BALTIMORE — Free-agent edge rusher Justin Houston agreed to a one-year deal Saturday with the Ravens, a team-friendly acquisition that should bolster the defense’s overhauled pass rush.
The deal is worth up to $4 million, according to ESPN. Houston reportedly turned down “significantly more money” from other teams to join the Ravens’ push for a Super Bowl title. The four-time Pro Bowl selection visited the Ravens in April, but he remained unsigned throughout the offseason.
“I feel like he’s a proven player,” coach John Harbaugh said after the team’s practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday night. “I had a chance to talk to him a lot in the last number of months. He really wanted to be here. He wanted to be here months ago.”
Houston, 32, was perhaps the NFL’s top pass rusher still on the market, with four straight seasons of at least eight sacks. Last year, he had eight sacks, 12 quarterback hits and two safeties in 16 games with the Indianapolis Colts. Houston’s deal is contingent on a physical, but Harbaugh said it would be “a while” before he’s cleared to practice. As an unvaccinated player, Harbaugh said, his onboarding process takes longer than normal to complete.
Houston’s arrival will help soften the blow of the offseason departures of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, who combined for nine sacks in 23 games in Baltimore last season. It could also ease the pressure on first-round pick Odafe Oweh and fifth-round pick Daelin Hayes while pushing third-year edge rusher Jaylon Ferguson to the roster bubble.
In recent years, the Ravens have entered the season with five outside linebackers or edge rushers on their 53-man roster. Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee are the early favorites to start on the edge. Oweh and Hayes have impressed in camp. Coaches have praised Ferguson’s mental growth. And now Houston will have to fit in somewhere, too, the latest and maybe greatest addition at a position considered a serious weakness entering 2021.
“I think we have a plethora of talent — guys that are very, very gifted in a lot of places who are going to have to step up and make big plays for us,” defensive end Calais Campbell said in June. “Our outside rush is where we lost the most, and I see some of our young guys who can really move, and they’re really just super gifted. And so, now it comes down to just getting them prepared, getting them ready, helping them develop as quickly as possible, because we’re going to have to depend on them.
“This is one of those teams where we’re going to have to depend on some young guys to step up and make some plays for us. But I think we’ve got a really good group of young [players] who are going to be able to develop and become really good football players in this league.”
Houston brings veteran savvy and reliable production to a low-cost group. After Judon signed a four-year, $56 million contract with the New England Patriots and Ngakoue got a two-year, $26 million contract from the Las Vegas Raiders, Bowser ($3 million) had the highest salary cap hit at the position. McPhee, meanwhile, had the most career sacks (37), but just six over the past three seasons.
The 6-foot-3 Houston has 97 1/2 career sacks, including 19 since 2019. But after an impressive age-30 season, his production and participation fell off somewhat last year. He played 59% of the Colts’ defensive snaps, less than what he played during a 12-game 2018 season with the Kansas City Chiefs. Houston’s 8.3% pressure rate, meanwhile, was the lowest of his career, according to Pro Football Focus, and his 32 total pressures were among the fewest of his career.
“We have a role for him,” Harbaugh said. “And he’s got a chance to really help us. So I’m excited.”
“Man, we got better,” Oweh said Saturday. “That’s how I can take it. It’s an opportunity for me to learn from a guy that has 97 sacks. That’s always great.”
In a recent Instagram post, Houston shared photos of himself working out in a Chiefs helmet, another pass rush-needy team. But after a visit with the Ravens — and a few calls from cornerback Marcus Peters, a former Kansas City teammate — the two sides agreed on an incentive-laden deal. The reduced price tag worked for the Ravens, who are tight against the salary cap, and so did the timing, which won’t cost the team a 2022 compensatory draft pick.
Houston is expected to be the Ravens’ final big-name acquisition before the season kicks off in September. In mid-June, coach John Harbaugh said he’d talked with Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta about bringing in another veteran. Harbaugh said not to rule out the possibility.
“I’m not too worried about any spot on our team,” he said. “But if someone comes available for what we can afford and what makes sense for us, you always love to have more players, more talent, better players. If they’re the right kind of guys that fit into us and want to practice the way we practice, play like the way we play, then heck, yes. We’re always interested in improving ourselves any way we can.”