Nearing Midway Point, Oakland Raiders Roster Makeover a Resounding Success

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Nearing Midway Point, Oakland Raiders Roster Makeover a Resounding Success
Charles Woodson's return to Oakland has been a success.

Imagine what Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie would like to say to all the NFL analysts who said his team was the least talented they had ever seen. Some adjectives commonly used to describe the roster were "horrible" and "pathetic." 

Prior to the season, the Oakland Raiders were considered one of the two worst teams in the NFL. Expectations could not have been lower, but nearly halfway through the season they are 3-4 and can move to .500 with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles at home on Sunday. 

After suffering through a 4-12 campaign in 2012, the Raiders had to make drastic changes. To McKenzie's credit, he didn't drag out the process and, along with head coach Dennis Allen, has the Raiders on the verge of respectability.

If the Raiders win Sunday, they will equal their win total from last year. It's not quite a turnaround like that of the 2012 Indianapolis Colts or 2013 Kansas City Chiefs, but it's still impressive.

Considering the circumstances, McKenzie's rebuild has been a resounding success to this point. There was no franchise-altering quarterback available and part of making the necessary changes meant cutting dead weight that simultaneously limited his resources. 

Salary Cap Spending vs. Performance 2013
Rank Team Wins Cap Cost Per Win Cap Spending Cap Spending Rank
1 Chiefs 8 $14,639,327.75 $117,114,622 11
2 Broncos 7 $17,268,103.57 $120,876,725 3
3 Patriots 6 $17,772,466.83 $106,634,801 19
4 Seahawks 7 $17,895,016.14 $125,265,113 1
5 Saints 6 $19,917,358.33 $119,504,150 7
6 Bengals 6 $20,108,263.50 $120,649,581 5
7 49ers 6 $20,136,644.17 $120,819,865 4
8 Lions 5 $20,967,802.80 $104,839,014 22
9 Raiders 3 $21,447,858.00 $64,343,574 32
10 Colts 5 $22,417,708.80 $112,088,544 15

overthecap.com & NFL.com

With $55.3 million in dead money against the salary cap, according to overthecap.com, the Raiders were looking to revamp its roster with $25.5 million less to work with than any other team. Despite thin resources, McKenzie managed to add nine new starters on defense plus several role players.

Obviously, the Raiders didn't exactly bring in big-name free agents. Many of the contracts the Raiders gave out were for one year. This came with the understanding that Oakland would be able to hit free agency again in 2014, when it had more cap flexibility to give out bigger contracts.

The Raiders may be 3-4, but they are getting a lot considering they have only spent $64.3 million in cap dollars on current players, according to overthecap.com. As far as money spent per win, the Raiders rank ninth in the league, above every team with five or fewer wins this season except for the Detroit Lions, who rank eighth. 

The only teams that are getting more for their money have spent at least $40.5 million more than the Raiders in cap dollars on its rosters. That's more than double Peyton Manning's yearly pay between the Raiders and the most productive teams in the league.

There are three of Manning's yearly cap hits (over $60 million) separating the Raiders and the 1-6 Minnesota Vikings. There are two teams that have spent a lot more than the Raiders but don't have a single win on the season. 

 

A Productive Offseason

McKenzie has added 27 different players who were not on Oakland's roster last year, including nine defensive starters, two offensive starters and seven key role players. Even more amazingly is that there isn't a player getting significant time that isn't playing better with Matt Flynn no longer on the roster.

/Getty Images
Defensive tackle Vance Walker has made a positive impact for Oakland's defense.

The Raiders were able to pay less and get more for every dollar they spent in the offseason than anyone could have expected. The average player on the Raiders has a $1.2 million cap hit which is almost $500,000 lower than the next lowest team, so the entire roster is composed of inexpensive players. 

The key for the Raiders was signing a dozen players to one-year contracts. McKenzie could have signed better players, but he would have been forced to overpay in free agency and mortgage the team's future.

The Raiders payed a fraction of the cost for Kevin Burnett, Vance Walker and Pat Sims compared to what they would have had to pay to retain Philip Wheeler, Desmond Bryant and Tommy Kelly. They are also getting more production out of their new trio.

McKenzie didn't hit it out of the park on every move (see: Flynn, Matt), but there is a lot more good than bad, especially when you look at the free agents he's signed. 

Key Additions 2013
Player Position PFF Grade Free Agent In Snap Percentage
Nick Roach MLB -7.4 2017 100.0%
Charles Woodson FS 1.6 2014 99.0%
Tracy Porter CB 1.8 2014 93.2%
Mike Jenkins CB -2.3 2014 91.8%
Kevin Burnett WLB -1.1 2015 87.4%
Vance Walker DT 7.2 2014 73.0%
Jason Hunter DE -6.5 2014 68.2%
Tony Pashos RT 4.7 2014 62.8%
Pat Sims DT -4.4 2014 55.9%
Jeron Mastrud TE 2.8 2014 54.6%
Andre Gurode OG -3.4 2014 48.0%
Matt McCants OT 3.5 2015 (ERFA) 40.0%
Rashad Jennings RB 3.3 2014 32.5%
Kaluka Maiava LB -2.3 2015 24.3%

profootballfocus.com

Of the players that McKenzie didn't re-sign or released in the offseason, only 11 caught on with another team. The best one is safety Mike Mitchell, who unexpectedly became a starter for the Carolina Panthers and has played well. 

The pitfall of signing so many players to one-year deals is the need to re-sign them next year, but the Raiders actually don't have an obscene number of free agents. With the most cap room to spend of any NFL team next year (likely a record amount), the Raiders can be selectively aggressive in free agency.

McKenzie has proven that when it comes to finding NFL talent for bargain prices, he's pretty good. It's a talent that will help the Raiders continue to rebound from over a decade of bad football.

 

Draft and Develop

What the Raiders need are impact players, but they can rarely be found in free agency and must be found through the draft. McKenzie's first full draft appears to have yielded several promising players.

/Getty Images
D.J. Hayden is getting better each week.

Cornerback D.J. Hayden and linebacker Sio Moore are playing significant snaps, and both have made a couple impact plays. Hayden and Moore have struggled at times, but both appear to be coming on strong in recent weeks. 

Rookie wide receiver Brice Butler has been the team's third wide receiver and tight end Mychal Rivera has not only played the most minutes at the position for the Raiders, but he has played more than any other rookie on offense.

Raiders Key Rookies 2013
Player Position Round PFF Grade Snap Percentage
D.J. Hayden CB 1 -3.3 65.4%
Mychal Rivera TE 6 -1.4 64.6%
Brice Butler WR 7 -3 43.4%
Sio Moore SLB 3 2.9 36.1%

profootballfocus.com

The jury is still out on rookie offensive tackle Menelik Watson because he's been fighting through multiple injuries. The selection of quarterback Tyler Wilson in the fourth round looks bad in hindsight, but who knows what the future holds.

As we know, not every draft pick is going to be a big hit. The key is making more hits than misses and McKenzie has done that.  It's not very often four draft picks are key contributors in their first eight games. 

 

Conclusion

McKenzie and Allen deserve a ton of credit for turning around a team that lacks top-flight talent. Maybe the Raiders didn't sign a star player in free agency, but they did add over a dozen quality players while not spending much in the process.

McKenzie needed to hit on his draft picks, and while it's too early to judge, several are playing key roles and doing well. It's common for it to take some time for cornerbacks, receivers and tight ends to develop at the NFL level. 

There is still a lot of work to be done to get the Raiders were they need to be, but McKenzie and Allen have them on the right track. With a win on Sunday, the Raiders can make a statement to the NFL that they aren't just better than expected, they are dangerous.

 

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