Around free agency: A chance to stop the revolving door at defensive tackle for the Raiders

Another season, another new set of defensive tackles for the Las Vegas Raiders.

Not only have the Silver and Black not had the same two DTs start in back-to-back seasons since ’11 and ’12, but Johnathan Hankins is the only defensive tackle to start in any two years – whether back-to-back or not – since 2016. The team has tried to limit turnover at the position by way of the draft, selecting six interior defensive linemen from 2016-2022. While P.J. Hall, Maurice Hurst and Eddie Vanderdoes spent a year as a majority starter with the Raiders, none were able to retain that role at any point down the line.

In recent years, dating back to 2020, the strategy has been to dish out one-year contracts to proven starters in free agency. Maliek Collins, Gerald McCoy and Quinton Jefferson were each brought in to be a starter on the defensive line under this type of deal, with each moving on following the season’s end.

Gerald McCoy got hurt before the start of the 2021 season, which ended his season. However, the former Buccaneer still falls into the position’s turnover.

Even now, the Raiders have left themselves vulnerable for more turnover at the position. Starting DT Andrew Billings is at the end of his one-year deal, albeit Bilal Nichols will be under contract in 2023. If general manager Dave Ziegler plays his cards right, Las Vegas can stop the revolving door at defensive tackle for the upcoming years. Here’s a few players currently set to be free agents that’ll go a long way in helping that mission.

Upcoming free agents who can help the Raiders stop the revolving door at DT

Andrew Billings

With Nichols still under contract next season, the Raiders have an opportunity to field the same starting defensive tackles in back-to-back seasons for the first time in over a decade. All the team has to do is sign (and start) Billings, who proved his worth in 2022.

Billings finished the season registering 478 snaps, earning a Pro Football Focus grade of 76.4: the 18th-highest at his position across the NFL, and highest on the Raiders by a full 19.0. As a pass-rusher, the 27-year-old was nothing special, beating his blocker 9.8% of the time with seven total hurries. Against the run, however, Billings was great.

When opposing teams chose to run the football, Billings answered the call. The first-year Raider recorded 29 tackles on running plays, earning the 20th-highest grade at his position (72.3) on such downs. While both Nichols and Jerry Tillery had three flags thrown their way throughout the season, Billings played disciplined football on a down-to-down basis, ultimately being responsible for zero penalties.

If there’s one note of caution, Billings went the ’22 season missing a sky-high 17.8% of tackles.

The benefit of taking this route is securing a cheap option who’s familiar with the team’s current defensive scheme. The negative is going another season without a game-changing D-lineman up front. There’s no reason for Ziegler to settle with what he has now if he isn’t satisfied, though. Luckily for the Raiders, this upcoming free agent class is home to many outside faces who can help solidify the position.

Outside options for the Raiders: Javon Hargrave

With a 90.8 pass-rushing grade that ranked third highest among DTs in 2022, Javon Hargrave is as good as it gets on the interior of a defensive line.

Hargrave recorded either a sack or pressure on 7.9% of snaps, which tied Chiefs’ star Chris Jones for the second-highest percentage among defensive tackles with at least 10 pass rushing snaps this season. The veteran defensive lineman also beat opposing blockers 17.4% of the time; the fifth-highest league-wide under the same stipulation. With a career-high 11 sacks, Hargrave has solidified himself as an elite pass-rusher at his position.

Against the run this season, Hargrave totaled 27 tackles and 15 stops. The 29-year-old missed only 7.7% of tackles this season, missing 10% fewer than Billings.

The benefit here is obvious – the Raiders get the elite pass-rushing DT they’ve been missing for so many years. Hargrave is a force of nature who will likely be too expensive for the Eagles to retain, which leads to the “negative”: the price of such a talent. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Eagles in 2020, which currently sits him as the 10th-highest annually paid player at his position. Expect that number to shoot up this offseason.

For the Raiders, it might be worth every penny to add a player of Hargrave’s caliber to the middle of the defensive line.

Dalvin Tomlinson

Hargrave is a fantastic talent, but should the Raiders decide his price tag is too high, other great options are available. One of these options is Dalvin Tomlinson.

With Billings, you get familiarity in Patrick Graham’s system. With Hargrave, you get consistent production. Tomlinson gives the Silver and Black a bit of both.

After his rookie contract with the Giants expired, Tomlinson agreed to a two-year deal with the Vikings. Before that happened, though, the former second-round pick spent a year with Patrick Graham in 2020. Here, 28-year-old totaled 3.5 sacks with a career-high four passes deflected at the line of scrimmage, earning an overall grade of 75.1.

During his ’22 campaign, Tomlinson was at his best. Although he recorded only 2.5 sacks all season, his pass-rushing efficiency was outstanding. Tomlinson hurried opposing quarterbacks on 19 occasions, beating blockers 14.7% of the time; the 11th-highest percentage among defensive tackles with at least 50 pass-rushing snaps. For his efforts, the second-year Viking earned 11th-highest pass-rushing grade at his position (79.1).

When facing the run, Tomlinson logged 24 tackles and 20 stops. This earned him a grade of 70.3.

As mentioned earlier, the positive is the duo of familiarity and consistent production. The system isn’t as fresh to Tomlinson as it is to Billings, nor is Tomlinson the same level of player that Hargrave is, but there’s a good middle-ground in there somewhere. The Raiders can also expect to pay him less than Hargrave, but more than Billings.

Daron Payne

Finally, there’s the Washington Commander, Daron Payne.

All three of the aforementioned players give the Raiders a high chance at stopping the revolving door in the middle of the D-line, and Payne is no different.

During his five seasons in Washington, the 25-year-old totaled 26 sacks, 40 tackles in the backfield, 14 pass deflections and four forced fumbles. Payne’s most recent season was his best, too. During his ’22 campaign, the former first-round pick tallied 11.5 sacks (third-most among defensive tackles), beating his man 11.3% of the time for 27 quarterback hurries.

When teams ran the ball, Payne was there. The five-year Washington D-lineman tackled opposing running backs 33 times, recording the 8th-most run stops at his position (29).

Like Billings, Payne was responsible for plenty of missed tackles – more than any defensive tackle across the NFL, with a league-leading 12. Even with all his mishaps, Payne logged the third-most total stops at his position, with 45.

Overall, Payne is the youngest of the bunch and has shown great promise going after quarterbacks. In both ’22 and ’21, his pass-rushing grade surpassed 70, with his run-defending grade doing the same in both ’20 and ’19. It’s hard to turn a blind eye to those missed tackles, but if they can be limited, the Raiders will get a gem in Payne.

*Top photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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