Ranking the 2015 Impact of the Oakland Raiders' Free-Agent Signings so Far
The Oakland Raiders have been one of the busiest teams in free agency with a total of 11 free-agent signings. Now that the bulk of the team's free-agent moves have been made, the question is: Which of these players will have the biggest impact?
The modus operandi for general manager Reggie McKenzie was clearly different this year. While in the previous years he opted for veterans (re: old guys) and anyone he could actually afford, he made this year's additions with an eye toward the future. No player on this list is older than 28 years old.
He also focused on the defense. The split is actually pretty even—six defensive players, five offensive players. But of the offensive players, only one is a guaranteed starter. Of the defensive players, on the other hand, McKenzie brought in three to start right away at positions where the Oakland defense was in desperate need of help.
Here's a look at the additions from this free-agency period. The players have been ranked according to how big of an impact they're likely to have for the Raiders in 2015.
11. James Dockery: Cornerback
James Dockery is the quietest signing on this list, and he's also the leading candidate to make the least impact in 2015. In fact, he's something of a long shot to even make the final 53-man roster.
Dockery first entered the NFL in 2011 as an undrafted free agent when he signed with the Cleveland Browns. He then joined the Carolina Panthers in 2012, where he remained through 2014 before joining Oakland this offseason.
After playing in 12 games his rookie season, he's only played in a combined 19 since and never more than seven in one season. While he's a cornerback by trade, he's never been able to earn significant playing time at the position. He's gotten n the field mostly on special teams, and he has only two starts in his career.
This trend is going to continue in Oakland, where he'll be deep on the cornerback depth chart behind D.J. Hayden, T.J. Carrie, Keith McGill and whoever else the Raiders add in free agency or the draft. It's unlikely that Oakland expects Dockery to be a significant contributor on defense. Instead, he'll most likely be asked to contribute on special teams, where he's shown to be effective in kick coverage.
But Dockery does have something going for him: he's a lifetime Raiders fan, and joining the silver and black is "a dream come true," according to Andrew John of The Desert Sun. Even if he is just a fringe player, he'll have the added incentive of playing for the team he grew up rooting for. And knowing he's not just a Raiders player but a Raiders fan will guarantee him the support of the fans.
10. Christian Ponder: Quarterback
As the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, 27-year-old Christian Ponder is supposed to be battling for a starting job somewhere. But after three disappointing seasons with the Minnesota Vikings in which he never did enough to secure his spot as the franchise quarterback, the Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater for the job. One season later, Ponder is the backup in Oakland.
By joining the Raiders, Ponder enters a situation in which he won't even be considered to start. Derek Carr is locked in as the franchise quarterback, and he'll remain the starter unless an injury dictates otherwise. Ponder joined Oakland on a one-year deal, and he's going to spend it holding a clipboard.
There is always the possibility that Ponder will have to handle extended playing time at some point in the season. He can't be depended over a full season, but he has enough natural ability to be effective in limited action.
Like so many other quarterbacks taken high in the draft, Ponder has all the physical tools, but he's been unable to make use of them consistently in games. However, he no longer has to deal with the pressure of being the No. 1 option. He hasn't shown that he can do the job, but he won't be expected to. Instead, he'll serve as a veteran sounding board for the still-learning Carr.
9. C.J. Wilson: Defensive End
Of the Raiders' own free agents, C.J. Wilson is the only one who has been brought back. This signing won't get many headlines, but he's an important addition at defensive end, a position where Oakland is in desperate need of reinforcements.
After his first four seasons in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, Wilson joined the Raiders in 2014. He began the year behind LaMarr Woodley, who was a much bigger name. But Woodley's embarrassingly bad season ended after only six games. The Raiders struggled to find someone to line up opposite Justin Tuck, but Wilson at least provided some consistent, positive play.
At 300 pounds, the 6'3" Wilson is a big defensive end. This shows up in his play, as he's best at stopping the run. He's not as effective at getting to the quarterback, but he does have to ability to create some pressure.
The Raiders are certain to add a starting edge-rusher in the draft. Wilson won't be a starter, but he's a good, efficient player who's capable of making occasional big plays. He's great for depth at the position.
8. Trent Richardson: Running Back
Trent Richardson is the most intriguing of the Raiders' free-agency additions.
According to ESPN's Mike Wells, Richardson set some lofty goals for himself once the Indianapolis Colts waived him (via NFL.com's Dan Hanzus): "I'll be one of the top running backs from here on out. They ruled Marshawn Lynch off in his third year. Look at what he's doing now. My next stop, I'll be the starter. I still have my pride and I know who I am."
That next stop turned out to be Oakland. And while some might laugh off his Lynch reference, there is some merit to the thought. Lynch is now Beast Mode. But before that, he was the running back that the Buffalo Bills didn't want. All it cost Seattle to get Lynch, a former 12th overall pick, back in 2010 was two picks—one fourth-rounder and one conditional pick.
It wasn't until Lynch joined the Seattle Seahawks that he became the runner we all know today. Can Richardson replicate this type of transformation? The Raiders sure hope so.
But there's no question that Richardson has a longer way to go. While Lynch didn't transform into Beast Mode until he joined the Seahawks, he was still productive. Richardson, on the other hand, has been a disappointment during his time in the league, with the exception of a decent rookie year.
Now on his third team in four seasons in the league, Richardson claims to have finally seen the light, according to IBABuzz.com's Jerry McDonald:
A lot of football players don’t realize stuff until it’s gone. I’ve been playing football my whole life. Coach [Jack Del Rio] asked me this yesterday. "Trent, how long have you been playing football? I said,"Coach I’ve been playing since six years old." He said, "So what would you do without football? At your age, what would you do without football?"
It kind of hit to where, "Yeah, you’re right, coach." That’s something you don’t expect, that you don’t hear from everybody.
Richardson has the potential to be Oakland's best signing in free agency. But he also has the potential to be the biggest letdown. Unfortunately, his first three seasons in the NFL suggest that the latter is more likely.
7. Malcolm Smith: Linebacker
Malcolm Smith has the distinction of being a Super Bowl MVP. But the award is something of an aberration. It's not a reflection of his abilities overall. It's a reflection of his having the game of his life at the most opportune time.
That's not to say Smith isn't a good linebacker. But he's not great, something that "Super Bowl MVP winner" might suggest. With the starting linebacking corps already set in Oakland (Khalil Mack, Curtis Lofton, Sio Moore), Smith is in a position to provide depth.
Smith's stats don't look too impressive, but he spent his first four years in the league playing in a crowded linebacking group with the Seattle Seahawks. He should see an increase in playing time with Oakland, which will increase his productivity. He's also capable of playing all three linebacker positions, making it easy for the coaches to plug him in anywhere and get him more playing time.
There is a possibility that Smith's importance will grow during the season. While Mack is locked in as Oakland's strong-side linebacker, he does play defensive end in certain defensive packages. New head coach Jack Del Rio is open to the possibility of moving him to defensive end full-time, according to ESPN.com's Bill Williamson (h/t CBSSports.com's Shawn Krest):
He plays defensive end for us already in sub-packages. So, I think it would be natural for him to be able to play whatever we decide is best for him, how it helps the team best. ... He's definitely shown he's got ability to be an edge rusher, a defensive end, he is that in that capacity. I feel like it's how we best want to utilize him and who we have around him as well.
If Mack does play defensive end more regularly, Smith would be the obvious option to take his place at strong-side linebacker. But for now, he's slated to be a backup.
6. Roy Helu: Running Back
When Roy Helu signed with the Raiders March 10, it looked like a great under-the-radar signing for Oakland. After being undervalued for the first four years of his career, he was joining a mostly empty backfield. There were plenty of touches to go around, and Helu was primed to get his fair share.
Just a week later, the Raiders also added Trent Richardson. Now it looks like Helu will once again have to compete for touches.
But while Richardson is the bigger name, Helu is the more proven producer. Despite always getting limited touches, he's been consistently productive both running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield.
Given Richardson's perceived potential, he'll be given every opportunity, along with Latavius Murray, to earn the starting job. But no matter how that battle goes, Helu could turn out to be not only the team's best running back addition but one of the best additions overall.
Richardson is a hit-or-miss signing. Helu, on the other hand, will be productive all season, and he'll ultimately offer more value.
5. Lee Smith: Tight End
Successful teams aren't made up of superstars. They're primarily made up of glue guys. Role players. Guys who don't care about headlines or stats. Guys who just want the opportunity to step on the field on game days and play their part.
Lee Smith is one of those guys.
In four seasons as an NFL tight end, he has accumulated a grand total of 20 receptions and three touchdowns. But that's not what he does. The strongest part of his game is blocking, as noted by SilverandBlackPride.com's Levi Damien: "...Smith is considered one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL. In 2013 he was top five in both pass and run blocking according to Pro Football Focus grading. He slipped a little bit in 2014 in those grades but still received positive marks in both areas."
He fills a major need as a blocking tight end. He's also the perfect complement to tight end Mychal Rivera, a receiving tight end who's weak as a blocker.
Smith isn't a big-name addition, and he's never going to make the highlight reels. But he'll play a crucial role in the Oakland offense. And while he won't show up much on the stat sheet, his addition will go a long way in making the Raiders offense more efficient overall.
4. Dan Williams: Defensive Tackle
The Oakland defense finished last season ranked 22nd against the run, and the problem started right up the middle. Rookie Justin Ellis was the team's strongest defensive tackle, but he had little help. Pat Sims, the man Ellis replaced in the starting lineup, was underwhelming all season. Veteran Antonio Smith also chipped in, but he's more of an interior pass-rusher and did little to help the cause against the run.
To address this issue, the Raiders brought in the massive Dan Williams. At 6'2" and 327 pounds, he's a prototypical run-stuffing defensive tackle. He's proved throughout his career that he's excellent against the run, bringing reliability to the middle of the Oakland defensive line.
Williams' addition is also going to make the defenders around him better. While he's primarily a run-stopper, he's also capable of generating pressure up the middle. This disruptive ability will increase the production of both Ellis and the defensive ends, as Williams will have to be double-teamed at times.
The addition of Williams is a big one. His stats won't jump off the page, but he'll require enough additional attention that it will free up the teammates around him to make more plays.
3. Nate Allen: Safety
Of the safeties on the Oakland roster in 2014, only Charles Woodson was reliable. Tyvon Branch was lost to injury after only three games. Usama Young, his replacement, played six games before also heading to the injured reserve list. Both Branch and Young are no longer with the team.
That left the Raiders with only Brandian Ross, Larry Asante and unproven Jonathan Dowling to pair with Woodson on the defense's back line.
To address this major need, the Raiders brought in Nate Allen. He was a target of the team in free agency last year but re-signed with the Philadelphia Eagles on a one-year deal. He was available again this year, and the Raider didn't let him get away this time.
Allen's addition is key for several reasons, one of the most important of which is that he's reliable. He's also only missed six games in five seasons. He can be depended every week. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it's crucial for an Oakland defense that's had a revolving door at safety for years.
Another important element that Allen brings to the team is youth. At 27 years old, he's slated to be Woodson's partner in 2015 and his replacement beyond that. This will give time for someone like Dowling to develop and play a more prominent role in the future. Allen will provide the defense with both production and leadership in an area that desperately needs it.
2. Rodney Hudson: Center
Rodney Hudson walks into a situation with high expectations. He's expected to protect Derek Carr, help improve the passing game and play a major part in fixing Oakland's anemic, sometimes non-existent rushing attack.
Many consider former Raiders center Stefen Wisniewski comparable to Hudson. But Wisniewski's continued free agency is proof that Hudson is a significant upgrade.
As of the writing of this article, it's been more than two weeks since the start of free agency. Wisniewski is still on the open market, and interest around the league has been lukewarm. Aside from meetings with the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he's received little attention. And as the Chicago Tribune's Brad Briggs points out, "No team has been willing to meet his [Wisniewski's] request of $4 million per season and it could be he winds up on a one- or two-year prove-it contract."
Wisniewski got away with subpar play too often. The assumption has been that he was already a good enough center, but the fact is that he wasn't. Both pass protection and run blocking suffered at times because of Wisniewski's drop-off in performance.
Carr was sacked only 24 times in 2014, but that had a lot to do with his getting rid of the ball so quickly. This was good for avoiding sacks but bad for the passing game. Deeper routes didn't have time to develop, and he averaged only 5.46 yards per attempt, worst in the league.
The running game was just as bad, with the running backs as a whole averaging a paltry 3.7 yards per carry over the entire season.
The addition of Hudson will change this. Carr will have more time to let routes develop, which will go a long way in making the Oakland offense more dangerous. This, along with Hudson's excellent run blocking, will have a huge impact on the offense's overall efficiency.
Hudson is a consistent force in pass protection and in run blocking. Not only is he better than Wisniewski, but he's better than most. He's one of the best centers in the league, and that level of play will make the offensive line, and the offense as a whole, better.
1. Curtis Lofton: Middle Linebacker
The Oakland defense had a lot of issues in 2014, but the most glaring one was at middle linebacker. While the defense struggled at many positions—defensive tackle, safety, defensive end—there were at least flashes of production at those positions. But middle linebacker was a lost cause the entire season.
Before anyone piles on Miles Burris, one thing has to be made clear: Burris isn't a middle linebacker. The fact that Oakland spent the entire season without a middle linebacker forced him to play out of position. The experiment failed, because there was no one to play the position.
The addition of Curtis Lofton is huge for this reason. He's a true middle linebacker. He understands how to play and lead from the middle. Adding any true middle linebacker would have been a major addition. Adding one of Lofton's caliber is a huge bonus.
Lofton is productive and reliable. He's never missed a game in seven NFL seasons. And aside from his rookie year when he finished with 94 tackles, he's never had a season with fewer than 118. He finished last season with 145 tackles, which is only the second-highest total of his career.
The Raiders were weak at other positions, but they had nobody at middle linebacker. Because of the glaring need he fills and the production he provides, Lofton is Oakland's most important addition so far in free agency.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from ESPN.com.
Which player do you think is the most important addition of this year's free agency? Who do you think will have the biggest impact in 2015? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.