Free Agent Duel: Veldheer vs. Houston
Our Free Agent Duel series continues on after our most recent look at of the decisions facing the New England Patriots this offseason. Today we stay in the AFC but switch to a team that haven’t had much success lately in the Oakland Raiders. Perennial Top 10 drafters in the past decade, the Raiders have gone through plenty of coaches and quarterbacks but still haven’t found that winning formula.
Despite that there is actually some talent on that roster, but two of their best players are unrestricted free agents this offseason in Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston. They have plenty of cap room but, as always, teams need to take into account future considerations as well as just this year. So, if they can only re-sign one of them, which should be their top priority?
The Case for Veldheer
By Gordon McGuinness
Veldheer had his struggles in limited play in 2013, but let’s not forget that he suffered a triceps injury in training camp and, realistically, was doing well just to get back onto the field at all. When you focus on 2011 and 2012, his two full seasons as a starter, you see a player who has performed at a very high level, and is still young enough that he has potential to get even better. 2012 was the best season of his career so far, with Veldheer finishing the year as our ninth-rated left tackle.
Allowing five sacks, three hits and 25 hurries, he had a Pass Blocking Efficiency Rating of 96.1, the 12th-best mark of any offensive tackle in 2012. In a Raiders offense that hasn’t had much stability, Veldheer has been consistent since he has been on the field, giving them a force protecting the variety of signal callers they have had under center.
The Raiders offensive line isn’t in great shape heading into the 2014 season, with Veldheer one of three starters currently out of contract. That would leave their presumed starters at the offensive tackle spots as Matt McCants and Menelik Watson, with neither playing enough snaps to really paint an accurate picture at this stage. Watson was the team’s second round draft pick last April and likely projects as their starting right tackle in the future, and possibly as soon as next season but it seems foolish to let go of one of the league’s best on the other side.
The current free agent crop of offensive tackles has a few top players like Eugene Monroe and Jordan Gross (if he returns) who look to be available in March, but Veldheer is only 27 and has just two full years as a starter. It’s not unreasonable to this he has another five years, at least, playing at a high level and that’s something that makes sense for a Raiders offense that once again heads into the offseason with more questions than answers.
The Case Against Veldheer
By Pete Damilatis
For all the reasons Gordon mentioned, I had high hopes for Veldheer heading into this season, and I wasn’t alone. Pro Football Focus founder, Neil Hornsby, pegged him as one of the players who could take the leap to the top of his position in 2013. But his preseason injury ruined those chances, and he was downright disappointing when he returned. After finishing 2012 with nine straight positive grades, he earned just one in five starts this season. His last game was his worst as Robert Ayers and Jeremy Mincey dominated him in the running game and beat him for 11 quarterback pressures. Though the injury may excuse his decline somewhat, it still certainly gives some hesitation on whether he’s worth a long-term investment.
Veldheer’s position isn’t too different from the spot Will Beatty was in last offseason. The Giants’ left tackle also had an injury history, but was the best player on a troubled offensive line. I myself strongly advocated keeping him around. New York did, for what seemed like a value contract for a one of the league’s up-and-coming linemen. But Beatty fell off a cliff this season, surrendering a league-high 13 sacks. That’s not to say that Veldheer will pull the same disappearing act, but Beatty’s story shows the risk of investing heavily in a young tackle with just a couple of good seasons under his belt.
The Case For Houston
By Pete Damilatis
As you might gather from above, I’m not against the Raiders re-signing Veldheer. But I don’t think they should prioritize him over one of the league’s best run defenders, Lamarr Houston. Their second-round pick from 2010, Houston has never been a household name outside of Oakland. Defensive ends are sadly still defined by their sack totals, and Houston’s 19 QB takedowns in four seasons are nothing to write home about. But in looking at the tape we’ve found that there are few edge defenders who stop the run as well as he does.
For the third straight season, Houston finished with one of the five best run defense grades at his position. His 40 run stops led all defensive ends; the only lineman with more was the great J.J. Watt. Houston’s 10.3 Run Stop Percentage was also the highest of any 4-3 defensive end with 200 run snaps, showing he was as efficient as he was productive. Nothing speaks to his impact on the game more than the fact that Oakland’s opponents averaged 3.2 yards per carry when they ran in his direction (off left end or left tackle) versus 4.2 per carry when they away from him.
This sort of play is typical for Houston, as he’s never finished a season with a run defense grade lower than +7.2. He has a team-high 158 defensive stops since he joined the Raiders, and his 124 run stops since 2010 are 20 more than any other edge defender:
|Edge Defenders (Since 2010)||Stops||Run Stop Percentage|
The flip side of all of this, of course, is that Houston has never been an elite pass rusher, grading a career -1.6 in that category. However, he’s far from a liability on passing plays. His 63 quarterback pressures this season were still 12th-most of any 4-3 defensive end, and one more than sack leader Robert Mathis. You may remember Houston’s Week 3 sack-fumble of Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football, where he blew right past left tackle Chris Clark. However, the reality is that Houston isn’t much of a speed rusher, instead typically getting into the backfield with the same powerful inside techniques that he uses to stop the run. He may not be your prototypical pass rusher, but Houston still gets his fair share of pressure.
Houston hasn’t earned the accolades of the NFL’s best pass rushers, but his dominance against the run is no less important. And given the oversized importance that is still placed on sacks, his price tag won’t be too high. After years of overpaying players who didn’t deserve it, the Raiders now have the chance to lock up their best defender at a value. They should make it a priority to do so.
The Case Against Houston
By Gordon McGuinness
Houston has made a name for himself as one of the better run defenders from the edge in the league and, ultimately, might find himself back in Oakland with the Raiders having more than enough cap room to re-sign both with enough to spare to still be aggressive in the rest of the market. I can’t, however, get on board with him being a priority above Veldheer. In fact, with the amount of cap room they have available, they should perhaps be looking to upgrade on the edge by making a splash in free agency. A player like Greg Hardy or Michael Bennett will cost more than Houston, but bring with superior pass rushing ability to go along with more than adequate run defending.
Veldheer’s importance can’t be overstated, he’s on the cusp of being an elite left tackle and is the most important part of an offensive line that, based on who the current starters would be, needs as many quality players as possible. They still have questions marks throughout the offense, something that will likely be addressed throughout the offseason, but this represents an opportunity to lock up their best player on offense long term, ensuring a top talent at a key position is around as they continue to rebuild.
If you were the Raiders general manager and could keep only one, would you opt for Veldheer or Houston? Make your case in the comments section.