Oakland Raiders: 5 Quick Ways to Improve the NFL's Worst Roster
The Oakland Raiders weren’t good in 2012, and they probably aren’t going to be much better in 2013. Thanks to a roster that general manager Reggie McKenzie had to break down before he could rebuild it, the Raiders have one of the worst rosters in the league.
In many ways, the Raiders are facing one of the most important offseasons in their history. The Raiders have a new front office that McKenzie has spent the last year renovating and a first-round pick. The Raiders aren’t likely going to be contenders until 2014 at the earliest, but there’s always a chance that things turn around more quickly than expected.
Ryan Grigson took over a roster that in many respects was one of the worst in football in 2011 and turned them into a playoff team. The separation is so small between the best teams and the worst teams that a few tweaks can go a long way.
Andrew Luck certainly helped the Colts get to 11-5, and the Raiders will get no such reprieve, but Grigson drafted well and used limited cap space wisely. There are things the Raiders can do to turn things around quickly like the Colts, but they need a great offseason.
Find a Franchise Quarterback
No matter what you think of Carson Palmer or Terrelle Pryor, the Raiders could use a franchise signal-caller. Maybe Pryor can be that guy, but the Raiders don’t have a lot of time to wait for him to develop.
Pryor is going to get his chance to start in 2013, and you don’t typically get two such opportunities. Pryor’s opportunity has only been made possible because the Raiders best option is currently Palmer.
Palmer’s best years are behind him now, and he’s simply keeping the seat warm for the next guy. It remains a possibility that Palmer will be a cap casualty if he doesn’t clearly look better than the other options on the team during training camp.
If it were easy to find a franchise quarterback, every team would have one. The Raiders are drafting at No. 3 overall, and they have to be open to the possibility of drafting a quarterback, despite other needs on the roster.
Regardless of what people think of Geno Smith and the quarterbacks in this draft, one of them will probably turn into a good professional. The problem is trying to determine which quarterback is worth the risk.
If the Raiders found a franchise quarterback, the rest of the rebuild is significantly easier. A franchise quarterback hides a lot of roster weaknesses. If the Raiders determine that quarterback isn’t in this draft or is not worth the risk, then turning the roster around is going to be that much harder.
Find a Pass-Rusher
It’s a quarterback-driven league now, and the best way to counter it is with a good pass rush. If a franchise quarterback is not available, then the next thing a team needs to look for is a dynamic pass-rusher.
Great pass-rushers are a lot like great quarterbacks because they are rare and usually aren’t available in free agency. The best way to find an elite pass-rusher is to draft one. The Raiders are lucky because the 2013 NFL draft happens to be loaded with pass-rushers, and they will have their choice sitting near the top of the first round.
The Raiders will likely have the opportunity to draft one of Bjoern Werner, Barkevious Mingo, Dion Jordan, Jarvis Jones or Damontre Moore. If the Raiders believe one of these players will develop into a good pass-rusher, then they should be the pick.
Finding a pass-rusher does not come without some issues such as injury risk or run defense. If you draft a player to play linebacker, he also needs to be able to cover from time to time. Improving the pass rush at the expense of another area is like taking two steps forward and one step back.
Build Around Darren McFadden
The 2010 Oakland Raiders had the sixth-best scoring offense with Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback. The top receiver was actually tight end Zach Miller. The top two wide receivers were Louis Murphy and Jacoby Ford, and they combined for just 1,070 yards on 66 catches.
The key to the offensive success was Darren McFadden, and he only played in 13 games. Hue Jackson quickly realized that his offense had to put his best player in a position to succeed, so he built the offense around McFadden.
McFadden had 1,664 yards from scrimmage in 2010 and 10 touchdowns. Michael Bush added eight touchdowns as a complement to McFadden. The two-headed monster worked, and the Raiders won eight games, despite a below-average defense.
The Raiders can survive without a lot of great weapons on offense if they get McFadden going. McFadden actually started 2011 better than he did 2010 before getting hurt, which is just a concern the Raiders are going to have to live with for the time being.
Getting McFadden going is a two-fold process that involves running plays he likes and fixing the offensive line. Since the Raiders have a good left tackle and center already, fixing the offensive line is something that is much easier to do in free agency than most positions.
It seems unlikely the Raiders would use the No. 3 overall pick on the offensive line, but it has to be on the table. Getting McFadden going and the switch back to the man-blocking scheme necessitates a line composed of good run-blockers.
Things should become clear here once we know which free agents actually become available and how much they are demanding.
There’s also risk in building around McFadden because he’s entering a contract year. The Raiders may decide to move on in 2014, and they may not want to build around a player who will not be with the team in 2014. Despite this risk, it still seems like the easiest and least expensive way to get the offense back on track.
Find a Reliable Wide Receiver
The NFL is a passing league, and to successfully become a passing team, you need both a quarterback and at least one good wide receiver. Palmer threw for over 4,000 yards in 15 games without a 1,000-yard receiver, and the Raiders weren’t any good in 2012.
Besides the fact that most of the yards Palmer gained were meaningless, the Raiders lacked a true receiving threat. Denarius Moore’s sophomore season was disappointing, and Darrius Heyward-Bey didn’t build on his 2011 campaign.
The best receivers are usually in the playoffs if they also have a quarterback. There are exceptions, but a peak at ProFootballFocus’ grades for wide receivers pretty much proves the point. The best receivers are usually on playoff teams.
Heyward-Bey is probably a cap casualty which leaves the Raiders with Moore, Jacoby Ford, Rod Streater and Juron Criner as the primary targets. The Raiders could use a stud receiver, and they aren’t that easy to find.
There will be options in free agency, but they will probably be out of Oakland’s price range. The Raiders have a nice young group of wide receivers, but the lack of a top option hurts them all. The Raiders will hope that their youngsters mature, but they could certainly use a top receiver to lead them for the next couple of years.
Greg Jennings comes to mind as a veteran receiver with ties to McKenzie from his time in Green Bay. Jennings is 29 years old and played in just eight games in 2012 but should still be a top receiver for the next couple of years if he’s healthy. The price might be right on Jennings, and he’d be a risk worth taking only two years removed from a 1,200-yard season.
Corral a Couple Cornerbacks
A good pass rush helps the secondary, but the two still work in tandem. It doesn’t matter if the defense can apply constant pressure if the cornerbacks get beat immediately. It also doesn’t matter how bad the pass rush is if the cornerbacks can cover all day.
The Raiders don’t have much of a pass rush, and they also don’t have cornerbacks. The Raiders resorted to using Michael Huff at cornerback in 2012 after Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell got hurt. The Raiders will need to bring in at least two players who can push for a starting job.
Last year, McKenzie opted for veteran free agents, and he might do the same again in 2012, but he also has more draft picks to throw at the problem. It didn’t work out for the Raiders in 2012, but the Raiders don’t have a lot of resources to throw at the problem at the moment.
If the Raiders find a pass-rusher and have a little more success getting healthy starting cornerbacks, the defense has a chance to improve drastically.
It’s probably true that the Raiders could improve at just about every position, but they need to focus on areas that have the potential to have the biggest impact. A run-stuffing defensive tackle, safety or stud tight end isn’t going to turn the Raiders around as quickly as a quarterback, pass-rusher or receiver.
Fixing the offense and catering to Darren McFadden is the easy part, and the Raiders should be able to address either quarterback or pass-rusher in the first round of the draft. From there, it gets tough.
A great selection in the third and fourth rounds would really help things, especially if the Raiders can add a cornerback and linebacker. Couple a solid draft with the signing of a few solid free agents and the Raiders would be on the right path heading into a pivotal year three.