In the midst of one of the most extensive roster rebuilds you’ll see, the 2013 Oakland Raiders have purged without pausing for a year-and-a-half, and will field a defense made up of as many as nine new starters from what they ran out just last season.
After climbing to the heights of back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011, wholesale changes were made at the top and the team hired a general manager for the first time since Al Davis took on the role 45 years before. Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen have taken the team in a new direction — one of practicality and plan discipline — and the cap situation is now in order, but they’ll have to make it through this season before enjoying any fruits of that labor.
With new faces everywhere and the regular season just weeks away, here are some reasons for the team to be confident and some reasons for concern.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. A Half-Season of Veldheer
This was initially reserved to discuss Jared Veldheer’s presence on the left side of the line. I was set to write about the place he has earned among the league’s Top 10 left tackles (ninth in 2012 with a +22.2 overall grade) and how, coming into a contract year, he was primed to cement himself among the truly elite at the position. That was, of course, before a triceps injury sent him to surgery last week and robbed the Raiders of their brightest offensive bright spot.
After thinking on it, I’m keeping Veldheer’s section in place on the chance he returns per the most optimistic prognosis — he’s that much of a standout for this team and even half a season of his services would be a legit positive to point to (especially given the state of the reserves behind him; I’ll get to that in a bit). The bottom line is: he’ll come back at some point — maybe midseason, maybe later, maybe not until 2014 — and when he does, here’s hoping for his sake and for the Raiders’, that he continues his climb up the LT ranks as his success will be key to that of the team.
2. Revamped Secondary, Again
After cleaning house at the cornerback position before the 2012 season, and seeing the replacement crew fall off in quick fashion, another renovation (this time involving the safeties as well) has the secondary in much better shape. On-field results still to be seen, of course, but for now hope for an improvement is realistic.
With the anchor of the group, Tyvon Branch, locked in for two extra years, the Raiders let Michael Huff go and added Usama Young and Charles Woodson to the safety contingent. Slot-man Joselio Hanson and skilled depth corner Philip Adams were brought back, veterans Tracey Porter and Mike Jenkins were brought in, and DJ Hayden became the Raiders’ first first-round pick of the post-Al Davis Era.
If nothing else, there was a huge effort made to get this group in shape and if the pass rush remains an issue, their time spent in coverage will be especially important. It should also be noted that Branch, Woodson, and Young were all among the Top 20 safeties in our Tackling Efficiency rating in 2012, a fact of particular interest to a team whose front seven is also in as much flux.
3. Janikowski Remains
Though his running mate, Shane Lechler, was shown the door, kicker Sebastian Janikowski’s Oakland term continues as his recent four-year extension will keep him around possibly through the end of his career. The Raiders’ leading scorer for 13 straight seasons is still a valuable weapon to have in the arsenal — his range makes it much easier to scrape together points even on days when the offense isn’t marching. Chasing down the career mark for 50-yard field goals (he’s 10 back of Jason Hansen’s 52 in eight fewer seasons), Janikowski has the opportunity to build on an already impressive career and the motivation to mark the record books.
4. One-Year Wonders
The cap spaced cleared with this offseason’s moves have set the team up for some much-needed elbow room in 2014, with somewhere North of $50 million to play with. That’s an outstanding situation to be in for a team that has for so long danced against the cap, but bringing that joy down a bit is the prospect that contacts for more than 30 players of this season’s final 53 could be coming due.
Most of the team’s few building blocks are in the final year of their deals and many of the players signed this offseason will be paying on one-year contracts, and though that $50m will go a long way toward bringing back those worthy, there will still be tough decisions and the ability to go out and add additional talent may be more limited than first glance would suggest.
Getting Veldheer, Houston and Marcel Reece re-signed should be priorities. Deciding what to do with Darren McFadden would be next. Hoping that any of the new recruits who put up career-best seasons (see Phillip Wheeler, 2012), will opt to stay is another piece to it all. The freedom, though, to make all of those calls after hitting the reset button on the cap will prove invaluable to the franchise moving forward.
5. Believing is Half the Battle
Well, maybe not half the battle, but it’s part of it. With a roster that has seen such a flushing in the last year and a half, getting the newly-acquired troops on board with the plan, understanding their roles, and fitting together is a tall task. From all accounts, the team as it’s assembled is not accepting the common perception that they’ll be among the first to the podium come April. Granted, league-wide hopes run high in the summer, but there’s something to the ‘nobody believes but us’ mantra that can bind a team. With so many new pieces playing for a second-year regime and looking to halt the fall and swing everything back toward the positive, believing that they are group to achieve the objective matters.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Finding the Man
If you are building a team from scratch — not an idea far from what the Raiders are attempting to do — it would be an understatement to say that a crucial piece to the puzzle is the quarterback. You have to have the means to acquire one, and risks must be taken until the right man is found, but along the way you have to have someone to start on Sundays. The Raiders have someone to start on Sundays.
There’s not much of a book on Matt Flynn after five years in the league, but he was available at the right time and for the right price and he’ll get a shot. Perhaps he surprises and plays above the capable-but-limited level. Perhaps he is the man to build around — we’ll know soon enough — but until then there will be calls for Terrelle Pryor to see the field, and I’m sure there’s even a gaggle of Matt McGloin supporters out there pining for his chance.
Oakland is hoping to see much more of the Flynn who logged a +5.5 grade in his 2011 start against Detroit than the one who posted a -4.4 in a relief appearance against the Lions the season before. Much of that could hinge on his protection.
2. Wall of Holes
I mentioned Veldheer’s value as a ‘Reason to be Confident’, but the remainder of the line falls securely into the ‘Reason to be Concerned’ category, with the exception of center Stefan Wisniewski (+6.5, 17th-ranked center in 2012). It’s fully possible that the Raiders will open the season starting a pair of linemen who didn’t play a down of regular season football last season — guard Andre Gurode, who last played sparingly late in 2011, and tackle Alex Barron, whose last significant action was nearly three years ago. Barron is first in line to replace the injured Veldheer.
Khalif Barnes will once again man the right tackle spot, though a second-round pick was spent on Menelik Watson as an apparent challenger — a challenge he’s yet to levy as camp injuries have kept him from the field. Gurode was a camp addition intended to bolster the guard group where Mike Brisiel (also injured), Tony Bergstrom, and Lucas Nix haven’t sorted out who will take the lead.
Even if injuries weren’t a concern, the O-line as a group (now under the watchful eye of Tony Sparano) appears to be a wall of holes that could spell disaster for the QB behind them and the new-(old)-look run game.
3. Picks Have to Pan Out
With a rebuild of this scale, even more pressure is on draft picks to come in and contribute… and on the front office to select the right players for the job. The first draft effort for Reggie MacKenzie’s staff was hamstrung with a lack of picks at the top, but their first selection (third-rounder Bergstrom) netted just 113 snaps in 2012 and he’s still, at best, in a fight for a starting spot as a sophomore. Fourth-round linebacker Miles Burris stepped in and played admirably, but he didn’t offer a major impact and posted one of the worst Tackling Efficiency figures for all LBs on the year.
Of the first four picks in 2013, only linebacker Sio Moore has shown himself worthy of immediate playing time, as cornerback DJ Hayden (injured), OT Watson (injured), and QB Tyler Wilson (poor performance) have been non-factors through camp. Hayden is expected to return this week and could be — should be — lining up as one of the starting corners in Week 1, but his unusual injury concern is far from a dead subject.
If success has been found, however, it’s been in the splashes of a late-round run on receiving talent that began with the previous leadership’s 2010 fourth- and 2011 fifth-round picks of Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore, respectively. Representing 2012’s top addition was undrafted free agent Rod Streater and now a seventh-round receiver in 2013 has made a noteworthy arrival in the form of Brice Butler.
4. Pass Rush Production
Of the 240 total quarterback disruptions the Raiders recorded in 2012, players responsible for 56% of them have left the building. Add in the 17 Burris generated if he’s resigned to a reserve role once back from his knee injury, and that number climbs to 63%. Lamarr Houston led the team with 54 (five sacks, 14 hits, and 35 hurries) and he’ll be counted on for a repeat performance, but filling the gap left behind by the other primary contributors (Desmond Bryant, Phillip Wheeler, Tommy Kelly, Matt Shaughnessy and Richard Seymour) will be a host of front-seven additions.
Hold over Andre Carter’s role should expand (16 total pressures in 2012) but the likely inside pairing of Vance Walker and Pat Sims produced a paltry 22 pressures in 2012 (though Sims shouldn’t be considered a large part of the 2013 pass-rushing effort). New linebackers Nick Roach and Kevin Burnett came up with a combined 23 pressures last year and rookie Sio Moore is expected to be a factor in that facet, possibly in a dual role reminiscent of Kamerion Wimbley’s in 2011.
There’s work to be done without a bona fide threat in the fold, and a lot of that could fall on the shoulders of defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s ability to create effective opportunities.
5. Will Patience Prevail?
There’s a lot riding on this season and the positive strides that must come from it. Despite the assumed confidence of a four-year contract, Head Coach Dennis Allen has to be looking at the pictures on the wall — those of the six head coaches that came before him in the past 10 years — and feeling the pressure to produce. A long-term plan in place or not, patience will wear thin at some point and without concrete evidence of growth, post-Gruden coach No. 8 could be given the reins sooner than later. At this stage in the roster re-make, I can see the argument for taking lumps and seeing it through, but change comes quickly when losses pile up, no matter the circumstances.
What to Expect
The offensive line could be the undoing. Battered quarterbacks and stuffed runners lead to early deficits and a stressed defense… and the snowball rolls from there. Should that not be the case and the team makes a run toward respectability, it will have to count as major victory for the front office, buying them time to carry their plan through.
There is an ‘us against the world’ sense brewing, but those thoughts tend to unravel quite easily when smacked with the reality of key limitations.
Follow Rick Twitter: @PFF_Rick