Oakland Raiders 2015 Free Agency Watch List: Defense

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Jan 4, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (90) prior to facing the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Tackles/5-Tech Ends

The key to a Jack Del Rio defense – and indeed any good defense – is a good interior defensive line. With the Raiders likely planning on a 4-3 “over” base front with some 3-4 and 3-3-5 looks mixed in, there is a need to get some good depth at both nose or 1-tech tackle, the 3-tech tackle, and potentially also some hybrid 3-tech/5-tech players that can be used as defensive ends in certain alignments.

This position group has some bodies in it already. Rookie Justin Ellis, a 4th round pick in last years draft, emerged as the starting nose tackle in Jason Tarver’s defense last year, and if he can stay in shape over the offseason he can probably keep that spot for years to come. Veteran Pat Sims, who was the incumbent there, appeared to have declined and is likely on his way out, leaving some room for a couple of depth signings.

Meanwhile there are quite a few fits at 3 tech: Stacy McGee, a 2013 6th round pick, saw a lot of time on the field as a rookie but disappeared last season, he’s a question mark but remains on the roster for now. Fourth year player Ricky Lumpkin showed a few things in limited action last year, and will probably stay on the roster at least as far as late in the preseason. Veteran Antonio Smith, the Ninja Assassin, was the starter at the 3-tech spot most of last year, and also flexed out to a 5-tech end in 3-4/3-3-5 looks, which was his position for most of his career in Houston. He came on strong late last year, but he’s 33 and is in the final year of his deal with the Raiders.

There are a number of very good defensive tackles and 5-tech ends who look to be hitting the free agency market come March 10th. Here are a few the Raiders may want to kick the tires on.

Ndamukong Suh: needs no introduction. Ndamukong Suh is one of the two or three best defensive tackles in the NFL, and is already among the highest paid. His next contract likely won’t be a pay cut. He’s the biggest name on the free agent market aside from potentially Demarco Murray, and he would be the for sure starter at the 3-tech for the Raiders. The second overall pick of the 2010 draft just turned 28, meaning he still has another two or three years left in his prime, and can probably be a solid contributor for the length of an entire five year contract. With the Raiders having a ton of spending money right now, he can be signed to a huge, front-loaded deal that minimizes his cap impact later on. It would be an aggressive, splashy move, which Reggie McKenzie is not known for, but it is a possibility.

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  • Terrance Knighton: the man they call Pot Roast is on his way out in Denver and clearly wants to follow Jack Del Rio  – his DC in Denver and his head coach in Jacksonville – to Oakland. Knighton, who is pushing 340 pounds, looks like more of a fit as a nose tackle, which has some fans speculating that he’s not needed in Oakland. But Knighton, like Justin Ellis, is big and somewhat out of shape – both players have struggled with conditioning in the past. If the two can share the load at the nose technique, plus be used as side-by-side 1 or 2 tech tackles in some bigger sets in running situations, it could be mutually beneficial.

    Nick Fairley: Ndamukong Suh’s partner in crime on the Detroit defensive line for the past four seasons, this former 2011 first round pick is a very good, talented defensive tackle in his own right. The Lions have used him and Suh interchangably between nose, 2 and 3 techniques on their front, and Fairley could also be used as a 5-tech end. He would probably come cheaper than Suh, and because of that, it’s more likely the Lions sign him to an extension before March 10th. But if he does hit the market, he’d be a great get who wouldn’t hurt the cap quite as much.

    BJ Raji: Former Pro Bowler BJ Raji, a former first round pick, was once considered one of the top defensive linemen in the league and was enough of a star to get a spot in Allstate commercials alongside Aaron Rodgers. But after two years of diminished productivity, followed by missing the entire 2014 season after a preseason injury suffered against the Raiders, BJ Raji is headed to free agency ignominy. He still has a connection to Reggie McKenzie, however, and might be willing to sign with Oakland for cheap on a short-term deal to show that he has something left at the age of 29. The massive Raji is, like Knighton, a size fit for the nose tackle job but he played 5-tech end for the Packers in 2013, and could be useful as a big 3-tech with his quick feet, as well.

    Henry Melton: Melton is another former Pro Bowler who has had some rough seasons and injuries in recent years but is still on the good side of 30 – he turns 29 in October. Melton, who signed a big contract with the Cowboys just this past offseason, is back on the free agent market after the Cowboys declined the option on the next three years of his deal. Melton, who went to the Pro Bowl for the Bears in 2012, had a solid season for the Cowboys last year but missed the playoffs with a deep knee bruise, and missed most of 2013 with a torn ACL. He is a fit for the 3-tech spot, but also played a lot of 5-tech in his career, and could be quality depth available for not much money, with the potential to start if he can bounce back to his 2012 form.

    Next: FA Watch List: Defensive End