Oakland Raiders' Biggest 2018 Offseason Free-Agency Decisions
Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie can't take a nonchalant approach toward the defense during the offseason. The concerted effort to improve the unit must start with critical decisions during the free-agency period.
During McKenzie's tenure, the Raiders have fielded a bottom-half defense that ranked No. 20 or worse in points surrendered and No. 18 or worse in yards allowed. If the front office wants to see this team take another step toward a Super Bowl, it's imperative the defensive unit consistently pull its weight on the field.
Oakland should set money aside to pay edge-rusher Khalil Mack, but the team can trim disposable players and recirculate the cash to fill needy positions before the 2018 draft.
In the previous offseason, the Raiders front office strangely decided not to aggressively pursue veteran pieces to fill voids on defense. It took seven weeks into the regular season before McKenzie opted to add some experience to the linebacker stable.
A change at the defensive coordinator position may help with scheme, but we'll focus solely on decisions during the free-agency period. How should McKenzie handle an overhaul of the defense?
Keep or Cut CB Sean Smith?
According to Over The Cap, the Raiders can release cornerback Sean Smith and save $8.5 million without any dead money left over. It's an easy decision for a defensive back who's not performing on a starting-caliber level.
Despite the small incremental improvements in Smith's game over the past few weeks, the Raiders shouldn't allocate a high salary to a defensive player trying to find his way as a ninth-year veteran. McKenzie can add millions back to the team purse and use the cash to pursue a free agent.
Through nine games, Smith has played just 47.16 percent of his snaps, which doesn't coincide with his salary. He's also without a single pass breakup for the season. There's a major disparity in what he's paid and the production on the field.
Cornerback Gareon Conley, who's on injured reserve for the remainder of the 2017 season, would move into Smith's spot for the upcoming campaign.
Verdict: Release Sean Smith
Re-Sign T.J. Carrie, Keep David Amerson?
There's no question the coaching staff will expect Conley to start at cornerback for the 2018 season, but who's going to fill out the position alongside him?
The injury bug bit cornerback David Amerson—and so have opposing wide receivers in 2017. He's made a few plays but allowed several on the perimeter as well.
The fifth-year veteran's contract will take a $6 million cap hit in 2018, per Spotrac. The front office could release the player and save the cap space without owing him for the remaining three years of his deal.
Altogether, McKenzie would save $14.5 million if he decides to part ways with Smith and Amerson, which stings considering both cornerbacks signed their contracts months apart during the 2016 offseason.
The front office may also decide to hold Amerson in hopes that it's just one bad year for the 25-year-old.
The decision on Amerson may become contingent on whether cornerback T.J. Carrie returns to the team after his contract expires.
Overall, the 2014 seventh-rounder has overachieved throughout his career and looks like the best cornerback on the field in silver and black.
McKenzie acknowledged Carrie's play when discussing the team's midseason status, per Raiders.com:
"He's been the glue. He's been there. He's been available. He's kind of held it together playing outside and inside. He's done a lot of things for us, and he’s shown up, and definitely played a lot more this year than he’s probably ever played, so that’s different for him, trying to get his body ready for it week to week. He’s been really solid for us."
Carrie's inside-outside flexibility allows the coaching staff to fill voids whenever necessary. More importantly, he's the only cornerback to pan out into a decent contributor from McKenzie's draft classes.
At a reasonable dollar amount, the Raiders should retain Carrie. However, another club may lure him away with more cash and a defined starting role. In that case, McKenzie would need Amerson as the experienced cover defender to pair with Conley, who's only played 92 snaps during his rookie campaign.
Oakland shouldn't start the 2018 season with Conley and another rookie as starters on the perimeter. If Carrie signs elsewhere, Amerson becomes a must-hold player. We'd find out whether he experienced a bad year or the start of a premature decline.
Verdict: Re-sign T.J. Carrie; keep David Amerson if Carrie signs elsewhere
Target CBs Rashaan Melvin, Kyle Fuller to Rebuild Secondary
It's possible McKenzie parts ways with Smith, Amerson and Carrie, which leaves Conley, Dexter McDonald and Antonio Hamilton as holdovers from the previous 53-man roster.
The decision to fully rebuild the cornerback stable would also increase the need for an impact free-agent signing to uplift the pass defense.
Most teams will throw money at Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. He's going to hit the market as a heralded asset. Nonetheless, McKenzie doesn't often involve himself in bidding wars. It's even less likely with Mack's contract restricting overly aggressive offers.
The front office should have their sights set on cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin and Kyle Fuller.
In Week 10, with the Indianapolis Colts, Melvin asked for and put the clamps on Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, per Indianapolis Star reporter Stephen Holder. The star wideout logged three catches for 47 yards on seven targets.
At 28 years old, Melvin may sign for a shorter deal in the offseason, which allows the Raiders to gradually develop another cornerback from the 2018 draft.
Fuller put together a solid rookie season with four interceptions and 10 passes defensed during the 2014 campaign. However, he seemed to fall out of favor when John Fox accepted the Chicago Bears' head coaching position.
The 2014 first-rounder missed the entire 2016 campaign after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Fuller returned to action to start all nine games in 2017. He's logged 10 pass breakups but doesn't have an interception for the season.
Due to his dip in production, Oakland may have the opportunity to sign him on a cheaper deal. Oftentimes, it takes a full year before returning to athletic form.
As a first-round talent, McKenzie should consider rolling the dice on Fuller in free agency if he doesn't retain Amerson, Smith or Carrie.
Verdict: Prioritize free-agent cornerbacks
Re-Sign or Extend Safeties Reggie Nelson, Keith McGill
Oakland's secondary absolutely needs a playmaker at free safety.
In 2016, Reggie Nelson snagged five interceptions and went to the Pro Bowl. Through nine games in the current season, he doesn't have an interception and likely heads to the free-agent market in March.
Fellow safety Karl Joseph has four passes defensed, two more than Nelson. The 2016 first-rounder should shift over to free safety once the 34-year-old's contract expires in the offseason. Obi Melifonwu would slide into the strong safety spot.
Even though Keith McGill didn't develop into a starting safety or cornerback, he's flourished with the special teams unit. The decision to retain the 28-year-old defensive back wouldn't cost McKenzie much cash.
McGill would list as a backup safety alongside Shalom Luani. Essentially, the Raiders would allow an aging 11th-year veteran to hit the open market and keep a special teams asset who can add depth in the secondary.
Verdict: Allow Reggie Nelson to walk; re-sign Keith McGill
Extend or Allow PK Sebastian Janikowski to Walk?
"Giorgio's done a great job. He's really stepped up to the plate, and has been kicking well, so the need to bring another guy in here is not there, but "Seabass" is moving forward with his progress, and I think he will be ready to roll here shortly, if needed. Now, right now, there's no need to rush anything."
In so many words, McKenzie told the media Giorgio Tavecchio would continue to kick for the team unless he experiences a rough patch down the stretch.
Of course, the Raiders executive would speak carefully about a player who has spent 17 years with the franchise.
Nonetheless, it's an easy decision. As an exclusive right free agent, Tavecchio can't negotiate with another team during the offseason unless Oakland decides not to offer him a minimum qualifying deal.
McKenzie isn't going to pay a couple million to retain a 39-year-old kicker when his 27-year-old replacement drilled 12-of-14 field-goal attempts and three out of four from 50-plus yards.
Verdict: Allow Sebastian Janikowski to walk
Extend or Allow LB NaVorro Bowman to Walk?
In his first game, linebacker NaVorro Bowman provided a boost to the run defense. He brings experience to a position that desperately needs expertise with first- and second-year players in the film room.
McKenzie also commented on Bowman's potential return:
"Yes, he could be … He's a football player. Needless to say, his experience, and the way he plays; I'm talking about from an instincts and savvy standpoint, anytime you come two years off an injury, it's always going to be better than the next year, so that's not going to be a deterrent, but he can still play."
There's a running joke among Raider fans that McKenzie loves acquiring players coming off injuries. Bowman fits the mold. He suffered a torn Achilles tendon during the previous year. He also tore his MCL and ACL in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. There's a history there, but he's not damaged goods to the Oakland executive.
It's not a bad idea to re-sign Bowman to a short-term deal if he finishes the season on a strong note. However, McKenzie should prioritize younger linebackers such as Zach Brown, Kevin Minter, Preston Brown and Mason Foster who will hit the free-agent market.
Oakland must place a higher value on the inside linebacker spot with a long-term solution. McKenzie has to stop settling for mid-round draft picks and one- or two-year Band-Aids in the latter stages of their careers to address the position.
Verdict: Re-sign NaVorro Bowman but prioritize younger free-agent linebackers
Extend or Allow DT Justin Ellis to Walk?
It's difficult to judge whether a player will continue on an upward trajectory after a solid season during a contract year. Oftentimes, an expiring deal provides the only motivation to play well.
Defensive tackle Justin Ellis falls into the above category. He shed weight in the offseason, per Vic Tafur, previously with the San Francisco Chronicle:
"I am down to 338, about nine pounds off of last season. More lean muscle. I feel like I have been having decent seasons, but I wanted to do better, so I figured I would try this, move around a little better, be more active."
Ellis may keep his weight down, but will he return with the same motivation on a new deal?
McKenzie drafted interior defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Treyvon Hester in 2017. The third-rounder can take on two-gap assignments. The Toledo product projects as a three-technique defensive tackle equipped to rush the passer.
Oakland's deep defensive line rotation with Denico Autry, Darius Latham and Mario Edwards Jr. allow the front office to move forward without having to pay Ellis a long-term deal. He doesn't have enough value to force McKenzie to open the checkbook.
Verdict: Allow Justin Ellis to walk
Player contract details provided by Spotrac unless noted otherwise.