In mid-May, Ravens outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was asked the question that everyone around the team has wondered about at some point this offseason: What’s up with Justin Houston?
“Justin, he’s his own man, and he’s really driven on what he wants to do,” Oweh said during the team’s offseason workouts. “So I’m hoping whatever he does is for the best for him, but we would love to have him back and everything like that. Justin, I know he’s going to make the right decision for himself.”
It could come soon. A year ago Friday, Houston agreed to terms on a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Ravens, a low-profile extension that became one of the best bargains of free agency. Houston led the team in sacks (9 1/2) and quarterback pressures (39) in 2022, the lone bright spot on an edge-rush group hampered by injuries and growing pains.
Three weeks before the start of training camp in Owings Mills, Houston, 34, is again a free agent. It’s not an unfamiliar position for the four-time Pro Bowl selection. He waited until July 31, after the start of camp, to sign with the Ravens in 2021. When he re-signed in early July last year, general manager Eric DeCosta was at the beach.
“The last two times we signed Justin, it was later in the process,” DeCosta said at the NFL scouting combine in March. “I can probably say that that will be the case this time as well, with some of the unknowns that we have and that we’re faced with, roster-wise.”
With quarterback Lamar Jackson finally under contract long term, the Ravens have the means to bring back Houston: about $9.5 million in salary cap space. They also have a need: The team’s pass rush is still a question mark — though perhaps not as much as its cornerback depth, and certainly not to the degree it was a year ago.
Last summer, the Ravens entered their offseason hiatus with Oweh still working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery and Tyus Bowser and David Ojabo months away from even practicing. Now all three are set to open camp this month in good health. Ojabo, a first-round talent before he tore his Achilles tendon in predraft workouts last offseason, is primed for a breakout year. Oweh and Bowser, who also returned from an Achilles injury, are in line for bounce-back seasons.
Beyond them, though, there’s little proven depth. Fourth-round pick Tavius Robinson is the only other drafted player on the outside linebacker depth chart. What’s enticing about Houston is also what makes his market this late in free agency difficult to read: He projects as more than just a valuable rotational player. He could also be the best pure pass rusher on the Ravens’ 2023 roster.
Houston was a runaway No. 1 last year, even after a second-half drop-off. According to Pro Football Focus, he led the Ravens in overall pass-rush win rate (16.3%) and in win rate on “true pass sets” (19.9%), a sample that excludes plays with play-action passes, screens, short drop-backs, a time to throw of less than two seconds or fewer than four pass rushers. Oweh was a distant second in both metrics, finishing at 12.6% and 15.8%, respectively.
Among all edge rushers with at least 250 pass-rush snaps last season, Houston ranked 14th in overall win rate, ahead of stars such as the Las Vegas Raiders’ Maxx Crosby and Buffalo Bills’ Von Miller. Even more impressive was how often he converted those wins into sacks. Houston had a sack on 3.1% of his pass-rush snaps, or about one for every 32 snaps, a mark that compares favorably with the NFL’s most productive edge rushers from last season.
|Player (2022 sack total)||Sack rate|
|Josh Uche (11 1/2)||4.0%|
|Brandon Graham (11)||3.4%|
|Myles Garrett (16)||3.3%|
|Matthew Judon (15 1/2)||3.2%|
|Justin Houston (9 1/2)||3.1%|
|Nick Bosa (18 1/2)||3.1%|
|Haason Reddick (16)||3.1%|
|Alex Highsmith (14 1/2)||2.8%|
|Josh Sweat (11)||2.6%|
|Brian Burns (12 1/2)||2.4%|
|Micah Parsons (13 1/2)||2.3%|
|Za’Darius Smith (10)||1.9%|
|Maxx Crosby (12 1/2)||1.9%|
|Danielle Hunter (10 1/2)||1.7%|
Houston’s 2022 production comes with caveats. He registered sacks against a handful of the NFL’s lowest-graded pass blockers, according to PFF. Among his victims: the New York Jets’ George Fant (ranked No. 85 in pass blocking among the 93 offensive tackles with at least 200 such snaps), the Cincinnati Bengals’ La’el Collins (No. 87) and Hakeem Adeniji (No. 91) and the New Orleans Saints’ Calvin Throckmorton (ranked No. 75 among 94 qualifying guards). Saints running back Alvin Kamara, another liability in pass protection, misplayed Houston on an eventual sack as well.
But Houston was far from a cherry picker. He had sacks against three established tackles: New Orleans right tackle Ryan Ramczyk (ranked No. 26), then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith (No. 41) and Cleveland Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (No. 46). According to Brandon Thorn, an offensive- and defensive-line expert, Houston had the 15th-best “sack score” among all edge rushers last season, with three high-quality sacks, four low-quality sacks, two coverage sacks and two clean-up sacks. (Thorn credited Houston with 11 sacks despite his finishing officially with 9 1/2).
It’s unclear where that leaves Houston’s market value. The salary cap website Spotrac pegged it at $5.3 million annually. That’s less than 30-year-old Frank Clark, coming off a five-sack season for the Kansas City Chiefs, got in the one-year deal he signed last month with the Denver Broncos ($5.5 million fully guaranteed). It’s also less than 30-year-old Leonard Floyd, who had nine sacks last season for the Los Angeles Rams and has 29 since 2020, got in the one-year deal he signed last month with the Bills ($7 million guaranteed).
If the Ravens are indeed interested in a reunion, they should be able to make the cap math work. DeCosta has embraced more creative accounting this offseason, most notably the use of void years. Houston might even be amenable to a discount; he turned down a more lucrative offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021 to sign with the Ravens, and he said after last season that he’d “like to be back” in Baltimore, where playoff appearances have become expected and a Super Bowl run this season is possible.
“Anytime you make it to the playoffs and have the opportunity to go chase a Super Bowl, it’s very fun,” Houston, who’s never advanced beyond the conference championship round, said after the Ravens’ season-ending playoff loss to the Bengals in January. “It wasn’t the outcome I would like or desired it to be, but it was fun.”
Houston still has more to give, even if it’s in a reduced role. As a pass rusher, he had one of the NFL’s fastest get-offs through early November last season, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. As a teammate, Houston’s become a veteran leader to the team’s younger players, who watched how his maniacal work ethic last offseason — three-a-day workouts, sometimes five or six days a week — set up his resurgent 2022.
Oweh, in a nod to Houston’s sage wisdom, jokingly called him “Yoda” as a rookie. Last year, it was “Sensei.” If Houston returns to Baltimore for a third straight year, he might end up as the oldest player on the Ravens’ 53-man roster. But he can still be among the most productive, too.