On Feb. 27, the preseason begins. That is the date of the free agency signing period. It’s a time when drama reigns in the NFL. Some players will re-sign, others will change teams, and some will be cut unceremoniously. Every week there will be a new mock draft, and sports beat writers will be in a frenzy trying to keep up with the rapid changes that are the NFL offseason.
Now that Tom Cable has shaken the interim tag and has earned the right to coach the 2009 Oakland Raiders, he will immediately face the huge challenge of re-signing or replacing players that have become icons of the Raiders locker room. Losing these players would change the team’s dynamics and will certainly affect the concepts and play design that would be in place if they stayed in Oakland.
When the conversation of free agency in Oakland is mentioned, there is not one, but two huge elephants in the room: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and punter Shane Lechler. Both players are going to the Pro Bowl. Both are the best in the NFL at their positions.
The hope is that Asomugha will get a lucrative offer right away and choose to stay in Oakland. He’s a California native who loved the Raiders growing up. For him to move would be a big decision for him and his family. Regardless, he has expressed interest in entertaining offers from other teams.
The Raiders could also slap him with the franchise tag like they did last year, but if Asomugha and the Raiders can’t agree on a contract, then it’s likely that the tag will have to be removed due to salary cap constraints.
The other option is to trade Asomugha after he has been tagged, but if the asking price is too high, teams will surely wait until the tag is removed to avoid losing draft picks and/or valuable players.
If Oakland chooses not to franchise Asomugha, it will be because they have plans on franchising Lechler. His punting skills will likely make him the best punter in NFL history before his career ends. He would be a more realistic candidate for the franchise tag due to the fact that the Raiders would be able to easily afford his salary.
Other free agents include center Jake Grove, cornerback Chris Johnson, and special teams standout Isaiah Ekejiuba, who was voted an alternate in the Pro Bowl. The chances that the Raiders can re-sign all three are good, but if they did choose to leave, they would be difficult to replace.
The other storm brewing off the Raiders' coast is keeping the Three-Headed Monster happy. The running back combination of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush has already been challenging to Tom Cable. He has been criticized by many for not creating plays that best utilize their talents. All three of these players would be the featured back on 10 or more NFL teams.
Darren McFadden will be the eventual featured back for the Raiders. The adjustment to the NFL has been surreal; he has yet to use the breakaway speed that made him a commodity in the draft. Turf toe has kept him from running at full speed much of the season, and juking open field defenders has been an Achilles' heel, a learning curve that he has yet to master.
Michael Bush was often overlooked in the running game; if he did manage to get in the game, it was usually in the fourth quarter, and the game was all but over. Under protest, Bush was switched to fullback in midseason after Oren O’Neil and Justin Griffith both had season-ending injuries.
Finally, in the last game of the season with McFadden and Fargas injured, Bush racked up a whopping 177 yards rushing on 27 carries with a 6.6 yard per carry average. It was the best performance by a Raider running back last season.
Justin Fargas has been one of the few bright spots in the locker room the last few years. He gives 110 percent on every play. His tough and hard-hitting style has been an example of hard work paying off. He has been the featured back and is the most well rounded of the three.
At 29 years old though, Fargas is in the twilight of his career. Often when running backs turn 30, they hit an invisible wall and their YPC drops significantly. Youngster and preseason star Louis Rankin carries many of Fargas’ attributes, which could make Fargas expendable. Al Davis has a hard time parting with loyal players, but if Fargas moves down on the depth chart, he may ask for a trade, or to be released.
Once again, the Raiders find themselves pushing up against the cap. Unless Javon Walker offers to retire again (I am still praying), options will be limited. Tom Cable’s personnel moves during the season have been trustworthy. With so many challenges that are facing this team in the offseason, Cable’s mettle will be tested.
It is conceivable that the core of the team could have an entirely different makeup by the beginning of next season. But that’s life in the NFL.