There's no question about it: The 2014 offseason is going to be a monumental one for the Oakland Raiders.
With head coach Dennis Allen returning for a third season, now's the time for this team to start putting the pieces together and begin the transformation back into a contender.
That transformation starts with Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie. The man responsible for infusing this roster with talent, McKenzie's ability to make sound decisions will be on full display throughout 2014.
Forget everything he's done since arriving in Oakland. The 2014 offseason will be the defining moment of the McKenzie era. Can he add integral pieces through free agency and the draft? Or will his choices ultimately lead to a change of leadership by the time 2015 comes rolling around?
Examining everything from free agency to the hunt for a franchise quarterback, it's time to take a look at the five toughest decisions the Raiders will have to make this offseason.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com, unless noted otherwise.
All advanced statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless noted otherwise.
First and foremost, the toughest decision the Raiders will have to make this offseason is figuring out who to go after in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
In an age where mock drafts run rampant, various analysts have projected different outcomes for how Oakland will use the fifth pick in the upcoming draft. SI.com writer Chris Burke has the Raiders scooping up Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews, while Bleacher Report's own Dan Hope has the team going after UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.
Lost in all of the mock draft talk and analysis is the conversation McKenzie had with Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle regarding Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. "He’s a playmaker, whether it’s him or one of these other guys, when you can add a playmaker, that’s what you shoot for", McKenzie said.
Is Manziel really the type of player the Raiders are looking to target? A polarizing college icon with the swagger of Zack Morris and a skill set reminiscent of an NFL Blitz quarterback, if nothing else, Johnny Football's arrival in Oakland would stir up quite the conversation amongst the Silver and Black faithful.
But if you peel Manziel's name away from Tafur's narrative, the one thing you are left with is that McKenzie wants to go after a playmaker. Unfortunately, finding out who that person will be won't get answered until May.
If the Raiders decide to pursue a franchise quarterback in the upcoming draft, essentially giving up on Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin, the team has to get it right.
Although it's easier said than done, whiffing on another draft pick would essentially put an end to McKenzie's tenure as general manager and Dennis Allen's time as head coach.
Manziel, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Jimmy Garoppolo and Derek Carr highlight a deep class of young signal-callers all looking for a chance to shine.
As discussed in the previous slide, if McKenzie truly believes that Manziel is the right guy to lead this team into the future, then he has to do whatever it takes to get him. The proof is in the pudding—finding a true franchise quarterback is a rare commodity in today's NFL.
Whoever the quarterback of the Raiders is the next season, the decision to stick with that guy has to be final. Uncertainty at the position breeds offensive insecurity. Insecurity the Raiders can't afford if they want to contend in the competitive AFC West.
Today's NFL is built around having a disruptive defense.
From the Legion of Boom up in Seattle to the hard-hitting bunch across the bay in San Francisco, in a game that has been dubbed a "passing" league, having a punishing defense still carries a lot of weight.
Giving up 28.3 points per game during the 2013 season, the Raiders defense showed it has a ways to go before the team will be able to morph into a legitimate playoff contender.
With the offseason now underway, one of the first orders of business has to be figuring out what to do with free-agent defensive end Lamarr Houston.
Finishing the past two seasons as one of PFF's top-ranked defensive ends, Houston has been one of the lone bright spots on a struggling Oakland defense.
Using PFF's metrics as a guide, Houston finished the 2013 season tied with Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake with 41 quarterback hurries. That type of pressure was good enough to rank him ninth amongst qualifying 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL.
If the Raiders want to retain their "homegrown" star, they're going to have to act fast. Talking about his future, Houston told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group that he felt the Raiders might not want him back.
Carved from the same oak tree as Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, McKenzie has to take a page out of his mentor's playbook: retain your core and build through the draft.
Reflecting on the success that strategy brings, Packers guard T.J. Lang told Tyler Dunne of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "In Ted we trust. As a player, you're never in a position to question what management does. And I think the whole draft-and-develop philosophy that we have here is obviously a formula for winning."
Jared Veldheer is another player whose name has to levitate to the top of Oakland's "to-do" list.
A guy who may not get recognized outside of the Bay Area, Veldheer could prove to be a crucial component for Oakland's long-term plans.
If the Raiders are willing to shell out the cash, re-signing Veldheer shouldn't be much of a challenge. Recently, the 26-year-old lineman told Alex Marvez of Fox Sports 1 that he "really wants to stay in Oakland."
The problem with retaining his services comes down to injuries and scheme.
After suffering a torn tricep this past season, Veldheer was placed on short-term injured reserve. Maneuvering his way back into the lineup in November, Veldheer struggled to produce at a high level.
Utilizing PFF's metrics as a gauge, Veldheer managed to register a negative-5.5 grade in 2013. To put that into perspective, he finished the 2012 season with a positive-22 grade.
There's no question that the Raiders will have do their due diligence this offseason to figure out whether his recent struggles were due to injury or just the change in scheme—as NFL.com's Kareem Copeland pointed out, the Raiders switched back to a power-running scheme for the 2013 season.
If the team ends up deciding that Veldheer is the right fit for this offense, locking him up for the foreseeable future would be a smart decision.
No matter who the Raiders bring in to play quarterback this offseason, a major problem is going to be who's out there catching passes.
For Oakland, surrounding its next quarterback with efficient weapons is going to dictate the trajectory of his career.
With a prolific amount of cap space to work with, McKenzie will have enough dollars to go after anyone he wants in free agency. Looking to find that impact player, free-agent wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Eric Decker stand out as top-tier candidates who could potentially hit the open market.
Another name that's been tossed around as a possible addition is free-agent wide receiver Hakeem Nicks. While he struggled to get anything going this past season—Nicks finished with zero touchdowns in 15 games played—his lanky frame and obscene catch radius makes the 26-year-old wide receiver an intriguing target.
In an offseason littered with tough decisions, deciding whether or not to go out and spend money on a prominent wide receiver in free agency is going to be an important one.