Examining Oakland Raiders' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles
And so it goes for the Oakland Raiders: another long season; another strange offseason; another chance to look ahead to the future of the franchise.
It’s been quite a while since we could look at the Raiders without some sense of bewilderment. Once one of professional football’s most successful organizations, Oakland has fallen to the NFL wayside, an island of misfits looking for direction at every level.
And so it goes.
Yet things aren’t always as bad as they seem. Sure, 10 straight non-winning seasons don’t look all that promising for the future of the franchise, especially after a 4-12 record a year ago. Sometimes, though, it takes a complete overhaul to rebuild a foundation, and the Raiders appear to have settled on making the necessary changes at the most important levels.
Call me crazy, but seeing Dennis Allen still at the helm for a second season is one of those necessary changes.
In the last 20 years since Art Shell’s first tenure with the team (six seasons), the Raiders' head coaching position has been a revolving door of discontinuity and unrest, perpetuated by 10 coaching changes and a lot of uncertainty. For NFL franchises to find sustained success, coaching stability has to be at the top of the priority list.
Allen’s return means at least another year for the former defensive coordinator to get his pieces in place. It may seem like an outdated NFL stereotype, but it holds some truth: Building under a new head coach takes more than one season.
The same also holds true for the general manager position.
It’s no secret the late Al Davis has more than one hand in the player personnel aspects of the franchise, and by the end of his time in Oakland, the Raiders had become the laughing stock of the NFL where free agency and the draft were concerned. He was a bright football mind in his earlier years, but his approach to team building wasn’t what the Raiders needed to compete in the modern NFL.
With Davis’ passing in October of 2011, the door opened for Oakland to take a more traditional approach to personnel decisions, hiring former Green Bay Packers director of football operations Reggie McKenzie to hold the general manager position. This wasn’t McKenzie’s first offseason at the helm of the franchise, but it was perhaps his most important.
The one-time Los Angeles Raiders linebacker understands what it means to be part of one of the most storied franchises in the history of the sport. Not all of his decisions have been popular, but there are reasons to be hopeful—or perhaps, more accurately, cautiously optimistic.
McKenzie didn’t make many high-profile signings this offseason, but he did add a bevy of veteran leadership and established talent that included former Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Roach, former Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Pat Sims, cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter and future Hall of Fame defensive back and former Raider Charles Woodson.
Woodson doesn’t have a lot left in the tank—and none of the aforementioned signings were game-changers in any sense—but he’ll certainly provide some leadership and direction for a team long in need of both, as well as some excitement among the fanbase.
But McKenzie created some big question marks with his decisions in April’s draft—decisions that have a vague sense of Davis-like risk.
McKenzie chose to trade down from the No. 3 selection to No. 12, selecting Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden well ahead of his projected draft position. Hayden, who nearly lost his life after a freak injury last season, spent the end of 2012 attempting to recover from the torn vein in his heart.
While no one wants to see Hayden’s injury derail his football career, McKenzie certainly took a huge risk in selecting the cornerback, especially as early as No. 12. It’s a commonly accepted notion for teams to draft the player they want in the first round (regardless of value), but it was a bit of a head-scratcher considering the talent that was still available at that point in the draft—not to mention the players available at Oakland’s original No. 3 position.
If Hayden pans out, McKenzie will look like a genius for his forward thinking and willingness to go against the grain. If he fails to get off the ground at the NFL level, McKenzie will have more questions to answer.
The rest of the draft was smooth sailing for the GM, though, and this offseason has generally been a step in the right direction for the Raiders.
Along with those steps, the Raiders also fired offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and hired Greg Olson to replace him. With Knapp's departure, Oakland is now in a position to once again feature star running back Darren McFadden in a scheme better suited to his running style, abandoning the team's zone-heavy blocking scheme in the process.
We’ll take a closer look at some of those moves, and also break down position battles to watch as the 2013 season approaches.
2013 NFL Draft
Round 1 (Pick 12): CB D.J. Hayden, Houston
Round 2 (Pick 42): OT Menelik Watson, Florida State
Round 3 (Pick 66): LB Sio Moore, Connecticut
Round 4 (Pick 112): QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
Round 6 (Pick 172): TE Nick Kasa, Colorado
Round 6 (Pick 181): RB Latavius Murry, Central Florida
Round 6 (Pick 184): TE Mychal Rivera, Tennessee
Round 6 (Pick 205): DT Stacy McGee, Oklahoma
Round 7 (Pick 209): WR Brice Butler, San Diego State
Round 7 (Pick 233): DE David Bass, Missouri Western
As mentioned, McKenzie’s selection of D.J. Hayden with the 12th pick was a risky decision, but it’s too early to grade the pick. Hayden hasn’t played a down in the NFL, and he certainly has the talent to be a game-changer if he can stay healthy.
In the second round, McKenzie did well to capitalize on value in selecting Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson—a player some expected to find a home in the first round as part of the second-tier of offensive tackles after Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson.
Finding Watson in the second round was a nice surprise for Oakland, which cleared house at the position this offseason. The Florida State product is still raw, but he has massive upside at either tackle position.
In the third round, the Raiders made another wise selection with Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore. While he was widely regarded as a mid-round prospect, McKenzie didn’t exactly reach to acquire him.
Moore will have to earn his time in a now crowded linebacking corps, but he has ample upside and a skill set perfectly suited to the 4-3 weak-side linebacker role. With excellent cover skills and a solid work ethic, Moore won’t have a hard time earning some defensive snaps this season.
But arguably McKenzie’s best value pick came in the fourth round in Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson—another prospect some considered an early-round candidate. In a weak quarterback class, the Raiders were fortunate to find a signal-caller who can potentially develop into a starter with a little experience under his belt.
The following rounds were filled with role players and roster-fillers, but that’s to be expected in the sixth and seventh rounds. If the Raiders can parlay one or two of those players into consistent contributors, the final two rounds of the Raiders’ 2013 draft will have been a success.
In all, Oakland could have done much better with its first-round selection, but subsequent rounds yielded plenty of value and a few players who can be contributors in their formative NFL seasons. It wasn’t a home run, but McKenzie is at least standing on second base after a solid draft.
Fresh Faces Under Center
Perhaps the biggest move of the offseason for the Raiders, former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks backup quarterback Matt Flynn found a new home in Oakland this offseason after McKenzie orchestrated a trade involving two future draft picks.
With Seattle having already found its quarterback of the future in Russell Wilson, Oakland didn’t have to break the bank for Flynn—a 2014 fifth-round pick and 2015 conditional selection being the only compensation. Given the exorbitant price it took to bring in Carson Palmer last offseason, McKenzie could have done much worse in the deal.
Flynn was a hot commodity on the trade market after showing flashes of brilliance backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, but his talent is still very much a question mark as he approaches a 2013 season that will likely hold a starting role for him.
2012 supplemental draft pick Terrelle Pryor saw three games of action with the Raiders last season and will be in line to compete for the starting role in 2013, but as quoted by Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports, Dennis Allen expects Flynn to have the role locked down entering the season.
“Matt's our starting quarterback as we go forward right now. And until the competition dictates otherwise, that's where we're going.”
Pryor offers an athletic skill set and big arm, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he earns the starting job prior to the season. In all likelihood, the Ohio State product will remain in a backup role until Flynn proves he isn’t worthy of the starting job.
As it stands, Tyler Wilson will compete with Pryor for that backup role this offseason, but given the latter’s intriguing skill set and game experience last season, it will take a lot for the Arkansas signal-caller to overtake him on the depth chart—especially with a fourth party garnering some offseason attention.
As noted by ESPN's Chris Mortensen on NFL 32, via RotoWorld.com, undrafted rookie Matt McGloin has made a "huge impression" in Oakland and is pushing Pryor and Wilson. Mortensen believes McGloin could advance up the depth chart if he continues to impress.
It seems unlikely McGloin could work his way into a second-string role with the Raiders, but then again, Pryor and Wilson haven't exactly done enough to warrant a guaranteed spot on the depth chart.
The Raiders have been searching for stability at the position for several years, and sometimes playing the numbers game is the best way to go about finding some. With four youthful signal-callers in the fold, Oakland will have a much better chance of potentially finding a long-term option under center.
Shuffling the Deck
The Raiders allowed defensive tackle Richard Seymour to walk in free agency after voiding his contract, and released fellow veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who later signed with the New England Patriots. Desmond Bryant also departed this offseason, inking a contact with the Cleveland Browns in free agency.
Given the fact that McKenzie passed on several top-tier defensive tackles in the draft, it seems the Raiders have a lot of faith in Pat Sims, Vance Walker, Johnny Jones and Christo Bilukidi to lock down the positions between Lamarr Houston and Jason Hunter. Walker was another solid offseason signing, though he saw limited action in his time with the Atlanta Falcons.
At defensive end, Houston put together a terrific 2012 season with 69 tackles and four sacks. He’s quietly been one of the strongest pieces of Oakland’s defensive line in recent years, though he’ll have to continue taking steps forward if the Raiders are to establish much of a pass rush in 2013.
Hunter spent his last two seasons with the Denver Broncos in a reserve role, but he too should see considerable playing time at defensive end this season. Given the limited depth Oakland has at the position, Hunter will be expected to be a key contributor in Oakland’s edge rush opposite Houston.
Oakland also re-signed 34-year-old defensive end Andre Carter, who ranks eighth among active players with 78.5 career sacks. Carter played in 12 games with the Raiders last season, and as long as age isn’t a concern for the veteran pass-rusher in 2013, he should see plenty of time in a situational role coming off the edge.
It may seem like the Raiders took a step back on the defensive line this offseason, but McKenzie was able to add some youth to the positions and avoid tying up additional cap space in re-upping Kelly and Seymour.
As is often the case, how well Oakland’s defensive front performs this season will come down to potential and coaching, but the unit will certainly be a big question mark entering the 2013 season.
Defensive Line Projections
For all the talk of Matt Flynn’s impact with the team this season, the Raiders didn’t do much to give him help at the receiver position.
Former first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey was left to leave in free agency upon his release, later signing with the Indianapolis Colts. Given the Maryland product’s underwhelming career with the Raiders, it’s no surprise McKenzie opted to not bring him back for roughly $11 million this season.
But with Oakland’s No. 1 receiver out the door, it’s now up to Denarius Moore, Rod Streater and Jacoby Ford to battle it out for the primary receiver role.
Moore is most likely to assume the role after a solid 2012 season in which he caught 51 passes for 741 yards and seven touchdowns. With the Raiders clearly looking to cut salary against the cap and explore cheaper options going forward, Moore’s $555,000 2013 salary will be well worth whatever production he can offer this season.
Streater is another intriguing option, though, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him play a much bigger role in the offense this season. The Temple product caught 39 passes for 584 yards and three touchdowns in 2012, and his mix of size and speed makes him a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2013—should the Raiders get consistent production from Flynn.
Oakland hasn’t produced a 1,000-yard receiver since Randy Moss in 2005, and there’s no indication this will be the year it finally turns one out. But with a couple young options with plenty of upside, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the pair combine for 1,700-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns.
A Solid Secondary
Instead of keying in on overpriced talent and underachieving veterans in free agency, the Raiders opted to play the numbers game in adding a handful of experienced defensive backs who can have an immediately impact on the team’s pass defense this season.
Of course, the biggest question mark is how D.J. Hayden can impact the team following his life-threatening injury and recent surgery to remove scar tissue from his abdomen, per the Associated Press via USA Today. But Hayden’s success (or lack thereof) won’t make or break how Oakland’s defense performs this season.
In 2012, Oakland fielded the league’s 20th-ranked passing defense with a defensive backfield severely lacking in talent. Given the additions of Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter, Charles Woodson and Usama Young, that’s not exactly the case this year.
None of those free-agent signings were especially exciting, but there’s something to be said for veteran talent and leadership. All four players still have enough left in the tank to make an impact in 2013, especially Jenkins and Young, both of whom have a good shot at locking down starting roles this season.
If Hayden is healthy, the Raiders won’t have a choice but to slot him in a starting cornerback role this season. If he was worth an early first-round selection, Dennis Allen is sure to see what he can get from the Houston product.
But opposite Hayden, the options aren’t exactly thin. Jenkins and Porter are both in position to see extended action this season, the worst-case scenario for either being a role in Oakland’s nickel package.
Considering Allen was Porter’s position coach in New Orleans early in the cornerback’s career, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see the cornerback earn the trust of his head coach this offseason and lock down the No. 2 role opposite Hayden as the season progresses. Though as it stands, it seems Jenkins has the inside track to earning that distinction this offseason.
|2013 Oakland Raiders Schedule|
|1||Sept. 8 ||@ Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sept. 15 ||vs. Jacksonville Jaguars||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sept. 23 ||@ Denver Broncos||8:40 p.m.||ESPN|
|4||Sept. 29||vs. Washington Redskins||4:25 p.m.||FOX|
|5||Oct. 6||vs. San Diego Chargers||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 13||@ Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 27||Pittsburgh Steelers||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 3||Philadelphia Eagles||4:05 p.m.||FOX|
|10||Nov. 10||@ New York Giants||1 p.m.||CBS|
|11||Nov. 17||@ Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 24||vs. Tennessee Titans||4:05 p.m||CBS|
|13||Nov. 28||@ Dallas Cowboys||4:30 p.m.||CBS|
|14||Dec. 8||@ New York Jets||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 15||vs. Kansas City Chiefs||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 22 ||@ San Diego Chargers||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Dec. 29 ||vs. Denver Broncos||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
*For a complete look at Oakland's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.
With futility a big part of Oakland’s recent history, it’s hard to suggest things will get much better in 2013, especially with the resurgence of the Denver Broncos under Peyton Manning. The AFC West will be a difficult division to traverse, even with the recent struggles of the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers.
Still, the Raiders had a quietly successful offseason. Granted, there’s still a lot of uncertainty regarding several key moves, but that also means there is the potential for an equally successful 2013 season in Dennis Allen’s second season at the helm.
Much of Oakland’s success will boil down to how Matt Flynn performs, however. In the modern NFL, winning starts and ends under center.
With a limited sample size, Flynn’s prospects are still very much up in the air—especially with a young and inexperienced receiving corps in place. This season has the potential for a big boom or a monumental bust.
But Oakland’s offensive success doesn’t just revolve around the quarterback position. Darren McFadden will have a big hand in that as well.
Run DMC needs to stay healthy if the Raiders are to find offensive balance this season, but when healthy, he’s one of the most explosive runners in the NFL. Last season, McFadden suffered from injuries and inconsistent offensive line play en route to an average of 3.3 yards per carry in 12 games. In his previous two seasons (20 games), the Arkansas product tallied 1,771 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per tote.
Whatever the case for Oakland’s offense, its defense got significantly better this offseason and stands to field a much more competitive unit in 2013. It may not be a top-10 defense when all is said and done, but there’s certainly a chance for big improvement this season.
Prediction: 7-9, third in AFC West
Don’t expect another four-win season from the Raiders this year. A lot has changed in the last five months, and most of those changes were positive enough to suggest some success going forward.
Still, Oakland lacks the kind of elite talent that pushes losing franchises to the next level, and until McKenzie can find a way to add that talent, the Raiders will struggle to ascend to the top of the AFC West, especially in an improving division.
Given the Raiders’ marginal schedule strength (No. 29 in NFL, per CBS Sports), a near-.500 season certainly isn’t out of the question, but there still isn’t enough to go on to suggest the playoffs will be in the picture this season.