? Johnson was cut by Carolina due to a huge cap number and a terrible 2015 season hindered by hamstring trouble. Before that, Johnson was pretty darn good; he has 63.5 sacks in his career. He has improved as a run defender, but the Raiders would have to be confident last year was an aberration. He was a team captain in Carolina, and could be provide veteran leadership.
Chris Long (Rams): 6-foot-4 275 pounds, eight accrued seasons, Virginia
Stats: 40 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble
Good fit? Long was cut by L.A. recently, and he’s being linked to the Raiders due to his father Howie’s Hall-of-Fame career spent in silver and black. Long’s sack totals have been down the last two years, but he has been productive in the past. He isn’t known as a great run defender, but could be a solid fixture off the edge on passing downs.
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Other options: Jason Pierre-Pierre Paul (Giants), Robert Ayres (Giants), Tamba Hali (Chiefs), William Hayes (Rams)
Overall thoughts: The Raiders can afford to add a player from this group, with the up-front money to entice a signing without handicapping the team in future years. Vernon would be ideal, although he could be tough to acquire. There are older veterans who could provide production for a few seasons. Adding pass rushers in free agency also frees the Raiders to focus on other areas in the draft, which can be devoted to helping the run game and pass defense.