Four-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Justin Houston is officially off the free agent market. Unfortunately, it’s not because he’s extending his stint with the Baltimore Ravens for the third straight year. The veteran outside linebacker agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, August 7, 2023.
According to ESPN Insider Adam Schefter who broke the news, the deal is worth up to $7 million and includes $6 million fully guaranteed. His new contract eclipses what he made in the two years he spent in Baltimore combined and was likely more than they were willing to pay despite what he still has left in the tank and the tremendous leadership he brings to the locker room and outside linebacker room in particular.
Houston appeared in 29 games over the past two seasons with the Ravens where he complied 14 sacks, 55 total tackles, 34 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 13 tackles for loss, and one interception per Pro Football Reference.
After the resurgent year he had in 2022 when he finished as the team leader with 9.5 sacks, there was a chance that Houston could price himself out of Baltimore. The veteran edge defender market has been heating up over the past week after it stayed pretty well-saturated for most of the spring and summer with the 34-year-old being just the latest domino to fall.
Ravens Lose Another Veteran Leader to NFC South in Surprising Move
Houston isn’t the first former Ravens seasoned pass rusher and core leader to depart for greener pastures in the less competitive conference and join a really young team. Six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell found a new home with the Atlanta Falcons on a one-year deal worth $7 million fully guaranteed according to spotrac.com shortly after he was released to create salary cap space on March 13, 2023.
What makes both of their decisions so surprising is that they both have gone on record numerous times to express that the pursuit of a Super Bowl championship is their main motivation for continuing their playing careers.
Each of them has a pretty solid case to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame already with 99 or more career sacks and given the heights they reached during their primes as well as contributions they’ve still been able to make in the twilights of their respective careers.
While the Panthers and Falcons have a wealth of promising young talent, neither is viewed as a title contender or is even favored to win their division as that distinction belongs to the veteran-laden New Orleans Saints according to vegasinsider.com who has them with the best odds to claim the NFC South crown.
Both teams are also led by inexperienced young quarterbacks who will be heading into their first or second seasons in the league. Carolina traded up for the first overall pick in this year’s draft to select Bryce Young out of Alabama and the Falcons have handed the reigns of their offense over to 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder who doesn’t inspire much confidence given his rookie year state line of just 2 passing touchdowns, a passer rating of 86.4, and a 2-2 record in two starts per PFR.
Thankfully, the Ravens have young up-and-coming players at both of their position groups that are chomping at the bit to prove themselves and not just fill their former mentors’ shoes but make an even greater impact on the field this upcoming season.
At outside linebacker, they third-year pro Odafe Oweh and second-year pro David Ojabo are poised to break out. The same can be said for fourth-year defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington who are both entering the final year of their rookie contracts and will be playing for new deals this year.
Potential Contingency Free Agent Options at EDGE
Unlike the past two years when Houston decided to lace up his cleats around this time of year at the onset or during early training camp, there are still plenty of quality and proven veteran outside linebackers that the Ravens could target to reinforce and provide more experience on the edges of their defense.
With the RUSH spot pretty much set with Oweh and Ojabo, the team could use more help at the SAM spot with veteran returner Tyus Bowser still on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Finding players that have experience playing roles where they can rush the passer, set the edge against the run, or drop into coverage on any given down can be difficult but here are a few available candidates that fit the description.
Kyle Van Noy
The Ravens have already brought in the nine-year veteran and two-time Super Bowl champion for a visit last month on July 21, 2023. He has experience playing both off the ball and on the edge full-time and is the most suitable option of the bunch. Van Noy has recorded 5 or more sacks in each of the last four seasons despite playing on three different teams during that stretch.
The 11-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowler is coming off a solid bounce-back season in which he recorded 6 sacks with the Miami Dolphins in a similar rotational role to Houston had last year but he also has experience dropping into underneath coverage. Ingram is also a very powerful edge-setter against the run that can blow up plays in the backfield or before a ball carrier gets a chance to get the corner and turn upfield.
The three-time Pro Bowler and former No. 1 overall pick has been linked to the Ravens every time he’s been available over the past few years and while it’s been a while since he has been asked to drop into coverage, it’s a skill that is in his repetiteur. He’s a much better run defender than pass rusher throughout his career but he can still bring the heat off the edge and has some familiarity with the Ravens coaching staff. He was on the Houston Texans during the time that defensive line coach Anthony Weaver was serving in the same role with them from 2016-2018.
The nine-year veteran has one of the most complete skillsets on this shortlist behind only Van Noy. He entered the league as a hybrid edge and off-ball player with the Minnesota Vikings and made four straight Pro Bowls from 2015-2018 in that role. Last year he appeared in 14 games and made 10 starts with the Dallas Cowboys where he primarily played off the ball as a 4-3 outside linebacker but he has the skillset to line up on the edge wreak havoc as well.