When Reggie McKenzie was hired in January 2012, the Raiders had a myriad of salary cap issues, a dearth of draft picks and no elite players. Nearly two and half years later, two of those three issues have been alleviated, but the most important remains; the Raiders have no elite players.
Most look at the Raiders barren cupboard of talent as an indictment against McKenzie, which to a degree is foolish. Team building is about trade-offs. Pre-McKenzie, Al Davis traded in continuity, long-term stability and salary cap flexibility year after year in his futile attempts to win now. He signed mediocre talent to mega-deals and continually swung and missed on high draft picks. His failure had significant long-term ramifications and everybody knew it. When he passed away, Hue Jackson ascended to power and traded 843 draft picks for Carson Palmer, who came fully equipped with pick-sixes aplenty and yet another terrible contract.
The pre-McKenzie Raiders were kind of like hoarders. Their house was a mess of colossal proportions and under Davis they never did anything about it. They needed a sensible person to come in and clean out the giant piles of garbage and rat feces, which is exactly what McKenzie’s done. He has purged the Raiders of bad contracts and has set them up to have cap flexibility and draft picks moving forward. And when he was hired, everybody agreed that was what he needed to do.
The third and final step of the rebuild is to add talent. Coming into this offseason, expectations were high, but unrealistic. The Raiders had a ton of cap space, but very little capital in free agency. Again, there are trade-offs. It’s nearly impossible to bring in blue-chip free agents after two seasons of losing and purging salaries. It doesn’t help that the Coliseum is the worst venue in the league. But for all the obstacles he’s had to overcome, McKenzie certainly isn’t devoid of criticism.
He hit rough waters at the onset of free agency. The Raiders lost Jared Veldheer and LaMarr Houston, two fan favorites who ended up with Arizona and Chicago, respectively, on reasonable contracts. For a team that needs talent, it was tough to see them let two of their best players walk. They overpaid for Roger Saffold, a move that was almost universally scoffed at, before losing him too after he failed a physical. McKenzie wasn’t able to reel in any of the biggest fish, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The Raiders had interest in Darrelle Revis, but he shockingly (not shockingly) didn’t want to play in Oakland. They also had interest in DeSean Jackson, who signed with Washington.
Free agency isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon and McKenzie overcame a turbulent start to add some nice talent with Oakland’s abundance of cap space. He added solid veterans the defense in LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith to bolster the pass rush, as well as cornerbacks Carlos Rodgers and Tarell Brown to man the secondary. On offense, they made one of the better signings of the off-season in prying receiver James Jones away from the Packers. Throw in a few competent offensive linemen – Austin Howard, Donald Penn, Kevin Boothe – and two cheap, low-risk running backs in Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew, who have potential to yield high reward. McKenzie also dealt a sixth round pick to Houston for embattled quarterback Matt Schaub.
McKenzie was patient and didn’t hand out any egregious contracts. This is what smart teams do. They build through the draft and pick their spots in free agency. Fans wanted the Raiders to be like the Redskins or Dolphins and throw giant contracts at the biggest free agents, but McKenzie was never in position to do that. He shouldn’t have anyways.
Now, it’s time to build through the draft. Last season, McKenzie’s top picks failed to live up to expectations, though they were seen initially as long-term investments anyways. Rarely are rookie defensive backs good (see Kareem Jackson), and DJ Hayden was no exception. The book on Menelik Watson was that he was a raw talent that needed to be molded. Both players battled injuries and failed to make positive impacts. McKenzie also stuck out badly on fourth rounder Tyler Wilson.
But the 2013 draft was by no means a failure. McKenzie’s reputation as a great evaluator of talent became apparent in some of the Raiders’ latter picks. He grabbed linebacker Sio Moore in the third round and found a pair of solid sixth rounders in Mychal Rivera and Stacy McGee. Undrafted free agent quarterback Matt McGloin came in and showed some modest promise as a long-term backup.
The Raiders have accumulated a decent mix of veterans and young guys with upside, but it’s not nearly enough. They need elite players. They’ve got to get them through this draft.
The nice thing about this year’s crop is that there’s a lot of talent at the top of the board. When the Raiders pick fifth, there will be impact players available. Last year’s draft was problematic in that it was seen as being deep, but there weren’t many guys worth taking at the third pick. McKenzie traded down – to get Hayden at 12 – and may do so again tonight.
Yesterday, Vox had a good piece (maybe there is hope for the Raiders!) about how teams should trade down more and trade up less. It’s a philosophy I’ve been committed to for a while now. Evaluators put a ton of effort into scouting hundreds of players every year, but in the end it’s mostly a crapshoot. Teams are essentially making educated guesses with their picks. Why not give yourself as many chances as possible to get good players? Even the best coaches and talent evaluators miss on guys – Bill Walsh called Rick Mirer the “next Joe Montana.” Not only does stockpiling picks give teams more chances at hitting on an impact player, but also gives them added trade collateral.
It looks like the Raiders may have options to move down from number five, if they so choose. Maybe Johnny Manziel falls past the Browns and a team gets greedy. Sammy Watkins is seen as the best receiver in a really deep receiver draft. If he’s there at five, maybe the 49ers move some of their 956 draft picks to get him. If I’m McKenzie, the 49ers are a team I’d want to be talking to. They have a lot of picks and the Raiders have a lot of spots to fill.
The biggest question mark on the roster is obviously at quarterback. It’s increasingly harder to compete in todays pass happy NFL if you don’t have a franchise guy at that spot. The Raiders don’t, and need one. Schaub is a stopgap guy at best, and even those guys aren’t guaranteed to even be mediocre. Matt Flynn was atrocious last season. This draft boasts some really intriguing quarterbacks, but no sure-fire franchise guys. I like Teddy Bridgewater best of the group, but he has small ankles and had a mediocre pro-day and has thus taken a tumble down draft boards. Blake Bortles has lot of talent, but is seen as more of a long-term project. McKenzie might not have time to wait on him.
The Raiders, along with half the league, reportedly love Derek Carr. They just don’t love him at the fifth pick. Maybe they look at the Jets at 18 as a potential trade partner. Moving up for a receiver in this draft isn’t a great idea, but teams seem open to it. It makes a lot of sense for the Raiders to draft Watkins, or Mike Evans, and then move him to another team.
And while trading down seems like the smart thing to do, it isn’t the only way to work the draft. We’ve seen teams like the Falcons and Redskins make huge moves to trade up and grab impact players. It’s a higher-risk, higher-reward strategy. The Raiders likely won’t move up from five, but it’s possible they end up trading back into the first round.
It’s all about value. McKenzie might pull the trigger on a deal that would allow the Raiders to move up from 36 into the late first round. Most would give McKenzie a standing ovation if he somehow came out of the first round with Watkins and Carr without giving up the kitchen sink to do it. Conversely, if he gets desperate to grab Carr and ends up overpaying, he’d be making the same type of mistakes that put the Raiders in this situation to begin with. Judging by his history though, McKenzie doesn’t seem likely to do that.
It’s hard to see him coming out of a third straight draft without an impact star; he needs to grab at least one. McKenzie is out of excuses and seemingly out of time. Another 4-12 season won’t be acceptable and would almost certainly result in him looking for other employment. Whatever he decides to do in the draft, it’ll be his way. I still believe in the Reggie McKenzie way. Unfortunately for him, I seem to be in the minority.
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Believe it or not, the NFL did the Raiders a favor with the 2014 schedule. Sure, it’s tough schedule, but the opponents are predetermined. The order matters, but the NFL did everything they could to make it easier on the Raiders.
In Week 1, the Raiders travel to the eastern time zone to face the Jets. There was no way to avoid the travel, but playing that game in Week 1 eliminates some of the issues with the early start on the east coast. The Raiders can even get to the east coast a day early if they want. The Raiders have to travel to the east coast, but doing so in Week 1 or after a bye is the ideal time to do it.
The Raiders then come home and play what was the worst team in the league last year. Basically, the Raiders got the easiest home opponent on their schedule for their home opener. If the travel hurt the Raiders, at least they will have had a chance to get a win at home.
In Week 3, the Raiders head back to the east coast to play the Patriots. It’s brutal travel, but it was going to be brutal no matter when it happened. In this case, the Week 3 games is also for good reason. By playing in New England in Week 3, the Raiders can leave from the east coast for London. That’s a savings of 3000 travel miles had the Raiders left for London from the west coast.
The Raiders have a bye week after the game in London to get readjusted to the pacific time zone.
In Weeks 6 and 7, the Raiders get to stay home. No travel for three weeks after coming back from London is as good as it gets. The Raiders then go to Cleveland, who are arguably their weakest road opponent.
From Week 8 onward, the Raiders alternate home and away games. That means no tough road stretches. Playing in Seattle with Denver at home the following week is tough, but keep in mind that the Raiders play on the west coast for almost the entire month of November (at Seattle and San Diego, home against Denver and Kansas City).
The Raiders play the 49ers and BIlls at home in December. I don’t see how you can take issue with that, the opponents are the opponents. They do play two cold-weather games in Kansas City and Denver, but if the Broncos have nothing to play for in Week 17 the Raiders may get a free win.
There are only one or two tweaks to the schedule that would make it more ideal for the Raiders. Not playing Denver and Seattle in back-to-back weeks and trying to put one of the other cold-weather games in November instead of December. Ideally, the Raiders would have played St. Louis December 14th, Kansas City November 2nd and Seattle November 30th.
Overall, the Raider Nation has very little to complain about. The schedule doesn’t matter. Just Win, Baby!
Thanks to the great people at Draft Breakdown, I’ve been able to watch cutups of a lot of draft prospects over the last two years. One thing that has always bothered me is having to trust rankings and player opinions of other people. I don’t regularly watch college football, but even if I did, I couldn’t possible watch enough to evaluate draft prospects. A guy might jump off the screen, but otherwise you are missing a lot. There is also a big difference between focusing on a single player and watching a game—different things matter.
Here is a list of guys I liked a lot last year:
Star Lotulelei – My favorite player in the draft. The whole package.
Barkevious Mingo – My favorite pass-rusher. Flexibility with room to improve.
Sheldon Richardson – Liked him almost as much as Lotulelei. Impact player on every down in college.
D.J. Hayden – Didn’t get to watch him until late like most people, but he and Xavier Rhodes were 1A/1B at the cornerback position to me. Don’t give up on him yet Raider Nation.
Tyler Wilson – I learned that the quarterback position is a different animal with this one. What we don’t know about a player is even more important. In this case, Wilson’s struggles learning protections.
Eric Fisher – Rocky start to his career in KC, but has time to develop.
Arthur Brown – We’ll see if he gets more playing time this year.
Christine Michael – He will take over for Lynch eventually.
Markus Wheaton – Taking over a starting job this year. Could be a good fantasy value.
Kawann Short – Could see he was going to be a good interior rusher if he developed a little bit.
Datone Jones – Limited impact as a rookie, but I think he’ll be a solid player at the very least. Gil Brandt of NFL.com thinks he’ll have a big season in 2014.
I’m sure there were others players I liked, but these are the guys I remember. If there were others, feel free to remind me. It’s far too early to judge the class, but I’d say I have a pretty good eye for talent save the quarterback position.
Guys I didn’t like as much as other people:
Dion Jordan – I still liked him, but I felt like he wasn’t going to be an every-down player for a year or two.
Alec Ogletree – Athlete playing football.
Tavon Austin – Size does matter. Didn’t like him in the first round at all.
D.J. Fluker – Not as a tackle. Feet too slow in pass pro.
Jarvis Jones – Scheme made him good in college, but talent was never that great.
Desmond Trufant – Needed right scheme. Turns out, he landed in the perfect one.
Dee Milliner – NFL-level talent, but had a lot to learn about playing the position in the pros.
Sharrif Floyd – Impact greatly overstated. Short arms were a legit concern.
Bjoern Werner – One-trick pony. Talent not good enough to use that trick to great effect in the pros.
Manti Te’o – Always lost in the wash. Not an elite athlete.
Geno Smith – Had potential, but never looked like a first-round quarterback to me.
Just because I didn’t like them as much as others, doesn’t mean I didn’t see potential or wouldn’t have drafted them at some point. Smith ended up being drafted about where I thought he should. Same with Te’o. Fluker turned out to be good in San Diego’s offense, but would have been a nightmare in a pass-heavy one. Again, if I missed any, remind me and I will add them.
There isn’t as much to this scouting thing as some would have you believe. The reason some scouts never advance is that they don’t have an eye for talent or they aren’t willing to voice a strong opinion because they are too afraid of being wrong. That’s not to say you can become a scout easily or without some knowledge, but there are plenty of people not employed by NFL teams doing great scouting work.
2014 prospects I like better than their consensus ranking (in no particular order):
Odell Beckham Jr. - If he was a little bigger, people would think he’s the best in the class. If the Raiders got him at No. 5, I would not be disappointed.
Kyle Fuller - He does everything pretty well and has room to grow.
Zach Mettenberger - He has his issues, but most of them can be corrected. He may sit a year due to the knee injury anyway, making him an interesting target in the second round.
David Fales – If he can develop some arm strength, he’s got everything else you look for in a franchise guy.
Jarvis Landry – He’s not a burner, but he’s fast enough. Reminds me of guys like Hines Ward, Anquan Boldin and Jason Avant. Ceiling may be a little limited, but his floor is high.
Brandin Cooks - Slot receivers are becoming more and more important. Cooks is like a smaller Beckham.
Khalil Mack – He can do it all. He’s not quite Von Miller as a pass-rusher, but he’s still quite good. At SAM in a 4-3 is a great spot for him.
Greg Robinson – He has some pass pro limitations, but as I learned from Fluker last year, his length will help him overcome it. He has lighter feet than Fluker, so he has more upside and should be able to play on the left. He’s a beast in the run game. At worst, he’s an All-Pro guard.
Kony Ealy – Underrated pass-rusher.
Scott Crichton – Reminds me of Lamarr Houston, but with more upside as a pass-rusher.
Aaron Donald - Can be a liability against the run, so I might put him outside on early downs or surround him with a good nose and inside backer. He’s so quick once he starts moving, but I found his snap anticipation to be lacking at times. He’s going to be a good interior rusher, but he might not be a three-down player initially.
Sammy Watkins – I have concerns about him being elite at the NFL level because of his build and athleticism, but he does everything so well that I can’t not love him.
Players I don’t like as much as the consensus:
Mike Evans – Can he separate? If so, he’ll be the best in the class. I’m not convinced he can separate from NFL cornberbacks and get open without pushing off.
Kelvin Benjamin – He’s big, but that’s about it. Effort is iffy. Routes are sloppy. Stay away.
Anthony Barr – Inconsistent. Could be very good, but I am not taking him in the top 10.
Johnny Manziel – He’s Terrelle Pryor and Tim Tebow wrapped into a slightly different package. If those guys had developed into good passers, they might have been the next big thing. Manziel has a chance, but even if he does his size and style of play could lead to injury. Unlike Tebow and Pryor, he’ll also have to compensate for his lack of height. Huge risk. I’d take him in the second round.
Blake Bortles – So much work to do, but looks the part. Not the kind of quarterback I want in the top five. Needs to sit a year.
Jadeveon Clowney – I’d still love to have his talent, but is he Julius Peppers or Albert Haynesworth?
Listen in as I discuss DeSean Jackson, review free agency and discuss next steps for the Oakland Raiders.
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The NFL requires every team to spend 89% of the salary cap in cash over a four-year period from 2013-2016. The Raiders spend just $63.4 million in cash last season, leaving a $46.1 million deficit to makeup over the next three years.
This can be made up by giving large signing bonuses or roster bonuses to free agents in any of the next three seasons. However, signing bonuses are prorated and would create dead money if that player is released in the future.
The better way to do things is use the available funds to give large roster bonuses, which is exactly what the Raiders are doing. Instead of trying to make up the cash deficit in one year by giving out large signing bonuses, it makes more sense to chip away at it a little bit every year. General manager Reggie McKenzie has been described as a slow and methodical man, so this is likely the route he will go.
Below is a chart that included the current cash the Raiders have devoted to the roster through 2016 according to overthecap.com. These numbers can adjust downwards if a player is cut prior to the expiration of their deal. If that happens, the Raiders would have to make up for it with more spending.
What you will see here is also the minimum needed to spend 89% of each year. No team has to hit the minimum in any one year, but they will have to make it up in the other three if they don’t. Some teams spent a lot of cash in 2013, so they can spend less in 2014, 2015 and/or 2016 if they wish.
|Year||Cash Spending||Cap||%||Min to stay on schedule||Deficit|
Spending can be broken up into two parts. Rookie spending and spending on free agents or extensions. The Raiders don’t have many players that are currently deserving of extension and only the 2013 rookie class will be able to renegotiate their deals by 2016. An extension for linebacker Sio Moore would be possible.
Per overthecap.com’s 2014 rookie pool breakdown, I determined that roughly 75% of the total rookie value contracts will be paid in the next three years. Assuming similar structure going forward, there would be 50% of 2015′s rookie contracts and 25% of 2016 rookie contracts.
Taking what is necessary to spend, adding rookie contracts leaves a remainder of what must be spent to reach 89% each year. Add to that the $15.4 million each year to makeup for 2013′s deficit.
|Year||Rookie Cash Total||Rookie Cash 2013-2016||Current Cash Spend||Cap (Estimated 2015/2016)||FA Spending to Stay on Schedule||Deficit Catch-up From 2013||Total Cash For Free Agents|
Christopher Hansen stays up late to bring you an after dark version of the podcast discussing free agency.
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Christopher Hansen and Taylor Armosino dive into the future of Dennis Allen in a marathon podcast.
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