Biggest Challenges Facing Oakland Raiders in 2017 Offseason

Maurice MotonFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2017

Biggest Challenges Facing Oakland Raiders in 2017 Offseason

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    The Oakland Raiders will attempt to take another giant leap in gaining league-wide respect as Super Bowl contenders in 2017. Like any other team, including the New England Patriots, the offseason brings a new set of issues.

    Along with roster question marks, the Raiders will keep tabs on an investigation involving pass-rusher Aldon Smith, per TMZ Sports. As details emerge, the front office should move forward accounting for the players on the active roster.

    During the offseason, Oakland should also think ahead when drawing up extensions. How many players have earned new contracts?

    Despite putting together a 12-4 season, the Raiders will make changes to their game-planning in the upcoming year. Oakland will have a new offensive coordinator and another respected defensive coordinator on its coaching staff. What does this mean for both sides of the ball?

    Here, we delve into each challenge facing the Raiders in the offseason.

Uncertainty for Aldon Smith

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    As mentioned, TMZ Sports circulated a story that indicated an active domestic violence investigation involving Smith.

    Someone called authorities to the 27-year-old's home in San Francisco over the past weekend. No one has been arrested. According to ESPN reporter Paul Gutierrez, Smith has provided cooperation in the investigation.

    It's too early to jump to conclusions about Smith's latest off-the-field headline, but it doesn't look good for a player looking to be reinstated in March. The NFL will certainly have enough details to either hold him out or lift the ban in a few weeks. 

    As for the Raiders, it's best to approach free agency as if Smith isn't going to play. He can't sweep this investigation under the rug, and it's going to look shady to the league office.

    For Oakland, full clearance of any wrongdoings would keep hope alive, but it's best not to count on optimism. In the NFL, the first step to reliability is availability, and Smith hasn't played a game since November 2015.

Extensions for Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Gabe Jackson?

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    General manager Reggie McKenzie told CSN Bay Area reporter Scott Bair about his intentions to re-sign both quarterback Derek Carr and edge-rusher Khalil Mack.

    "The good thing is we do have time, but I'm not the type to wait until the last minute," McKenzie said. "Those two guys are not only great players but they are great men. They are true Raiders and I want to make sure we do the best that we can to make sure that they stay Raiders."

    Carr will likely sign a contract similar to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's five-year, $122 million deal with $87 million guaranteed, per Spotrac. Currently, he's headed into the 2017 season with a $1.7 million cap hit.

    Mack's contract will rival Denver Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller's six-year, $114 million deal with $70 million guaranteed. The Raiders' best pass-rusher holds a $5.9 million cap hit for the upcoming season.

    With two star players due for extensions, we often overlook guard Gabe Jackson's importance to the offensive line.

    The 2014 third-round pick out of Mississippi State doesn't receive enough credit for putting together two solid campaigns at left guard, then moving right to accommodate fellow interior lineman Kelechi Osemele.

    Despite the position shift, Jackson ranks No. 22 among all offensive guards, per Pro Football Focus. He has clearly outperformed his $852,844 cap hit.

    The Raiders should engage in extension talks with Jackson because he'll carry a steeper price tag if he finishes with another solid yearly performance.

What's the Offensive Game Plan?

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    In 2015, the Raiders leaned heavily on the passing attack to put up points. The ground attack ranked No. 28 in the league and featured one running back handling 61 percent of the team's total carries. Once opponents put a lid on the aerial attack, the offense failed to switch to a second gear.

    In the following season, the front office added two rookie running backs, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, to balance the ground attack and the entire offense. The Raiders finished No. 6 in rushing yards with the ability to play bully ball against weaker run defenses.

    Oakland decided not to re-sign Bill Musgrave as the offensive coordinator and promoted quarterbacks coach Todd Downing to the position. The young assistant built a rapport with Carr over the past two years. Can he compose crafty game plans and call in timely plays in critical situations? It remains to be seen.

    Nonetheless, he's dealing with a full deck at the skill positions with an MVP-caliber quarterback as the centerpiece. It's important to keep multiple running backs involved, add more creativity to the passing attack and include more tight-end play in the receiving game.

Pivotal Decision at Running Back

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    Running back Latavius Murray blossomed during the 2015 season as the featured ball-carrier and transitioned into a finisher in short-yardage and goal-line situations during the 2016 season. His ability to rush for 1,066 yards and subsequently score 12 rushing touchdowns gives him decent market value.

    The Raiders can either keep their No. 6 rushing offense together, with Murray on a contract averaging about $3.3 million per year, or allow him to walk and draft a young running back.

    McKenzie told JT the Brick on 95.7 The Game (h/t CSN Bay Area) that he prefers to retain his own players when speaking about Murray, but economics play a factor:

    He's one of those kinds that don't come around too often when you talk about size. I'm always in position to want to re-sign our own players, but the finances of it always will play a part. You never know there's 31 other teams out there who may be communicating to his representatives. We'll see where it goes, but we like to re-sign our guys. 

    Earlier in the offseason, Murray expressed interest in returning to the team, per SiriusXM NFL Radio. We'll see how much the 27-year-old running back wants to stay when the front office offers a modest deal at the negotiating table. He’ll certainly see better proposals from other clubs.

    It's Murray's last chance to cash in on a lucrative deal at his age and position.

Too Many Defensive Cooks in the Kitchen?

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    Here's a riddle: How many defensive minds does it take to fix the Raiders defense? After ranking No. 22 and No. 20 in points allowed, Oakland brought in John Pagano as an assistant head coach-defense, which translates to defensive coordinator Ken Norton's advisor.

    Head coach Jack Del Rio and Norton have backgrounds focusing on coaching linebackers and overall defense. Pagano brings the exact same expertise to the table.

    It's alarming to realize the Raiders have three coaches with overlapping acumen. Whose opinion overrides the other? Who do the players look to for direction? What’s Pagano's day-to-day role? 

    Norton should look over his shoulder. The defense has disappointed under his guidance, and a further slip would likely pave the way for Pagano to take over as the play-caller. On the inverse, success could also push Norton out of the door due to Pagano's influence.

    Either way, the Raiders could have a new defensive coordinator by midseason or the following offseason.

Two-Fold Approach to Fix Linebacker Corps

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    The Raiders have attempted to solve their linebacker issues with a player past his prime (Curtis Lofton), mid-late round draft picks (Ben Heeney and Cory James), or an in-season waiver-wire pickup (Perry Riley). Riley played well in 11 games, but he's going to hit the free-agent market in March.

    It's time for the front office to address weak linebacker spots with established talent or high draft picks as long-term solutions.

    Patriots inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower will command approximately $10 million per year, but he's worth the cash. If he signs elsewhere, Buffalo Bills linebacker Zach Brown and Riley become realistic bargain alternatives.

    As for the draft, the Raiders should consider Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham with the No. 24 pick. Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis' ability to play inside or shift outside in a 4-3 deserves consideration as well.

    With three prominent defensive coaches on staff, Temple linebacker Haason Reddick may have enough guidance to transition from a collegiate defensive end to starting outside linebacker in the pros. Nonetheless, he's a project with high potential who grades as a second-round pick for the Raiders.

Underperforming Cornerback Position Needs Prospects

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    The Raiders secondary faltered on many occasions. Fans expected more from cornerback Sean Smith, but he ranked higher than David Amerson at the position, per Pro Football Focus.

    The fans wanted to see Smith shut down one side of the field. However, speedy and dynamic wide receivers burned him on inside routes and vertically.

    With the focus on Smith, critics overlooked Amerson's subpar play compared to his first season in Oakland. At times, the 2013 second-round pick lost track of the ball midair or resorted to pass-interference violations to prevent touchdowns on deep throws.

    The Raiders should consider selecting a young prospect at the cornerback position as insurance for Smith or the eventual replacement for T.J. Carrie in the slot.

    This year's draft provides a deep cornerback class. Oakland doesn't have to draft Marlon Humphrey (Alabama), Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State) or Tre'Davious White (LSU) in the first round. Talented prospects such as Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley, Florida's Quincy Wilson and Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie will be available in the second round.

     

    Stats provided by Sports-Reference.com and Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.