Last off-season, I had the Raiders as one of the worst teams in the NFL going into 2012, as so many years of poor roster management by Al Davis and the previous regime left new GM Reggie McKenzie pretty powerless in his first off-season with the team, in terms of cap flexibility and draft picks. Hue Jackson’s trade for Carson Palmer left them without a 1st round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, while Al Davis traded away their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round picks in other trades, leaving the new regime with very scarce resources to add talent through the draft. They also didn’t have a 1st round pick in 2011, thanks to a not quite as bad, but still shortsighted trade for Richard Seymour.
Al Davis’ various moves also left them in a very bad cap situation. This left the Raiders unable to sign any significant free agents or re-sign any of their own like Michael Bush. This also forced them to have to cut some players just to get under the cap including Kevin Boss, Stanford Routt, and Kamerion Wimbley. The latter was their best defensive player in 2011 and they actually paid him 6.5 million dollars to play for the Titans last season, rather than having to pay him 13 million to stay.
Well, this off-season they didn’t have much more flexibility. They had their draft picks this time around, for the most part. However, they also have roughly 50 million in dead money on their books, largely from previous regime moves, which essentially left the Raiders able to operate with 40-50 million dollars less than the average NFL team could. They lost several key contributors this off-season because of their cap situation.
Desmond Bryant was arguably their best defensive player. Philip Wheeler had a great season as a 3-down linebacker. Rolando McClain and Richard Seymour, for different reasons, were unable to play full seasons on the defensive side of the ball last season, but both played well when on the field. They’re gone. Starting defensive back Michael Huff is gone. On the offensive side of the ball, they lost their leading receiver Brandon Myers, as well as starting receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. With very little financial flexibility, they couldn’t sign big free agents to replace these guys.
On the defensive side of the ball alone, the Raiders have 9 new starters from last season, the vast majority of whom were signed to cheap, short term deals this off-season. They made some nice, cheap signings, but it’s really hard to bring in talent working with that kind of budget. On top of that, they have just 3 of their former 1st round picks on their roster, cornerback DJ Hayden, drafted this past April, running back Darren McFadden, an injury prone back on a short leash in his contract year, and kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who is, well, a kicker. This is as close to a replacement level roster as you can get.
They actually exceeded my expectations last season by winning 4 games, but they could be even worse this season. This is arguably the least talented roster in the NFL and it’s perfectly understandable why. Fortunately, they will have a lot more financial freedom next off-season so the new regime (assuming Al Davis’ son hasn’t fired them by then) will finally be able to work in a set of circumstances where it’s fair to evaluate them. On top of that, they could have another very high draft pick next season. Jadeveon Clowney, one of the top defensive prospects in the last 20 years, could be part of the light at the end of the tunnel for this franchise, which is an NFL worst 49-111 since 2003, the year after their improbable Super Bowl appearance.
In addition to all of the roster turnover on defense for the Raiders this off-season, they also have a new starting quarterback. After sending overpaid, declining veteran Carson Palmer to the Cardinals for a late round pick (enduring a cap hit in the process), the Raiders sent a late round pick to the Seahawks for Matt Flynn. Flynn will face a little bit of competition in Training Camp, but I would be shocked if he didn’t at least start the season at quarterback and probably make most of the starts.
Fourth round rookie Tyler Wilson has not gotten off to a good start in Training Camp, while the new regime doesn’t think very highly of Terrelle Pryor, keeping him behind Matt Leinart on the depth chart for most of last season. He didn’t impress in his one start week 17 and Al Davis drafted him 3 rounds before anyone else would have, taking him in the 3rd round of the 2011 supplemental draft because of his height/weight/speed. The quintessential Davis pick was the late owner’s final.
Flynn probably won’t impress as a starter, however. He has just 141 career attempts in 5 seasons, though his numbers look good, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.7 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. Green Bay’s supporting cast undoubtedly helped him put up those numbers and it’s too small of a sample size to say that the league was really wrong letting him fall to the 7th round of the 2008 NFL Draft. On tape, he does a few nice things, but is physically limited in terms of arm strength and profiles largely the same he did coming out of LSU, as a career backup, though perhaps an above average one. Going into his age 28 season, he is what he is at this point in his career.
Flynn had a shot to start last season in Seattle, after signing a 3-year, 19 million dollar contract with 10 million guaranteed thanks to his flashes with the Packers. However, he couldn’t hold off a 3rd round rookie for the starting job, despite his large salary, because of a poor Training Camp and pre-season. Of course we know now that 3rd round rookie is Russell Wilson, but hindsight is 20-20 and while the Seahawks clearly saw something in him more than the other teams in the NFL, I don’t think they knew he’d be this good this fast.
The point remains, Flynn lost his job to a 3rd round rookie based purely off said rookie’s strong Training Camp and pre-season. On top of that, he was passed on in free agency by former Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin and the Miami Dolphins, who reportedly didn’t see him as a franchise quarterback. If anything, Flynn is a decent stopgap at quarterback for the Raiders and nothing else.
At running back, Darren McFadden returns, at least for now. His supporters are always making excuses for him. Last year it was that he didn’t fit the blocking scheme (does that explain why he averaged just 1.9 yards per carry after contact, 3rd worst in the NFL, and broke just 16 tackles on 216 carries?) However, the fact remains that we’re entering year 6 of Darren McFadden in NFL and he’s never had more than 223 carries in a season, he averages just 4.3 yards per carry for his career, he’s coming off of a season in which he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, and he’s played just 57 of 80 possible games, maxing out with 13 games played in a season.
He obviously had plenty of natural talent coming out of Arkansas in 2008, when he was the consensus #1 back on the board and drafted 4th overall. However, it’s very possible that all of his injuries have taken a toll on him and sapped his explosiveness. It certainly looked that way last season when, in addition to averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, he graded out as by far ProFootballFocus’ worst rated running back, both overall and in terms of pure run grade, on tape. He also hurt his team as a receiver, managing a mere 6.1 yards per catch and dropping 8 passes, 2nd worst at his position. He also had the 6th worst blocking grade at his position, allowing 2 sacks, 4 hits, and 3 hurries by himself, on just 84 pass block snaps. He might never be the same player again, even when he’s on the field.
He’s going into his contract year and the regime that drafted him is gone. I find it very unlikely he’ll get a 2nd contract from the Raiders and might not get much on a 2nd contract anywhere. Good running backs have enough trouble getting 2nd contracts in today’s NFL. McFadden will be going into his age 27 season next off-season. No one is going to pay a lot of money for an aging running back who was already unreliable when he was younger.
The Raiders brought in Rashad Jennings from Jacksonville to be McFadden’s primary backup, a role that perennially sees a lot of action. However, Jennings averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on 101 carries last year, in place of an injured Maurice Jones-Drew, before going down with an injury of his own, landing on injured reserve with shoulder and concussion problems.
He did average 5.4 yards per carry in his first 2 years in the league in 2009 and 2010, after going in the 7th round in 2008, but a serious knee injury that cost him all of 2011 really seems to have put a damper on his career. He’s an injury prone player going into his age 28 season with marginal, at best, talent. The Jaguars thought so little of him that they put him on injured reserve in 2011, even though he could have played by week 5. The Raiders could easily regret not bulking up this position more.
Other options include Jeremy Stewart and Marcel Reece, who saw action in McFadden’s absence last season. Stewart, an undrafted rookie, didn’t really impress, rushing for just 101 yards on 25 carries. Reece was better as the do everything fullback showed he could move to running back in a pinch, rushing for 271 yards on 59 carries, but 6-1 255 pounder showed himself to be largely a plodder, as you could expect, maxing out with a 17 yard carry. As a fullback, he’s a great blocker and a talented receiver with 104 catches over the last 3 seasons, including 52 last season. That’s his best role. Latavius Murray, a 6th round rookie, could also see action at running back.
The excuse of the Raiders’ blocking does have some merit for McFadden. He probably would not have produced much either way, but they did do a terrible job of run blocking, grading out 3rd worst in that aspect on ProFootballFocus. They switched to a zone blocking scheme last season and it was very poorly executed by offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. That has been thrown in the garbage this season, in favor of a more traditional blocking scheme, and Knapp has been rightfully fired. It should help things somewhat on the offensive line, but it won’t fix the problem.
Mike Brisiel was brought over from Houston on 5-year, 20 million dollar deal to help with their transition to the zone blocking scheme. After all, he did grade out as an above average starter in that scheme with the Texans. However, he struggled mightily in Oakland’s poorly executed version, grading out 74th out of 81 eligible at his position. Now the zone blocking scheme is gone entirely and Brisiel is stuck in a power blocking scheme that he doesn’t fit at all. The Raiders restructured his contract to give them cap relief and keep him with the team, but he could face competition from 2012 undrafted free agent Lucas Nix. Opposite him, the Raiders will start Tony Bergstrom, a 2012 3rd round pick who graded out below average on 113 snaps as a rookie.
Things aren’t much better at right tackle. Starter Khalif Barnes missed 7 games with injury last season and in his absence Willie Smith was horrific, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th worst ranked offensive tackle despite such limited action. Barnes himself wasn’t much better, grading out 64th at the position in his limited action. The lead-footed 6-6 315 pounder was an awful fit for the blocking scheme, but even in a power blocking scheme he graded out well below average in 2011 with the Raiders, after coming over from Jacksonville, where he was not a starter. He’ll be pushed by 2nd round rookie Menelik Watson, an athletic, but very raw offensive tackle who I think will go the way of Bruce Campbell. He’s also yet to practice in Training Camp for a mysterious reason.
The bright spots on the offensive line are left tackle Jared Veldheer and center Stefen Wisniewski. Veldheer improved on a strong 2011 in which he ranked 17th at his position by grading out 12th at his position in 2012. The 2010 3rd round pick is going into a contract year this season and could be even better. He’s by far the Raiders’ best player and one of the last things Al Davis got right. Wisniewski, meanwhile, struggled as a 2nd round rookie in 2011, playing through injury and playing out of position, but he was much better in 2012, healthy and playing in his natural spot at center, where he graded out above average and ranked 17th at his position this past season. He too could be even better this season.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
As I mentioned, the Raiders lost leading receiver Brandon Myers, a tight end, and starting wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey this off-season, without really replacing either. With them gone, it’ll be up to 3rd year receiver Denarius Moore, who was 2nd on the team with 51 catches for 741 yards and 7 touchdowns. Moore had a very promising rookie year, catching 33 passes for 618 yards and 5 touchdowns on just 357 pass snaps.
However, he struggled to live up to expectations in 2012, recording just 714 yards on 520 pass snaps, catching just 46.4% of his targets, and dropping 9 passes, giving him one of the worst drop rates at his position. He could breakout in his 3rd year in the league, when so many receivers break out, but his inconsistency dates back to his days at Tennessee, part of why he went in the 5th round, and his deep threat ability doesn’t make him that compatible with weaker armed Matt Flynn at quarterback.
Rod Streater, more of a possession receiver, figures to be the more compatible with Flynn among their starting receivers. The undrafted rookie showed what he could do down the stretch, catching 18 passes for 351 receiving yards and 1 touchdown in his final 5 games, after struggling to live up to the expectations of his strong pre-season early in the year. He might be their leading receiver this year.
After him on the depth chart, the Raiders have Jacoby Ford, a once promising receiver, who has managed to play in just 8 games of the last 2 seasons thanks to injury. He’s already hurt again in Training Camp. If/when he misses regular season snaps, #4 receiver Juron Criner would take his spot. The 2012 5th round pick played 169 snaps as a rookie.
Things are even worse at tight end. After Brandon Myers, no one played more than 99 snaps at tight end last season and Myers is gone. David Ausberry, a 2011 7th round pick who has played 142 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, catching 9 passes, will compete with fellow “veteran” Richard Gordon, a 6th round pick from that same draft who played 138 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, catching 3 passes. Rookies Mychal Rivera and Nick Kasa will also be in the mix, though they were just 6th round picks. It shows how desperate things are at the position. Overall, they lack talent throughout their offense and this is the stronger side of the ball.
As I mentioned, the Raiders return just 2 starters from their 2012 defense. One of those players is defensive end LaMarr Houston. Like Jared Veldheer on the offensive side of the ball, Houston is a diamond in the rough on this team and probably their 2nd best player after Veldheer. The 2010 2nd round pick improved upon a 2011 season in which he ranked 19th at his position by ranking 9th at his position in 2012.
The 290 pounder is obviously better against the run than as a pass rusher, but he did grade above average as a pass rusher in 2012 with 5 sacks, 14 hits, and 35 hurries on 473 pass rush snaps, a 11.4% pass rush rate, along with grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #2 ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run. He’s also got the ability to move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs, something he could do more of this season considering their lack of depth at the position (more on that in a minute).
Both Houston and Veldheer are set to hit free agency next off-season and the Raiders should use some of their little remaining cap space to sign one to an extension. They’ll have to backload it, which they’ll be able to do because of all of their impending cap space, but they can’t allow either to leave with how little talent they have on their roster. They can franchise tag the other one.
The rest of the defensive line leaves something to be desired though, and that’s putting it lightly. Andre Carter and Jason Hunter will rotate with Houston at defensive end. Carter was great in 2011 with New England, grading out 11th at his position, but injuries led to him not being picked up until mid-season in 2012, when the Raiders snatched him up. He graded out just about average on 323 snaps as a part time player from week 6 on. Going into his age 34 season, his best days are behind him.
Jason Hunter, meanwhile, is a mediocre career backup coming off of a season in which he didn’t play a snap thanks to a torn triceps. He signed a 1 year deal for essentially the veteran’s minimum coming over from Denver. When last we saw him in 2011, he graded out below average on 371 snaps with the Broncos. He’s going into his age 30 season as well. 2012 5th round pick Jack Crawford could also see snaps after playing just 50 snaps as a rookie last season.
As I mentioned, they’re also thin at defensive tackle. The Raiders brought in another two players on one year deals at defensive tackle this off-season, Vance Walker and Pat Sims. Walker has the most upside of the two and could have a breakout year in what should be his biggest role yet. Walker was a 7th round pick out of Georgia Tech by the Atlanta Falcons in 2009 and he was immediately part of Atlanta’s defensive tackle rotation.
Walker continued to see his role expand on a yearly basis, increasing his snap total every year, leading up to a 2012 season in which he played in 539 regular season snaps and then another 59 in 2 games in the post-season. He started almost every game and while he wasn’t a full-time player, splitting snaps with Peria Jerry and Corey Peters, he was 2nd on the team in snaps played by defensive tackles behind Jonathan Babineaux.
In his expanded role, Walker had the best season of his career in 2012, ranking 17th among defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus. While his strength was playing the run, he did have 3 sacks, 1 hit, and 15 hurries on 326 pass rush snaps, a 6.7% pass rush rate. In Oakland, he’ll be surrounded by much less supporting talent, but he’ll also get his first chance to be a full-time player and he could really break out as one of the better defensive tackles in the league. He was well worth the risk on a 1 year, 2 million dollar contract.
Sims, meanwhile, is someone you know what you’re getting from. He’s a mediocre career backup and situational run stuffer who has played just 481 snaps in the last 2 seasons combined. There’s a reason why he had to settle for a 1 year, 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Christo Bilukidi will also be in the mix. He graded out below average on 249 snaps as a 6th round rookie last season. 6th round rookie Stacy McGee could also be in the mix. The Raiders will really miss Desmond Bryant, who graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle last season, before signing a 5 year, 34 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season.
The Raiders will start an entirely new trio at linebacker this season. Miles Burris, ProFootballFocus’ worst rated 4-3 outside linebacker last season as a 4th round rookie, will be a reserve. The talented Rolando McClain was cut for character problems both off the field and on the practice field. Philip Wheeler, meanwhile, signed a 5-year 26 million dollar contract with the Dolphins this season, after grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season. He’ll be missed.
To replace Wheeler, the Raiders signed Kevin Burnett to a 1 year, 3 million dollar deal. Burnett was ironically cut by the Dolphins when they signed Wheeler this off-season. Even though he was replaced by him in Miami, Burnett actually graded out better than Wheeler did last season, ranking 4th at his position among 4-3 outside linebackers. However, the reason the Dolphins replaced him with Wheeler was that he is heading into his age 31 season this year and could be on the decline.
At middle linebacker, the Raiders brought in Kaluka Maiava from Cleveland. Maiava actually graded out 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers last season, despite playing just 498 snaps, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and he’s never been a full time starter. They’re taking a risk with him, especially trying to convert him to middle linebacker, but it could pay off. On a 3-year, 6 million dollar deal, it might be worth the risk.
Finally, at the 3rd linebacker spot, veteran Nick Roach comes over from Chicago. He’ll probably play a two-down base package role, like he did in Chicago, and come off the field on obvious passing downs for a 5th defensive back. He’s been largely an average player in that role for 2 seasons in Chicago. 3rd round rookie Sio Moore, meanwhile, could see a situational role and may also play some defensive end. The 6-1 245 pounder is a promising hybrid player for the future, but it’s unclear how much of a positive impact he can have as a rookie.
The other returning starter on defense, to go with defensive lineman LaMarr Houston, is safety Tyvon Branch. Branch has never been a great player, but he’s graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons as a starter and he was signed to a 4-year, 26.6 million dollar deal last off-season after being franchised (it was restructured to a 6-year deal for cap purposes this off-season), so he’s an asset.
Branch will play opposite free agent acquisition Charles Woodson, who returns to Oakland from Green Bay. Woodson is a Raider legend (and a Packer legend) and a future Hall of Famer, but father time is undefeated. He turns 37 this season and already showed signs of decline last season in Green Bay, grading out roughly average in the regular season in 7 games (missing 9 with injury), before returning for the post-season and struggling mightily in two games. His days of being even an average starter are likely gone.
At cornerback, the Raiders have a trio of off-season acquisitions competing for two starting spots. DJ Hayden was their 1st round pick, 12th overall. He’s a talented cornerback, but a near deadly heart injury suffered late last season put his career in jeopardy. He’s been cleared medically to continue playing and doesn’t seem to be at risk of re-injury and the Raiders obviously think the world of him. If they had been unable to trade down from #3 overall, they would have just taken him there. He was the #3 player on their board after the top two tackles Joeckel and Fisher and filled a bigger need.
That isn’t a sentiment that the rest of the league shared though (why they were able to get him at #12) and some teams had him off the board entirely for medical reasons. He already underwent surgery for scar tissue this off-season and has yet to be cleared for contact. During OTAs earlier this off-season, he reportedly couldn’t stop vomiting. Time will tell if their bold evaluation of him was correct, but there’s no denying it was a very, very risky pick, probably the riskiest of the entire 1st round. It’s tough to count on rookies anyway.
He’ll compete with Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter for a starting job and missing practice time isn’t helping matters. Fortunately for him (not the Raiders), those two veterans don’t represent much competition. Porter has been better in the past, but the 2009 season in which he graded out positively and scored the clinching touchdown of the Super Bowl on a pick-six seem long gone now.
He’s graded out below average in the last 3 seasons, having his worst year in 2011, when he graded out 91st out of 109 eligible cornerbacks. He’s also missed 31 of 80 games in his career and never played more than 14 (2011), including 10 games missed last year with seizures, rapid heartbeat, light headedness, and a concussion. The cause of his mysterious health problems has not been found. It’s obviously a risk. The 2008 2nd round pick may never be the same player again. There’s a reason why he had to settle for a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar contract from the Raiders this off-season.
Jenkins was also drafted in 2008, going in the first round, and he also had a strong 2009 season, when he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked cornerback and made the Pro-Bowl. However, he also hasn’t been anywhere near as good since. He was ProFootballFocus’ 91st ranked cornerback out of 100 eligible in 2010 and though he graded out just about average in 2011, he still lost his starting job going into 2012.
In 2012, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 94th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible, despite playing just 374 snaps. Only 4 players played fewer snaps and graded out worse than he did. He’s also had work ethic issues in the past and issues with coaches. Like Porter, there’s a reason why he had to settle for a 1-year deal this off-season. He’ll make just 1.5 million. Jenkins and Porter are the type of players you get when you have to hit the bargain bin for starters, as are several others on this defense like Pat Sims and Jason Hunter.
The bright spot at cornerback for the Raiders is Joselio Hanson. He graded out above average as a slot specialist for the Raiders last season and will continue to serve in that role this year, though he’s probably not capable of playing outside at 5-9 170. He was also good on the slot in Philadelphia prior to signing with the Raiders last off-season. Overall though, this is one of the worst defenses in the league. They were 29th in the NFL allowing 27.7 points per game last season and they were on their way to being one of the worst scoring defenses in all time before they ran into the equally horrible Chiefs’ offense week 16 and shut them out. They could be the worst scoring defense in the NFL this season.
Dennis Allen came into this job last off-season incredibly inexperienced as far as Head Coaches go. He was Denver’s defensive coordinator for just 1 year (when they ranked just 24th defensively I might add) and before that he had just 3 years of experience as a head position coach, coaching the Saints’ secondary from 2008-2010. Before that, he was an assistant defensive line coach with the Saints for 2 years. In his first year on the job, he went 4-12. It was a tough situation to win many games in, but he didn’t do much to prove himself.
Along with Jacksonville, the Raiders have the least amount of talent in the NFL thanks to years of poor management. With roughly 50 million in dead money and only one first round pick from 2001-2012 still on their roster, it makes plenty of sense why they have such little talent. The Raiders did a solid job adding cheap talent on short term deals this off-season, but it won’t be enough. They’ll be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Only home games against San Diego, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Philadelphia appear winnable. I have them at 1-15 with the Jaguars as the worst team in the NFL.
Projection: 1-15 4th in AFC West