For the better part of the past 15 years, the Oakland Raiders have been an NFL punchline. "Commitment to Excellence" gave way to a "Commitment to Excrement" for a team that was once one of the most feared in the AFC.
Well, now the laughter is coming from Oakland instead of at it. The team showed real signs of improvement during the 2015 season, and after a productive free-agency period, the Raiders prepare for the 2016 draft poised as genuine contenders in the AFC West for the first time in a long time.
The latest move came Wednesday. As ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted, the Raiders agreed to terms on a two-year deal with veteran safety Reggie Nelson, who made the Pro Bowl in 2015 after tying for the NFL lead with eight interceptions:
The 32-year-old Nelson, a first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007, spent the last six seasons in Cincinnati. Nelson made 77 tackles in 2015 to go with those eight picks, grading out 13th at his position, per Pro Football Focus.
Nelson was both durable (10th in snaps played among safeties) and effective for the Bengals last year. He'll provide a much-needed boost for the back end of an Oakland defense left thin by Charles Woodson's retirement.
It's a move that made a lot of sense for the Raiders and one that continues an aggressive free-agency period for general manager Reggie McKenzie.
|Raiders' Free-Agent Signings 2016|
|Kelechi Osemele||OG||BAL||5||$58.5 million||$25.4 million|
|Bruce Irvin||OLB||SEA||4||$37 million||$19 million|
|Sean Smith||CB||KC||4||$38 million||$20 million|
|Donald Penn||OT||OAK||2||$11.9 million||$5.5 million|
After eschewing big free-agent spending early in his Oakland tenure (partly because of the onerous contracts prior missteps saddled him with), McKenzie has gotten after it this spring. On offense, McKenzie shelled out big money to woo guard Kelechi Osemele away from the Baltimore Ravens.
However, it's the team's 22nd-ranked defense from a season ago that got the real overhaul. Nelson may have been the latest signing, but he was far from the first.
The Raiders signed cornerback Sean Smith to help bolster a secondary that PFF ranked 22nd in pass coverage a year ago. They handed outside linebacker Bruce Irvin a nearly identical deal to help goose a pass rush that was in the middle of the pack in sacks. Oakland brought back fellow outside linebacker Aldon Smith as well.
As McKenzie told Jerry McDonald of the East Bay Times, the days of the Raiders sitting on their hands—as well as their days as free-agent pariahs players wanted no part of—are done:
This thing will probably go through the draft. You never know when guys are ready to sign. There are still guys getting released. We're always going to be attacking. If we see someone that can help, we're going after him.
Now, are these signings can't-miss slam dunks? No. Nelson is an older player. Irvin's production never quite matched his potential as a first-round pick in Seattle. Aldon Smith is currently serving a yearlong suspension and isn't a sure bet to even be reinstated.
But as Aaron Nagler of Sports Illustrated pointed out, in some ways, all these signings aren't just about the signings themselves:
Given the holes that McKenzie has been able to fill on both sides of the ball with the boatload of cap space ($70-plus million) the team entered free agency with, the Raiders won't be hamstrung by need when their turn rolls around on April 28.
|Oakland Raiders Mock Draft|
|ESPN||Mel Kiper||4/6||V. Hargreaves, FLA||CB|
|SI||Chris Burke||4/6||S. Rankins, UL||DT|
|CBS||Will Brinson||4/6||E. Apple, OSU||CB|
|B/R||Matt Miller||3/25||J. Conklin, MSU||OT|
|14th overall pick|
That, in turn, opens up a world of possibilities with the 14th overall pick.
The team could further upgrade the secondary with a young cornerback like Florida's Vernon Hargreaves or Ohio State's Eli Apple. Or they could continue overhauling the pass rush with explosive defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins of Louisville. The Raiders could improve the offensive line with Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin.
All could make a day one impact. All will improve the young talent McKenzie already has in place.
Quarterback Derek Carr will be taking snaps behind a vastly improved line that will only get better with Osemele's arrival. In wideouts Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper and tailback Latavius Murray, Carr has no shortage of weapons.
Defensively, a pass rush anchored by young superstar Khalil Mack and complemented by Irvin and (possibly Smith) should improve markedly. Increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks means increased opportunities for big plays by Nelson, Smith and a revamped secondary.
Yes, that Mark Sanchez.
It's an AFC West where the other playoff team from 2015 (the Kansas City Chiefs) could be without both their best offensive (running back Jamaal Charles) and defensive (outside linebacker Justin Houston) players to begin the 2016 campaign.
It's been a while since Raider Nation had a reason to smile. Even the team's uncertain future in Oakland muted the grins from last year's improved squad as the season drew to a close.
Well, the Raiders aren't in Las Vegas or San Antonio or Rancho Cucamonga yet. And regardless of what happens at month's end, the 2016 Raiders have the look of the best team the franchise has fielded since getting destroyed in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Oakland will still have to parlay all these offseason moves into on-field success, but things appear to be coming together. Falling into place.
And just maybe this time, after a long time, it's the Raiders who will have the last laugh.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.