This was the season that almost was for the Oakland Raiders with their customary ill-discipline and inconsistency preventing them from clinching their first in nearly a decade. A new regime and a new head coach are in place for, but will this be a bright new dawn building on the positives of 2011 or a reset on new values that extends the road back to past glories? The Raiders had positive performers in almost every area of their defense in 2011, but also had complete letdowns in the same areas, finding the right players to achieve better balance will be crucial to the Raiders taking the next step in 2012.
New leadership at the top brings the potential for scheme changes which could, in turn, lead to a vast overhaul in personnel for the Raiders. Their ability to build through the draft is limited by the king’s ransom that they have surrendered for three different quarterbacks, so shrewd signings in free agency will be pivotal for their short term development. Late round pickups have proven to be solid contributors in the past but they can’t be relied upon to move the Raiders forward, so they will be judged and defined by their offseason decisions.
Primary Need: Cornerback
With Stanford Routt now plying his trade for divisional rival Kansas City, the Raiders find themselves shorthanded at cornerback with not one of their corners grading positively in coverage and no one raising their hand to make the position their own. Even the return of Chris Johnson (-7.8) is unlikely to answer any questions that the Raiders capitulation to the Detroit Lions, among others, brought into sharp focus. The Raiders have not been short of investment in the secondary in the last few years, but the returns right now look slim and the deficiencies at corner have even forced safeties to play over the slot in 2011. The Raiders need more quality and depth at corner to allow their solid, if not better, safeties to stick there and allow this Raider defense to take the next step forward as Oakland looks to finally snap their playoff drought.
Fortunately for the Raiders, there is a bumper crop of cornerbacks available with seemingly a quality player for every different defense and every different role. If the Raiders new regime want to show that they will stick with the physicality and aggression that has always been the calling card of the franchise for decades, no corner epitomizes that more than Cortland Finnegan (+15.8) who, in a franchise season, got the balance between aggression and discipline spot on, something the rest of the Raider defense must master. The Raiders could choose to go tit-for-tat and take Brandon Carr (+2.7) from the Chiefs in a de facto trade of corners within the division. The Raiders really need a No. 1 to elevate above the pack they have at present, but if they are after a free for all at cornerback then the likes of William Gay (0.0) and Richard Marshall (-1.2) offer the sort of versatility and quality that would make the Raiders’ cornerback camp battle one of the most interesting to watch come July.
Secondary Need: Right Tackle
The Raiders had question marks at both tackle spots entering this season but a fine sophomore season from Jared Veldheer (+5.9) has offered hope that left tackle will be shored up for years to come. The right tackle job remains a sore spot, however, and with Khalif Barnes hitting free agency, the Raiders desperately need to upgrade, but none of the potential replacements on the roster have shown any level of promise that they can fill the hole. Joe Barksdale (-5.4) has struggled in spot playing time and though Stephon Heyer (-3.3) has proven capable at tackle for the Washington Redskins, he would be nothing but a stop-gap and the Raiders should be looking to do better.
Unfortunately for Oakland, this free agent class does not provide a bumper crop of tackles, even at right tackle. The two players with real potential to develop into top quality offensive tackles are Demetrius Bell (+6.8) and Jared Gaither (+3.8) and both are certain to get offers to play on the left side, taking them out of Oakland’s price bracket. The Raiders will need to take a risk to get rewards this offseason and two players immediately leap out as worth a look with very different risks involved. From the ranks of the backups, they could look at Anthony Collins (+4.3) who, in spite of some good displays in the past, has been lost behind Andre Smith on the depth chart in Cincinnati, but would offer a clear upgrade over Barnes as both a run blocker and pass protector. Another option presents itself from way down in South Florida with the Miami Dolphins where their attempt to move Vernon Carey (-4.1) back to right guard didn’t go well this season. Carey is now the wrong side of 30 but in 2009 and 2010 was one of the best right tackles in the entire league. For a short term deal, the Raiders could do far worse than kick the tires and see if that form is still there.
Tertiary Need: Center/Guard
The start of the Raiders offseason is likely to have been spent pouring over tape to try to discover what they have in their current players and how well they fit the new scheme they are bringing to the team. One key decision the Raiders have to make is at center where Samson Satele (+3.0) hits the open market as one of the few quality run-blocking centers available. With a team built around Darren McFadden and Michael Bush (if he indeed stays put) in the backfield, having a quality run blocking center is certain to help their interior ground game. However, the decision is whether Satele offers value to the new scheme, will he get paid by a team running a man blocking scheme? This decision is further complicated by what the Raiders choose to do with Stefen Wisniewski (-7.3) who had a quality rookie season until a simply terrible performance in Week 17. Do the Raiders stick with him at guard or shift him across to center?
Whichever position they look to fill, there is quality on the to be had. At left guard, the spot Wisniewski would vacate, Carl Nicks (+28.4) is looking to break the bank while Evan Mathis (+34.6) and Ben Grubbs (+1.4) might offer better value as upgrades and bring quality in their own right further solidifying the Raiders’ interior. If they look for a center, the Raiders’ new GM could do far worse than bring in one of his own in the shape of Scott Wells (+16.0) on a short term contract. Reports suggest that Wells is likely to be let go by the Packers who are aiming for him to be another of their timely releases as he turns past age 30. Wells has been a consistently strong performer for the Packers and would provide the Raiders with short term quality himself while providing some real veteran leadership on an offensive line that has talent, but struggles at times to come together as a unit.
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