Oakland Raiders

Raiders roster preview: Defensive end a huge question mark

The Oakland Raiders may have had the worst group of defensive ends in the entire league in 2013. Lamarr Houston was good, but that about sums it up. Though a valuable contributor, he was nowhere near an excellent pass rusher. Beyond Houston was nothing more than a ragtag group of average players, most of whom were picked out of the bargain bin after being placed there for very good reasons.

The offseason saw Houston leave to sign with the Chicago Bears, while the guy who started opposite him, Jason Hunter, is still looking for a job. The Raiders replaced the two starting ends in free agency with Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley. Clearly general manager Reggie McKenzie’s first priority was upping the position’s overall pass rush ability. Both Tuck and Woodley have made names for themselves in the NFL putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The only problem is, they made those names years ago and are both trying to prove that their names should carry the same weight as they used to.

Tuck is coming off of a bounce-back season — 11 sacks in 2013 — after back-to-back very poor seasons. That’s an impressive sack total and is more than double the best individual sack number on the Raiders last year.  But it’s also worth noting that pretty much all of those sacks were bunched up in a small portion of the season. Through the first ten games of 2013, Tuck only had 1.5 sacks. He then accumulated 9.5 in the final five games, including a four-sack performance against Washington. The question remains, can Tuck consistently put pressure on the quarterback throughout the season? On the bright side, while Tuck took a while to get things going sack-wise, he played strong run defense pretty much the entire season.

Woodley is still looking for a bounce-back year, statistically or otherwise. After back-to-back years of injury-plagued play where he was only able to collect nine sacks combined, he is hoping his resurgence will come in Oakland. Along with the move across the country, Woodley will be moving to a new position on the field at defensive end. While he played the position in college, he has played standing up as a linebacker ever since he entered the NFL back in 2007. The move may help Woodley, though. He’s said that he’s the type of player who likes to play downhill all of the time, and believes he may be better as a defensive end. That is great for defensive end, but as a linebacker he had to hold back on that desire a bit. Now he can let loose and play the way he likes to.

Both Woodley and Tuck are question marks. There is no denying what they have accomplished in their careers, but there is legitimate concern that they may not be able to play anywhere near that level anymore. If they can’t it would be bad news for the Raiders, who do not have a lot of quality depth behind those two. The backups are looking to be Jack Crawford, C.J. Wilson and rookie Shelby Harris. None of those guys are particularly exciting. Even if Tuck and Woodley are not playing like they used to, none of them should push very hard for starting roles.

In fact, the backups are so lackluster, I would expect to see Sio Moore and/or Khalil Mack playing with their hands in the dirt at times. The linebacker group is stacked and if the coaches decide to move one or both of them to defensive end on clear passing downs now and then, they have quality backups in Miles Burris and Kevin Burnett who can step into the outside linebacker positions.

It would be hard for this group to be worse than the defensive end unit fielded by the Raiders in 2013, but it remains to be seen just how much better these guys can be.

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