The Oakland Raiders came into the offseason with salary cap issues and needing to improve a team that finished a disappointing 8-8 last season. New general manager Reggie McKenzie was hired to reshape the Raiders’ front office and establish a new philosophy to guide the team into the future.
McKenzie has a plan and as time passes his philosophies will slowly be revealed. So far, McKenzie has made a flurry of moves designed to help the Raiders reach short-term and long-term goals such as getting under the salary cap and shedding back-loaded contracts that would have handicapped his plans in 2013 and beyond.
A lot of activity doesn’t always indicate a lot of change. As it stands, the Raiders will return 16 of 22 starters.
What does the Raiders activity or lack of activity mean for the team in 2012?
1. Reggie McKenzie wants to win and knows how to build a team to do it.
Overreacting, overvaluing and overpaying is not a recipe for success in the NFL. The most successful teams find value. Making a big splash is free agency is usually a recipe for failure.
The top free agents are almost always overvalued and no team loses a player they truly want to keep.
Without the cap flexibility, the Raiders were never going to be big players in free agency, but instead of signing one top free agent and overpaying for his services, McKenzie has already brought in two value free agents at positions of significant need.
McKenzie knows building a winner requires patience. Even with limited cap space the Raiders should be able to sign a handful of free agents that can help the team for a reasonable price.
The moves being made aren’t just moves to help the team in the future, but moves that can have a positive impact on the win total in 2012.
2. The Raiders may struggle to find a natural pass rush.
With the release of Kamerion Wimbley, the Raiders lose their best edge rusher. Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly will continue to apply pressure up the middle, but the Raiders lack a natural edge rusher.
A healthy Matt Shaughnessy will help the pass rush, but the Raiders will still have to rely on the blitz much more than they ever have before.
The struggle with the blitz is that elite quarterbacks can beat it consistently and the Raiders’ division could be adding another in the form of Peyton Manning to go along with Philip Rivers.
McKenzie still has time to find a natural edge rusher, but as it stands the Raiders will have to manufacture pressure on the quarterback.
Allen’s entire defense hinges on the team’s ability to get a pass rush, so the blitzing safeties and linebackers will have to execute in their new roles.
3. Darren McFadden’s health is vitally important.
Dennis Allen hinted that the Raiders would look into if the practice fields were contributing to the high-rate of foot injuries the team had sustained over the last few years. If the Raiders’ practice field has contributed to foot and leg injuries, McFadden has been hurt by it the most.
Michael Bush is testing the free agent market and is likely to find a team that will make him a full-time starter. That leaves Taiwan Jones and Marcel Reece to backup McFadden.
Jones and Reece are both very capable, but neither are proven running the ball or carrying the load when an injured starter goes down.
With Carson Palmer in the fold, the team can survive without McFadden, but if the team has playoff aspirations McFadden must stay healthy.
4. The offensive line is in flux again.
The Raiders offensive line has been in a constant state of change over the past decade. Tom Cable and the zone-blocking scheme initially brought some success, but that quickly faded and the Raiders began the transition back to the man blocking scheme over the past two seasons.
Greg Knapp’s return to Oakland means the zone-blocking scheme is coming back and the Raiders return only two of the five starters on the offensive line from a season ago.
To solidify the offensive line, the Raiders signed right guard Mike Brisiel from the Houston Texans. Brisiel is a solid zone-blocking guard that will provide a nice upgrade over Cooper Carlisle. Brisiel may also help implement the scheme as he is familiar with Knapp and offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
The question remains what the Raiders will do at right tackle, left guard and center. Stefen Wisniewski will either stay at guard or move to center and the Raiders will need to address whichever position Wisniewski doesn’t play.
The theory behind the zone-blocking scheme is that high-priced lineman are not required if the team knows what traits to look for in an offensive lineman. The Raiders will put the theory to the test in 2012.
Jared Veldheer and Stefen Wisniewski will also have to learn the zone-blocking system. Both should be able to pick up the scheme and both have traits that should translate, but it’s still something new and developing a new skill takes time away from their development of existing skills.
The Raiders should be able to run the ball, but pass protection could be an issue when the line might have three new starters.
Perhaps Joseph Barksdale is ready to compete for a starting job and maybe the zone-scheme can salvage Bruce Campbell’s career.
In the end, the offensive line could be a strength or a weakness of this team. We’ll just have to wait and see.
5. The Raiders will be much better in coverage.
The Raiders released 2011 starters Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, but brought back Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch. After a terrible year in coverage, a few changes were merited and McKenzie has started the process of solidifying the secondary.
McKenzie signed Ron Bartell to play cornerback on a modest one-year deal. It’s the kind of bargain contract that can pay huge dividends for the Raiders if Bartell is fully recovered from a neck injury he sustained early last season.
Bartell is 30 and had seven solid seasons in St. Louis before being released. He still has all the physical tools to be successful and he can obviously play, but even if there was some question if Bartell had lost a step, McKenzie is known for his ability to tell which players can play and which players can’t.
The Raiders have to figure out what to do on the other cornerback position. One option is free agent cornerback Tracy Porter who will have a visit with the team later this week according to Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Porter is a young cornerback with the skills that will fit what Dennis Allen likes to do on defense. Porter’s best seasons came when Allen was his position coach in New Orleans.
Allen’s defense will help take the pressure off the secondary, but the changes have already been positive and McKenzie should continue to add solid depth.