Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie was just warming up last year when he overhauled the scouting department and made a few changes to his roster. The heavy lifting on what is clearly a complete reconstruction project in Oakland began after the Raiders capped a disheartening 4–12 season in Year 1 under McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen.
When he was hired by Raiders owner Mark Davis, McKenzie said he inherited some “out of whack” contracts that he’d have to deal with in order to bring fiscal sanity and flexibility to the Raiders. So after last season, he whacked wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, free safety Michael Huff and linebacker Rolando McClain, three players drafted in the top 10 by the late Al Davis.
McKenzie traded quarterback Carson Palmer to Arizona after the veteran declined to take a big pay cut and replaced him with the more affordable Matt Flynn, acquired in a deal with Seattle. He also cut highly paid defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and made no effort to re-sign defensive tackle Richard Seymour or punter Shane Lechler.
By next season, most of the Raiders’ massive amount of “dead money” should disappear, and they’ll have plenty of salary cap room to pursue free agents or lock up their own players. This season, they’ll try to survive with a Moneyball-like roster packed with affordable players, many of them on one-year contracts.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 15th
The Palmer era in Oakland ended after less than two full seasons, and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s second stint with the Raiders lasted only one year. Knapp’s zone blocking scheme never fit running back Darren McFadden’s downhill running style. Shortly after the season ended, Allen fired Knapp, acknowledging his own mistake of promoting a system that didn’t fit his personnel. New Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson and assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tony Sparano will rely on a power running scheme that’s suited to McFadden and a less complex offense that shouldn’t take the Raiders so long to pick up.
But the question remains: Can McFadden stay healthy? He missed the final nine games in 2011 with a Lisfranc foot injury. Last year he missed four games with a high ankle sprain. He’s missed 23 games over five seasons because of injuries, and now he’s entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Palmer passed for 4,018 yards last season but was traded to the Cardinals in a move to save money and get younger. It’s highly debatable, however, whether the Raiders passing attack will be better with the unproven Flynn. That’s assuming Flynn can win the job, something he couldn’t do last year in Seattle when third-round draft pick Russell Wilson was named the starter after a stellar preseason. The Raiders will likely have a package of plays for quarterback Terrelle Pryor designed to take advantage of his running ability, but he has one career start and has yet to prove he has enough passing accuracy or arm strength to be an NFL starter.
The Raiders haven’t had a clear-cut No. 1 receiver who puts fear into opposing defenses since Tim Brown was in his prime. That will likely be the case again this season with the wildly inconsistent Denarius Moore the top returning receiver. Tight end Brandon Myers, who led the team with 79 catches, signed with the Giants as a free agent, and returning tight ends Richard Gordon and David Ausberry have combined for 12 career catches in two seasons.
Four starters on the offensive line were set to return, but left tackle Jared Veldheer, the anchor of this group, sustained a partially torn triceps on Aug. 3 and opted for surgery. He is expected to be out at least three months, which does leave open the possibility of a late-season return. While the loss of Veldheer obviously hurts, the hope is that the line as a unit will fare better blocking in a power running scheme. The Raiders kept right guard Mike Brisiel, a former Texan who had a disastrous, injury-plagued 2012 season after signing a big free agent contract. They re-signed right tackle Khalif Barnes.
It wasn’t until late last season that the Raiders started catching on to the aggressive, multiple defense that Allen and rookie defensive coordinator Jason Tarver installed. Only three starters from that defense — strong safety Tyvon Branch, left end Lamarr Houston and weak-side linebacker Miles Burris — are still on the roster, and Burris could lose his job to former Miami Dolphin Kevin Burnett. So Allen and Tarver had better hope the newcomers are quick studies, or they could be in for another rough start.
McKenzie did most of his work in free agency on the defensive side, adding eight potential new starters: linebackers Nick Roach, Kaluka Maiava and Burnett, cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins, defensive tackles Vance Walker and Pat Sims and defensive end Jason Hunter. McKenzie also brought long-time Raider and the team's first-round pick in 1998, free safety Charles Woodson, back into the fold. Of those, only Roach, Maiava and Burnett received multi-year contracts. That trio of linebackers should help make up for the loss of talented strong-side backer Philip Wheeler to Miami as a free agent.
Last year, McKenzie signed cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, a pair of veteran free agents coming off injuries. Both were injured early in the season and barely saw the field. This year he signed Porter and Jenkins, two younger corners trying to get their careers back on track, and used his top draft pick on Houston corner D.J. Hayden, who should start as a rookie. Porter started just four games last year for Denver during a season marred by a concussion and a seizure. Jenkins has 48 career starts but started just twice last year for Dallas. Porter and Young should adapt quickly to the Raiders’ defense.
McKenzie did little to help the Raiders’ low-voltage pass rush, which is still in desperate need of a force off the edge.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski, one of the NFL’s most accurate long-range weapons, returns for his 14th season, but Lechler left as a free agent and signed with Houston after 13 years with the Raiders. Lechler was a seven-time Pro Bowl punter and was named first-team All-Pro six times, but he had an off year in 2012 after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Marquette King, who spent last season on injured reserve as a rookie free agent, is a more affordable option. He has a big leg but lacks consistency and NFL experience.
Explosive return man Jacoby Ford missed the entire 2012 season with a Lisfranc foot injury that required surgery. He has a franchise-record four kickoff returns for touchdowns. If he recovers fully, Ford will likely take over the punt return duties, too.
Final Analysis: 4th in AFC West
After winning only four games in 2012, the Raiders appear headed for another painful season. They’ve missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons and will need a miracle to stop that streak this year. The defense should be a little better. How could it be worse? On offense, the Raiders will need McFadden to stay healthy and Flynn to exceed expectations to have any chance of surpassing last year’s win total.
Order your 2013 Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
NY Jets (8/15)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)
Tampa Bay (8/15)