Oakland Raiders' Updated To-Do List Ahead of Free Agency
As NFL Free Agency approaches, the Oakland Raiders must address in-house matters before acquiring external roster pieces.
For the first time in over a decade, free agents can no longer view Oakland as a money-grab destination without playoff aspirations. The Raiders clinched a playoff spot in the previous year with a 12-4 record and were potentially a broken fibula away from putting the AFC on notice.
Now, general manager Reggie McKenzie doesn't have to lure impact players to come west with money as the sole motivation. The Raiders have a playoff roster already in place.
The front office should approach free agency with a selective taste for filling specific spots with certain players. It's no longer about spending massive amounts of cash and hoping at least two acquisitions stick.
With that said, Oakland has two major holes to fill at linebacker and defensive tackle or 5-technique defensive end.
Don't expect the Raiders to overlook their own star players who deserve extensions to overpay incoming free agents, though. What message does that send to the roster? McKenzie should and probably will take care of home first. Then, he can strategically look elsewhere to rectify remaining issues.
We'll go through an entire offseason checklist prior to free-agent negotiations on Tuesday.
Extend Derek Carr, Khalil Mack
As mentioned, it's best to maintain a happy home before bringing in newcomers. For starters, quarterback Derek Carr leads this team as a field general—the beating heart and pulse in the locker room.
We already saw what the Raiders look like without Carr in uniform, and it's pretty depressing. Aside from the obvious in his playmaking ability, his spirit and positive attitude resonate with teammates.
As Carr recovers from a broken fibula, there's no reason for him to throw another ball on a $1.7 million cap hit, per Spotrac. He's too valuable and willing to strap the team on his back to perform on a second-round rookie deal.
On Mad Dog Sports Radio with Adam Schein, the 25-year-old said: "I'm a Raider for life." That's all you need to know about his passion and pride in his position as the quarterback for the Silver and Black.
Edge-rusher Khalil Mack won Defensive Player of the Year for the 2016 season. He logged 26 sacks over the past two years and played in every game since coming into the league as the No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 draft.
On multiple occasions, Mack closed out football games. The Raiders defense earned a poor reputation, but the talented edge-rusher shut the door on a couple of offenses in the previous year with late-game pocket pressure.
He is already drawing comparisons to Denver Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller, who signed a six-year $114 million contract with $70 million guaranteed last year. Now, it's Mack's turn to claim his six-figure deal with similar guaranteed financial security.
Release Dan Williams
The Raiders signed defensive tackle Dan Williams during the 2015 offseason. After playing five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals as a stout run defender, he served the same purpose in Oakland for one year.
In 2016, many pointed out Williams' conditioning as the reason for his demotion on the depth chart. Fellow defensive tackle Justin Ellis took over with a solid training camp.
Williams started 11 games during the previous year, but his strength as a gap-stuffer noticeably faded as the season progressed. Oakland ranked No. 23 against the run, and lanes through the A-gaps became freeways for opposing running backs.
In 17 games, including one postseason contest, the Raiders allowed 100-plus rushing yards in 12 outings.
McKenzie must address the trenches similar to his approach to strengthening the offensive line. The front office could release Williams and recoup $4.5 million without owing a dime in dead money. The cap savings should be used toward retaining productive in-house assets.
Open Extension Talks with Gabe Jackson
Oakland should put the $4.5 million saved from Williams' contract into offensive guard Gabe Jackson's extension.
The burly interior lineman doesn't receive nearly enough praise for his move to right guard after lining up at left guard for two seasons. The shift isn't as easy as it sounds. When moving from one side to another, the mechanics change similar to switching writing hands.
During the previous offseason, the Raiders signed offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, who took over at left guard on a lucrative deal. As a team player, Jackson didn't complain and still performed well at an entirely new position.
Unfortunately, the Mississippi State product came out of college in the same year as Mack and Carr. As a result, we forget about what Jackson brings to the offensive line.
McKenzie's 2014 draft class features three home run hitters at their positions within the first three selections. It's the group responsible for a majority of the team's success. The front office should do everything in its power to keep their homegrown talents in Oakland. Similar to Mack and Carr, Jackson's film and production speak for itself.
Set Hard Yearly Salary on Latavius Murray
The team certainly appreciates running back Latavius Murray's contributions over the past two seasons as the featured back, especially Carr who touts his pass-protection capabilities.
However, managing NFL teams comes down to cost versus production. As an impending free agent, McKenzie must identity a hard number for the 27-year-old running back and refuse to budge at the negotiating table.
According to Spotrac, Murray will command more than $6.5 million per year, which ranks within the top-five salaries at his position. It's not economically sound to pay top dollar for a complementary player who's a third of the backfield. The Raiders have two rookie ball-carriers who combined for 958 rushing yards during the previous season.
DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard didn't show the ability to handle a featured role when Murray missed two games due to injury, but that shouldn't handcuff the team to a poor contract. Oakland can certainly find a bigger back, who finishes strong near the goal line, moves the chains and provides satisfactory pass protection.
Pittsburgh's James Conner and Boise State's Jeremy McNichols will be available in the middle rounds of the 2017 draft. Both have the skill set to fill Murray's role on a much cheaper deal.
Target Dont'a Hightower
It's not smart to immediately re-sign inside linebacker Perry Riley when there's an opportunity to lure Dont'a Hightower out west. The New England Patriots already decided against using the franchise tag on the fifth-year linebacker, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Hightower also made a sly comment about his dislike for the nasty weather in New England as a reason for skipping out on the Super Bowl parade, per ESPN's Mike Reiss. It sounds like he's ready to play for a warm-weather team. He won't have to worry about snow or sleet in California for at least half the games.
Oakland holds $44 million in cap space. Despite the need to extend two or three top-notch assets, McKenzie could pass a legitimate offer to Hightower's agent on Tuesday.
According to Spotrac, Hightower should command approximately $10 million per year. Nonetheless, the Raiders' standing as a playoff team could factor into the linebacker's interest in donning the silver and black jersey.
Linebacker Bruce Irvin, also known as Baby Reggie due to his offseason recruiting efforts, already reached out to Hightower via Twitter.
Target Chris Baker
Many Raiders fans would love to see Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell follow the same path as Williams. However, Oakland has young talent at the position. It's best to go with a less expensive talent in case Jihad Ward or Darius Latham pop in their second seasons.
The decision to tie a high salary to a position with developing talent could slow progress for a high draft pick like Ward—this problem doesn't exist at linebacker. Currently, the Raiders have two fifth-round picks (Neiron Ball and Ben Heeney) along with a sixth-round selection (Cory James) jockeying for a starting spot at inside linebacker.
McKenzie should pursue Washington Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker, who started his career as a rotational interior lineman. Despite starting at least 11 games in each season over the past three years, he's moved in and out of the starting lineup on occasion.
At 29 years old and with seven years in the league, the Raiders know what they're getting out of Baker. He's logged 10.5 sacks over the past two seasons and earned a favorable grade as a run defender in 2016, per Pro Football Focus.
Unlike Campbell, the Raiders wouldn't have to empty their purse for Baker. Slightly past their primes, either veteran could be on the verge of decline. It's best to spend the least amount of money possible to avoid cost exceeding production by a wide margin.
Hire Ed Reed as Defensive Backs Coach
The final checkbox seems like a small task, but the Raiders fired former defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson and left the position vacant. Of course, assistant defensive backs coach Rod Woodson could easily slide into a more prominent role to develop the secondary.
However, the back end of Oakland's defense hasn't fared well over the past two seasons. It's possible a new voice could turn things around for the pass defense. The Raiders could promote Woodson and hire a new assistant as well.
Ed Reed only spent one year on an NFL staff as a defensive backs coach. Nonetheless, he spent a year with the Buffalo Bills under Rex Ryan, whom head coach Jack Del Rio respects, dating back to their days with the Baltimore Ravens. The Bills decided to fire Ryan, which caused coaching staff changes across the board.
In 2016, the Bills fielded the No. 6 pass defense in yards allowed. Furthermore, the cornerbacks—especially Stephon Gilmore—excelled in the defensive schemes. Even though Reed just signed on as an assistant, he likely knows a lot about good qualities in a defensive back.
For those with a sharp memory, Reed will probably go down as one of the best safeties in NFL history. It wouldn't hurt to place a call for a great defensive back in his heyday, who's now interested in coaching.
Contract detail information provided by Spotrac.com.