The 2014 offseason will be the most important rebuilding phase for general manager Reggie McKenzie, head coach Dennis Allen and the Oakland Raiders franchise.
With past financial obstacles essentially off the books, and an increased value now placed on holding on to draft selections, the staff will have plenty of ways to add talent to this team if done properly.
The 2012 and 2013 seasons under this regime were far from ideal in the win-loss column, but given the situation, not much more could have been expected.
The slates are now clean, the management and coaching foundations are in place, and it is time to see what this group can do in getting the Raiders back to where they belong.
Heading into the 2014 offseason, here is a look at the Oakland Raiders’ state of the franchise.
From an outsider’s point of view, the Raiders had very low expectations heading into the 2013 season. Despite having made some important free-agent and draft additions, there remained a number of holes throughout the roster that could not be masked for very long.
Nonetheless, a hot start to the season that saw them remain surprisingly competitive against playoff-caliber teams cast aside that very consensus. Instead, the Raiders were now expected to maintain that level of play throughout and compete for the playoffs.
When the momentum started to slow, snap judgments made the sudden losing about incompetence on the coaching staff and in the front office, rather than the season simply evening itself out with what it was the Raiders had to work with.
Sure, the Raiders played at a high level for the first few games of the season, keeping themselves in games in which nobody gave them a chance.
At the same time, maybe those performances should instead be considered a result of the coaching staff getting every ounce out of the roster, with later struggles coming due to a lack of depth and opposing teams exploiting weaknesses as they became apparent.
Another 4-12 season was certainly disappointing for the Raider Nation, but as tiring as it may get to hear, it indeed was what should be the final season of the tear-down process the new regime implemented.
While it may be hard to take many positives away from another losing season, the Raiders are headed in the right direction with the leadership and continuity now in place.
As much as some may disagree, the 2013 season showed that the Raiders have a coaching staff capable of maximizing the talent on the roster. Combine that with management now having the necessary resources to stockpile talent in relatively short order, and the Raiders could compete for the playoffs much sooner than many think.
The most talked-about aspect of the Raiders’ 2014 offseason will be the influx in salary-cap space set to take effect—and rightfully so.
Due to some incredibly poor decisions with contracts over the past decade, the Raiders were never a team with much cap space at their disposal and were more often than not significantly over the league maximum.
Yes, the cap can be manipulated at times, and it certainly was by the previous regime throughout the 2000s, but just like any other means of deferred payments, it does eventually catch up to you.
Now, after two seasons of shedding contracts and biting the dead-money bullets, the Raiders are set to emerge from the financial mess and will have more space under the salary cap than any other team in the NFL.
To be more specific, before re-signing their own free-agent players, the Raiders will have upward of $60 million available, per OvertheCap.com.
As high as that current figure is, it still does not take into account the possibility of the team cutting a few more players to create additional cap space, looking elsewhere to fill those spots.
Simply put, the Raiders will have plenty of money to compete for whichever free agents they want on the open market.
Of course, the key will be spending wisely and avoiding making the same mistakes again, but the front office now has the flexibility to add plenty of proven and veteran talent in just one offseason.
Despite having proven capable of creating effective schemes and maximizing the talent available, there were some questions as to who, if anyone, would return from this Raiders coaching staff in 2014.
Whether or not that speculation truly existed within the front office is not something we can say for sure, but the majority of the staff will return next season nonetheless.
In two seasons together, although the majority of statistics may not show it just yet, head coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver have put together a solid defensive system and foundation.
In fact, their scheme is one that general manager Reggie McKenzie believes will become a selling point to free-agent targets this offseason.
The offensive side of the ball carries a few more question marks, but coordinator Greg Olson succeeded in tailoring his system to the skill sets of two very different quarterbacks, and the unit should evolve significantly if the team can solidify the future of that position this offseason.
The resigning of offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tony Sparano will be important for the offense as well, as the young core up front has a chance to become a strength of this team moving forward.
Overall, the majority of the focus has been and will remain on Allen, as is the case with any team around the league. The Raiders did right by both him and his staff to not make them the scapegoats for organizational issues beyond their control.
With the necessary time to grow with his staff and have the talent on the roster upgraded, Allen could very well become the star coach that McKenzie envisioned him becoming when he chose to hire him over the many candidates he was much more familiar with heading into the process two years back.
The Raiders will undoubtedly spend quite a bit of money in free agency this offseason, but the significant amount of salary-cap space must first be used to re-sign some of their own key players.
Although the team does have a number of free agents whom it will be interested in bringing back, Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston top the list.
In his four years, Veldheer has established himself as one of the better young left tackles in league. While missing the majority of the season may have had an impact on the contract numbers he could demand, the Raiders are well-aware of his value and should pay him accordingly.
Houston himself is one of the league’s better young players on the defensive line and would draw plenty of interest if he hit the open market. The latter half of the 2013 season was far from his best, but the Raiders’ lack of depth at the position resulting in an incredibly high number of snaps for Houston must be taken into consideration.
Either way, re-signing both Veldheer and Houston should be the Raiders’ first priority this offseason, and doing so well before the franchise tag even comes into the discussion. Both are potential cornerstones to the future of this team, and the organization needs to make a point of keeping its homegrown talent.
Charles Woodson, Rashad Jennings, Vance Walker, Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter, Usama Young and Khalif Barnes are all free agents as well and should be players whom the Raiders are interested in bringing back.
Darren McFadden and Jacoby Ford, due to their decreased roles, are less certain to be priorities for the team before to free agency gets underway, but reasonable price tags could certainly change that as well.
Overall, the Raiders have a number of decisions to make on free agents of their own before they get into discussions with those from other teams around the league. Having as much salary-cap space as they do should allow for them to bring back the players they want to, but this team has the potential to look very different in 2014 regardless.
The difficult season that 2013 was for the Raiders highlighted both the team’s immediate and long-term needs heading into what will be a very important offseason.
On the offensive side of the ball, priorities will be at quarterback, wide receiver and on the interior offensive line. The Raiders will likely look to the early parts of the draft for a young signal-caller they can build around for years to come, so the other two spots become the more likely to be addressed with veterans in free agency as a result.
On defense, the Raiders should be linked to a number of players who become available on the free-agent market, as there are holes to fill across the depth chart there as well.
Most importantly, the defensive line will need to be addressed, and upgrading the pass rush will be the prime focus. Fortunately for the Raiders, their influx in salary-cap space comes in an offseason that looks to have a relatively deep free-agent pass-rush group, with names like Jared Allen, Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo, Michael Johnson and Justin Tuck topping the list.
Cornerback should represent another of the focus positions, with a deep free-agent group of talent there as well. Upgrades were made heading into 2013, but the opportunity to sign another young but proven player to pair with D.J. Hayden in the starting lineup moving forward may be too good to pass up.
Of course, the best way to build a team is to do so on a yearly basis through the draft, with the occasional free-agent signing. In the Raiders’ situation, with the need to stockpile talent and the necessary cap space to do so, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a fair bit if done carefully.
Addressing many of the team’s most pressing needs in free agency would allow Reggie McKenzie and his front-office staff to move forward with the “best player available” strategy they would prefer to utilize in the draft.
Increasing the potential impact this offseason can have for a rebuilding Raiders franchise is the nearly full slate of draft selections it currently has at its disposal.
The most important of which will come at fifth overall in the first round, where the team could go a number of directions but realistically should target either one of this year’s top quarterbacks or pass-rushers.
Possibilities for which include Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles at quarterback, as well as Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack at defensive end.
Beyond that, McKenzie and his scouting staff must do well to find players in the mid-to-late rounds that can have an impact early on.
That idea is far easier said than done, but with pressure from ownership seemingly always on the staff for this team to improve in short order, it becomes that much more of a necessity.
Again, avoiding “need” picks here is the ideal scenario, but that may depend on the team having what it considers to be a successful free-agency period.
If the Raiders can come away from this year’s draft having added 3-4 starters, with the remainder of their selections sticking with the team at least initially as quality depth players, it will go a long way toward the success of this rebuilding process.
Dan Wilkins is an Oakland Raiders Featured Columnist. You can follow him on Twitter here.