Raiders upgrade secondary, add edge depth to earn high offseason mark

John Breitenbach takes a look at the 2016 draft results and free-agency period for the Raiders, assigning an offseason grade.

| 7 months ago
(Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

(Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

Raiders upgrade secondary, add edge depth to earn high offseason mark


The Raiders’ rebuilding job is almost complete. Even though they missed out on the playoffs, Oakland showed signs of competing for the first time in a number of years. GM Reggie McKenzie has built a hugely promising offense starring Derek Carr after a breakout year. The offensive line also played a significant part in his development, as did a rejuvenated Michael Crabtree and first-year wideout Amari Cooper.

The QB wasn’t the only breakout Raider last season. On the defensive side of the ball, Khalil Mack elevated his game to another level, while David Amerson looked reborn outside of Washington. Heading into the offseason, the Raiders’ roster appeared as if it had few weaknesses.

Below is a compilation of the Oakland Raiders’ 2016 offseason transactions, including free-agency moves and draft picks:

Offseason grade: A

Free agents/Trades

New Signings: CB Sean Smith, S Reggie Nelson, LB Bruce Irvin, OT/G Kelechi Osemele, LB Darren Bates

Re-signings: OT Donald Penn, OLB Aldon Smith, S Nate Allen, CB Neiko Thorpe, QB Matt McGloin, WR Andre Holmes, OT Matt McCants

Departures: S Charles Woodson (ret.), DE Justin Tuck (ret.), S Taylor Mays, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, WR Rod Streater, DE Benson Mayowa, WR Jeremy Ross, OT J’Marcus Webb, G Tony Bergstrom, OT Khalif Barnes, S Larry Asante, LB Curtis Lofton 

The only pressing need for the Raiders was a corner opposite David Amerson. McKenzie has done more right than wrong in charge of Oakland’s personnel, but D.J. Hayden looks as if he will fall into the mistake category after ranking 105th amongst corners a year ago (104.1 QB rating allowed). Sean Smith is a dramatic upgrade, and an ideal fit in head coach Jack Del Rio’s single-high defense (73 percent of snaps in 2015). He didn’t come cheap, but corners who can shut down opposing receivers on an island in man have tremendous value in the modern NFL. Unsatisfied with one new starter in the secondary, the Raiders also signed Reggie Nelson, PFF’s ninth-highest graded safety last season. Nelson is more of a short-term stopgap, filling the void left by Charles Woodson’s retirement perfectly. He allowed a QB rating of just 61.8, picking off eight passes for Cincinnati a year ago.

McKenzie found exceptional value signing productive veterans for below-market value. In-house free agent Donald Penn was retained, and at just $12 million ($6 million guaranteed) for two years. Penn is an excellent blindside protector. He ranked 11th overall among tackles in 2015, allowing just 32 combined pressures (12 knockdowns). In combination with Penn, Oakland brought in the top lineman on the market to complete the set up front; Kelechi Osemele is a mauling guard, and can take over at left tackle when Penn starts to decline. He could still stand to develop in pass-protection on the outside (Osemele allowed a hit and seven hurries in four starts at tackle), but certainly has the potential to man-up with edge rushers in the future.

Project offensive line (2015 season grades shown)

OAK OL (2)

The Raiders’ spending spree did not stop at Smith and Osemele. Bruce Irvin was probably overpaid—he signed on for $9 million a year with $14.5 million guaranteed—but his versatility should make him an ideal fit in Del Rio’s varied front. Irvin will be allowed to attack more frequently, which should suit his skill-set. The 15th-highest-graded linebacker last season, Irvin is most effective rushing the passer and coming downhill against the run. While Aldon Smith is suspended and Mario Edwards Jr. recovers from injury, the former Seahawk will get every opportunity to prove he can collapse the pocket on a consistent basis.

2016 NFL draft

  • Round 1 (pick No. 14) Karl Joseph, S, WVU
  • Round 2 (pick No. 44) Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois
  • Round 3 (pick No. 75) Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Round 4 (pick No. 100) (from Tennessee via Philadelphia) Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
  • Round 5 (pick No. 143) (from Dallas) DeAndre Washington, RB, Texas Tech
  • Round 6 (pick No. 194) (from Indianapolis) Cory James, OLB, Colorado State
  • Round 7 (pick No. 234) Vadal Alexander, G, LSU

The Raiders’ draft was a mixed bag. Karl Joseph may have been slightly overdrafted at 14th overall, but no other safety possessed his skillset in this class. The small sample size and injuries are the major concern. Joseph showed the range to cover sideline to sideline, he punished receivers over the middle, and he ran step-for-step with wideouts in man coverage. It was only four games, but Joseph flashed special potential in 2015.

More help was found for the defense in the second and third round, with the selections of Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun. Ward felt like a pick based more on potential than production, but he didn’t even test that well at the combine. He ranked as our 145th overall defensive tackle, generating just 26 combined pressures in 345 rushes. In contrast, Shilique Calhoun ranked second amongst defensive ends with a very strong pass-rush grade. He amassed 76 combined pressures (28 knockdowns), second-most amongst edge defenders. Calhoun represents an absolute steal in the third round.

The profession of backup QB has never been so lucrative, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the impact of losing a starting signal-caller can have on a season. Connor Cook still makes too many bad decisions, but he is also capable of hitting any throw from any platform. The question is not of value—we had a third-round grade on Cook—but whether fourth-round picks should be spent on backup QBs.

RB DeAndre Washington and G Vadal Alexander can both provide depth. Running back is one of the few positions on a stacked Raiders’ roster where a late-round pick has a chance to earn playing time. Washington broke 67 combined tackles in 2015 and made his fair-share of big plays.

Finally, undersized pass-rusher Cory James can make an impact on special teams while he tries to transition to a linebacker role in Oakland.

Conclusion

The Raiders added probably five starters in free agency and the draft who will make an instant impact. Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, and Karl Joseph could take the secondary from good to excellent. Bruce Irvin and Shilique Calhoun should ensure that fresh edge rushers consistently disrupt opposing quarterbacks. Retaining Donald Penn and signing Kelechi Osemele could transform the Raiders’ front five into the top unit in the league. If their younger players added in previous years can also take the next step, then Oakland will be a frightening proposition in 2016.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • Gene Y.

    Nice article! Sums up the off season well and puts the correct spin on the draft. Good job!

  • winbabywinwin

    Good article on FA,s but way to soon to talk players chosen in draft.

    • joelhindy1

      You have to talk about them at some point. It’s all based on potential nothing concrete but they still need to be mentioned since it is an off season grade.

  • Boltfan619

    The raiders look great on paper. Now let’s see what they can do with that talent on field assuming they don’t implode.

    • X-raiderd 1

      Chargers suck! Just win baby!

    • X-raiderd 1

      Implode? U ain’t got to worry about that, what you should worry about is the raiders exploding a gang of points on the sorry chArgers. We gonna sweep the sorry chargers again! JUST WIN BABY!

    • Mike Riley

      Don’t know if implode is the term to use here. The team has bought into what this staff is selling. Also unlike previous stops in Denver & Seattle respectively, both Del Rio & Norton Jr have adapted to their team’s shortcomings. They blitzed more this past season than the final previous season at their last stops combined. They will be competitive undoubtedly but improvement solely rests on health to key contributors. If any of our nucleus is lost for any significant amounts of time we don’t have the depth other than at pass rusher to compensate for those losses especially at qb or secondary.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Teams usually implode because they put all their eggs in one basket but the Raiders have rebuilt with a balanced approach upgrading on both sides of the ball. Barring serious injuries they should be able to make a strong run at the playoffs.

  • X-raiderd 1

    Raiders#1

  • DJH

    Not gonna finish ahead of the Broncos. Say goodbye Oakland because the Faiders are moving to Las Vegas.

    • codered5

      The broncos have horrific qbs and they are not going to be the first team in league history to have back to back historically great defenses. Not to mention their run game is mediocre. I wouldn’t mind the raiders going to vegas if vegas could sustain the fan support. It can’t of course(it has a quarter the population of the bay area and it isn’t as close to la or the bay as they’d have you believe for plausible travel) but mark davis is such a contrarian he’d go there just because the league would prefer he be in oakland. I think ownership would move there but even vegas is hesitant to give him a ton of public money so this is a horse and pony show.

      • DJH

        Before Carr’s first year it could be said the Raiders had horrible QBs. Lynch is in the same league talent wise as Carr. Right now he doesn’t have quite the accuracy but is a more mobile QB. The Broncos will have CJ Anderson, DeVante Booker (Mayock’s 2nd ranked RB), and Ronnie Hillman. I would take these guys any day of the week. The Broncos regular season defense was not historical but the postseason D was up there. They can be better during the season this year.
        You are probably right about the horse and pony show. Davis inherited his father’s P.T. Barnum persona but is actually letting Reggie run the personnel department (wise move). Honestly, I think the Raiders will be better this year but the Broncos have more depth and better coaching which will lead, at least this year, to another AFC West title. Maybe next year will be Oakland’s year.

        • Ron

          Lynch is overrated,the gay weeble will be a huge bust,brainless and not worthy if a trade up..Get used to last place,last yr was a gift from the Steelers minus Antonio Brown not playing

          • DJH

            Fat ugly ass–I thought you were talking about Madden. Broncos would have covered Brown the second time around. You guys couldn’t cover him in the playoffs. Oh, I forgot, you didn’t make the playoffs did you? Lynch is the perfect QB to run Kubiak’s Offense. Raiders will probably finish 3rd again behind the Broncs and the Chiefs. Then I see them taking a one way road trip to Vegas. Enjoy sitting at home during the playoffs again and again and again…. Just be mediocre baby!

          • Michael Nguyen

            When was the last time a rookie quarterback took his team to the playoffs? By the way, Las Vegas is about a 3 1/2 to 4 hours drive from Los Angeles or a one hour flight from LAX and a short 90 minutes flight from San Francisco international. So put down the weed and join the rest of us in the real world.

        • codered5

          I have news for you the Raider’s qb situation was horrible when car was a rookie. I do believe the Broncos were an all time great defense last year but that doesn’t happen in consecutive years. I love booker but health is an issue cj anderson and I are from the same town so I wish he didn’t have the health issues. You really have a bay area backfield wI think those two but I digress. I can’t see denver having that juggernaut of a regular season or postseason defense to keep the Broncos on top while lynch matures. Ideally he doesn’t see the field next year. Carr played a couple years in a pro-style offense before going to basically pure spread at fresno. Even with that carr did presnap stuff and basically ran the entire offense himself out of no huddle.Lynch is your classic spread guy with the check with me signs where the coaches do that presnap stuff on the sideline, so he has a longer adjustment coming. I don’t think the Raiders when the division this year but kc has talent and stability and yes coaching on their side. I’m sorry Kubiak is at best tied with del rio and behind reid. Obviously Philips is a beast.

          • DJH

            Kubiak and Elway teamed up to just win the Superbowl. The Broncos were not the best regular season defense last year so there is room for improvement. They are stacked on all three levels. The running game will be better. The line will be better.
            The Raiders will be better but top to bottom they still don’t have the talent and depth the Broncos have accumulated. It should be a competitive division this year but the Broncos will win it again.

          • codered5

            You are nuts. That bronco defense was one for the ages. There were teams with better stats but the Broncos faced pretty much every top offense last year. The quarterbacks they faced were a whos who of pffs top 15 graded qbs. You’ll see the difference this year. No team that didn’t have a historic defense has won the super bowl with “sub-optimal, near-replacement-level quarterbacking.” The Broncos had “sub-optimal, near-replacement-level quarterbacking” so the defense had to be excellent to make up. It’s not likely that the Broncos have a repeat without malik jackson on defense. Even if they allow fewer points the defense will regress because the defense scored a lot last year and anyone that knows any thing about defensive scoring is that it is one of the stats most subject to regression in following years

        • Michael

          Did you really just put LYNCH in the same bracket as CARR??? Have you lost your mind lol?
          And think this; we have so many players on our front 7 that we can rotate , that are all very talented. Saying that , the opposing qb won’t have much time to make an un-pressured throw , which means that our secondary won’t have to over play like the past years and risk called for injury and ouunourront rotating 7 will get all rest needed to stay healthy…Do you even watch football???

        • raider_harvey

          Even if lynch was in the same league as Carr that wouldn’t help you this year, takes a while to gel in the nfl, especially behind that horrible line.

      • Michael Nguyen

        WTF? The Raiders and the city of Las Vegas just put out a promotional video regarding the Raiders possible move to Las Vegas. By the way, Las Vegas is about a 3 1/2 to 4 hours drive from Los Angeles or a one hour flight from LAX and a short 90 minutes flight from San Francisco international. So put down the weed and join the rest of us in the real world.

      • Joseph Alsko

        I’ve been a Raider fan since ’73 and my Dad and I drove an 8 hour round trip to every game from ’77 to ’81. I live in Colorado now and will buy at least two season tickets if the Raiders move to Vegas. I also have friends here who will do the same. Not every fan needs to be from Vegas. There will be a lot from SoCal too.

    • Ron

      Pony’s won’t see the playoffs this yr,remember me,when they don’t see anything but Elway’s ugly fat ass,bringing up the rear

    • HTTRer

      Ahh… Don’t bet your life on it.

  • DJH

    Time to leave the thread when a 12-year-old starts spewing infantile insults. For the grown up Raider fans good luck with the season and may the best team win.

    • Ron

      Awww,hit a soft/hard spot?…You weak twink..I guarantee raiders win both games this yr,and it won’t be close… Remember this thread

    • Samuel Charles

      Starts by posting this:

      “Not gonna finish ahead of the Broncos. Say goodbye Oakland because the Faiders are moving to Las Vegas.”

      Ends by pointing fingers about infantile insults.

      .

      Yup. Sounds like a donkey fan.

      .

  • Raiders4life

    Great article. It shows you put time into writing it.

  • KK RN4L

    RN4L Cant wait for our season to start this year we are going to show the world why we are the only Nation our Raider Nation

  • Jim Vickers

    Good article. One thing though, Raiders secondary wasn’t good last season. It was awful. May want to edit that. Pretty good analysis overall though.