Oakland Raiders Remain Team on the Rise with Shrewd Reggie Nelson Signing

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystApril 7, 2016

ALAMEDA, CA - JANUARY 30:  Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie looks on during a press conference on January 30, 2012 in Alameda, California. Dennis Allen was introduced as the new coach of the Oakland Raiders, replacing Hue Jackson who was fired after one season.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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.

Reggie Nelson
Reggie NelsonJoe Robbins/Getty Images

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
PlayerPos.2015 TeamYearsTotalGuarantees
Kelechi OsemeleOGBAL5$58.5 million$25.4 million
Bruce IrvinOLBSEA4$37 million$19 million
Sean SmithCBKC4$38 million$20 million
Donald PennOTOAK2$11.9 million$5.5 million
Aldon SmithOLBOAK2??????
Reggie NelsonFSCIN2??????
Per Spotrac

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.

Sean Smith
Sean SmithElsa/Getty Images

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 ofare 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
SiteMock DrafterDatePlayerPos.
ESPNMel Kiper4/6V. Hargreaves, FLACB
SIChris Burke4/6S. Rankins, ULDT
CBSWill Brinson4/6E. Apple, OSUCB
B/RMatt Miller3/25J. Conklin, MSUOT
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.

Vernon Hargreaves
Vernon HargreavesJoe Robbins/Getty Images

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.

Add it all together, and it spells contender. This is an AFC West where the defending division champs have gone from Peyton Manning under center to Mark Sanchez.

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.

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