Offseason to-do list for the Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders struggles have been well documented since their last playoff appearance following the 2002 regular season, which turned into a drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII. However, the franchise that has been perpetually mired by its own poor decisions and reckless spending appears to be one more productive offseason away from returning to its once proud standing as an AFC West contender. The team has already shown progress in 2015, with a 7-9 season under new coach Jack Del Rio, and in the process, made the precipitous jump from PFF’s 30th overall ranked team in 2014 to PFF’s ninth overall ranked team this season.
Building blocks through the draft
Based on the immediate results, GM Reggie McKenzie has absolutely nailed the past two drafts for the Raiders, and has set them up nicely in some key spots. This starts and ends with solidifying the game’s most important position via QB Derek Carr in the 2014 second round. The team’s overall improvement this past season mirrored Carr’s, as he jumped from PFF’s second-to-last ranked QB to the edge of the top 10, finally affording Raiders’ fans a sigh of relief following a sprinkle of Carson Palmer and Jason Campbell amid mostly disastrous stints from Terrelle Pryor, Matt Flynn, and he-who-must-not-be-named, JaMarcus Russell. Based on this year’s performance, Carr should be expected to grow into an upper-echelon QB for the foreseeable future.
Khalil Mack fortuitously fell to the Raiders with the fifth pick in the 2014 draft, and has already established himself as PFF’s top ranked edge defender and a true building block of a player who is equally disruptive against the run and pass. To top things off, the Raiders third pick in 2014, G Gabe Jackson (84.4 season grade), is already PFF’s 12th-ranked guard. Wide receiver Amari Cooper followed in 2015 and added a new dimension to the Raiders’ offense after being a highly-regarded pick for Oakland. On the other hand, the pick of DE Mario Edwards Jr. in the second round was widely panned by analysts who may now regret their sentiments after a very impressive rookie season by Edwards Jr. (80.9). Finally, McKenzie completed back-to-back hat tricks, with the pick of TE Clive Walford (74.6) in 2015’s third round.
All six of these players are already graded as average to elite NFL starters, while being locked into their rookie contracts for at least two to three more seasons. McKenzie has had a penchant for sticking to his draft board and not straying from this plan based on need. Another strong draft should at the least give the Raiders cost-effective players to supply the depth they have lacked in seasons past.
Savvy free agent shopping
While many GM’s pay lip service to the mantra “build from the inside out,” McKenzie has had success on the free agent market during his tenure as GM. Three of the highest four players on the payroll are free agent lineman signed in the past two off seasons: C Rodney Hudson (84.8, seventh-ranked center), DT Dan Williams (88.0, 14th ranked interior defender), and OT Austin Howard (80.7, 18th ranked offensive tackle). Another free agent signee, LT Donald Penn (84.5, 12th ranked offensive tackle) has slightly outplayed the man he replaced, Jared Veldheer (81.8), but at a fraction of the price. A free agent flyer, WR Michael Crabtree (78.8) provided excess value on his one-year contract, and already earned himself a long-term extension to pair with Amari Cooper and form a dangerous starting duo for Derek Carr to utilize going forward. In one offseason, McKenzie was able to turn the WR position from a blatant weakness to a strength.
McKenzie should continue to look to add productive players on team-friendly contracts. Some lower priced targets should include a third WR, a viable supplement to Latavius Murray at RB, a starting RG to replace likely departure J’Marcus Webb (44.6), a legitimate return man, and a LB who excels in coverage, given the team’s struggle covering tight ends this season.
Aggressive free agent splashes
As laid out above, McKenzie has had some success targeting the second and third tier of free agency the past few offseasons, while cleaning up what was arguably the worst salary cap situation in the league. The result of his diligent work is that the Raiders will be entering the 2016 with approximately $64 million in projected cap space, more than any other team. They must spend this money out of sheer necessity so as to be in compliance with the new collective bargaining agreement, which requires a team to spend at least 89 percent of its cap from 2013-2016, and there aren’t many pending free agents on the Raiders’ current roster who will take a large portion of this.
According to PFF, Oakland’s lowest-grade attribute as a team was its pass coverage (No. 22 in the league). They should look to allot a good chunk of their space to the secondary, given that there does not appear to be many answers waiting in the wings on the current roster, especially with S Charles Woodson now making wine in Napa instead of intercepting quarterbacks.
Midseason pickup CB David Amerson (83.4) deserves a shot at a starting gig in 2016, but after that, it’s open season. After an injury-riddled season, S Nate Allen (41.3) may get another chance at a safety position given his high salary. That leaves a lot of acquisitions left through the draft or free agency to make this offseason.
One possible target could include S Eric Weddle (77.9), who is only one season removed from being PFF’s top-ranked safety, and who would likely enjoy taking a shot at the San Diego Chargers twice per season. Additionally, CB Sean Smith (83.9) figures to be high up on the list, along with CB Prince Amukamara (78.4), CB Leon Hall (79.7), and S Walter Thurmond (79.3).
Another area that could stand to benefit from a “splash signing” would be the defensive line, particularly a pass rusher such as Mario Williams to pair with Khalil Mack while Aldon Smith continues to serve the remainder of his year-long suspension. McKenzie will have a lot of money to spend, and should finally have the infrastructure in place to be able to attract top-tier talent at positions of need.
Putting it all together
First and foremost, the Raiders need to figure out where they will be playing next year, in Oakland or in Los Angeles. The lack of clarity on its future is certainly causing a state of unrest. Once that is settled, the franchise and its fan base can hopefully emerge as a unified front going forward. Based on their young talent, coaching stability, strong offensive/defensive lines, and ample cap flexibility, the Raiders are in as good a position as any team to make the jump from non-playoff team to postseason contender in 2016. While nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, by staying the course and making some of the above mentioned improvements, they have the opportunity to get back to “just winning, baby.”