Justin Houston signed a one-year deal with the Ravens last August with the hopes of joining a contender to make a Super Bowl run. He could have signed elsewhere for more money but viewed Baltimore as his best chance of winning, along with the alure of his fit on the the Ravens’ defense, the culture and other factors.
Unfortunately, the season Houston likely envisioned did not go according to plan, as the Ravens were ravaged by injuries and spiraled out down the stretch before missing the playoffs. Now, Houston is again set to his unrestricted free agency this offseason, leaving him and the Ravens in a bit of an interesting spot.
The 32-year-old demonstrated this past season that he still has plenty left in the tank. While his sack total (4.5) was the second-lowest mark of his career, Houston was a consistent generator of pass rush and set the edge well. His 24 pressures were only one less than he recorded in 2020 and his quarterback knockdowns (12) and hits (17) were both up from the previous season.
Houston earned a PFF grade of 77.9 for the year, which was one of the five-best grades on the roster. He missed two games after being placed on the COVID-19/Reserve list earlier in the season but was otherwise a reliable presence in the lineup, which was all the more important given the rest of the defense saw players go down left and right.
Houston’s contract in 2021 was worth up to $4 million. Based on pedigree, talent and impact, it’s hard to argue he isn’t worth more. This makes it a wonder whether or not he’ll command more on the open market this offseason or be willing to settle for less again.
Either way, the Ravens should make a strong push to re-sign the veteran and convince him to run it back for another season.
They have a number of other unrestricted free agents to contend with trying to retain as well as several holes to fill on the roster, but Houston should be at the forefront of the team’s free agency plans. As currently stands, without him under contract, the Ravens’ edge rusher situation is in flux.
Odafe Oweh, Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson are the only outside linebackers under contract heading into 2022. Pernell McPhee, like Houston, is again hitting free agency but seems much more likely to retire after a relatively quiet 2021 season. Of this group, Oweh is currently the only “sure thing.”
Ferguson has been on the roster bubble for each of the past two summers. While he managed to secure a spot on the 53-man both times, his regular season impact has been very minimal. It’s hard to project what Ferguson’s chances of making the roster again will be heading into his fourth career season. Even if he does, he has not proven to be a reliable nor significant contributor to this point.
Bowser is coming off a career-best season and led the Ravens in sacks with 7.5. He took a step forward as a pass-rusher while maintaining high-level play both in pass coverage and run defense. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn achilles in the Week 18 finale against the Steelers. This immediately puts his availability for the start of next season in jeopardy and even if he is ready for Week 1, he may require some time to get back into full form.
All this is to say that having Houston back in the fold would be a tremendous insurance policy that the Ravens may desperately need at the position. Otherwise, they’ll likely have to draft and/or sign at least two or three edge rushers this offseason to fill the depth chart, or possibly look to shuffle someone like Malik Harrison into more of an outside role.
Even if the Ravens were to draft an edge rusher (or two) on Day 1 or early Day 2 of the draft, they would lack a veteran presence at the position. Houston’s leadership and experience proved valuable last year. His guidance seemed to play a big role in Bowser taking a step forward and Oweh having a strong rookie season.
There’s no telling if Houston is interested in re-signing with the Ravens or if he’d rather jump ship to another team where he thinks he’ll have a better chance of winning. Time will ultimately tell. Here’s hoping that the wily veteran recognizes the circumstances of last season were fluky and wants to help the Ravens bounce back in 2022 as a contender in the AFC.
If he’s open to a return, Eric DeCosta and company should do whatever they can to make it happen.