General manager Reggie McKenzie spent his first two seasons in Oakland cutting high-salaried players and getting the Raiders out of salary cap hell. The Raiders entered free agency this year with around $65 million in cap space, and McKenzie started spending like a man who had won the lottery. He signed nearly a dozen free agents, most of them in their late 20s and early 30s, veterans with strong résumés and huge chips on their shoulders.
“We’re just kind of the throwaways it seems like,” says former Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew. “Everybody here has something to prove. We all know we have something left, whether it was a bad year last year or things didn’t work out from another team, whatever it may be. As a whole, we’re fighting for the same thing, which is respect.”
The Raiders’ free-agent haul also included ex-Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, former Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and former Green Bay wide receiver James Jones. All three own Super Bowl rings. McKenzie used more of the Raiders’ cap space when he traded for quarterback Matt Schaub, another veteran with something to prove.
After back-to-back 4–12 seasons, McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen will face some heat in Year 3 of their regime. Team owner Mark Davis has proven to be more patient than his father, the late Al Davis, but his patience has limits.
Oakland hopes the 33-year-old Schaub can resurrect his career and rejuvenate the Raiders’ passing attack. Schaub has passed for more than 4,000 yards three times in his career, but he’s coming off his worst season and was benched in Houston. At one point, he threw a pick-six in four straight games, setting an NFL record. Schaub finished with 10 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and a passer rating of 73.0, by far his lowest since being traded by Atlanta to Houston in 2007. If Schaub falters, Allen’s options will probably be rookie Derek Carr, a second-round pick, and second-year pro Matt McGloin, who started six games last season.
[inline_team_schedule team-id=16 date=20141001 sport=nfl][/inline_team_schedule]
The Raiders added some experience to their young receiving corps by signing Jones. He made 30 starts over the past two seasons for Green Bay, catching a combined 123 passes for 1,601 yards and 17 touchdowns. Rod Streater, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2012, led the Raiders with 60 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns last season. At 6'3" and 200 pounds, Streater is a big, physical receiver who could complement the smaller, quicker Jones. Denarius Moore has speed to get deep and a knack for making acrobatic catches, but he has lacked consistency since coming to Oakland as a fifth-round pick in 2011 out of Tennessee. Tight end Mychal Rivera, another Tennessee product, flashed big-play ability as a rookie.
If they can stay healthy, Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden could form a powerful one-two punch at running back. Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing in 2011 with 1,606 yards, his third straight season cracking the 1,300-yard mark. He has 8,071 career rushing yards but averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry last season when he rushed for just 803 yards. McFadden, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 draft, has been plagued by injuries and has just one 1,000-yard rushing season. In a surprise move, the Raiders re-signed him for one year. Jones-Drew seems more suited for a starting role in the Raiders’ power-running scheme, but McFadden adds explosiveness and versatility with his skill as a pass-catcher. Fullback Marcel Reece, coming off his second straight Pro Bowl season, is another versatile weapon.
Jones-Drew, McFadden and Reece will run behind a new-look offensive line. The Raiders, who lost starting left tackle Jared Veldheer as a free agent to Arizona and released starting right guard Mike Brisiel, could have four new starters joining holdover center Stefen Wisniewski. Menelik Watson, a second-round pick last year, will get a chance to win the starting job at right tackle. Donald Penn, a free-agent pickup from Tampa Bay, is ticketed for left tackle. Former New York Jet Austin Howard should take Brisiel’s spot at right guard unless Watson falters and he’s needed at right tackle. Kevin Boothe, who returned to the Raiders after seven seasons with the New York Giants, will battle Khalif Barnes and rookie Gabe Jackson at left guard.
The Raiders allowed 453 points last year, the second-highest total in franchise history. They ranked 28th against the pass, 13th against the run and 22nd in total defense. A defensive makeover was in order, and that’s what McKenzie and Allen delivered. The Raiders desperately needed to bolster their anemic pass rush and improve their secondary, especially at cornerback. They used free agency to address both needs. They also used the No. 5 overall draft pick to land outside linebacker Khalil Mack, a gifted pass-rusher and a disruptive force.
Tuck will start at right end, while Woodley, an outside linebacker with Pittsburgh, will start at left end in Oakland’s 4-3 scheme. Tuck has 60.5 career sacks, including 11 last season. He’ll likely move inside and play tackle in the nickel, with Mack lining up at right end. Woodley has 57 career sacks. Former Texan Antonio Smith is expected to start at one tackle spot and add a pass-rush push up the middle.
The Raiders signed former 49er cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. Brown will likely start along with D.J. Hayden, a first-round draft pick last season. Rogers is expected to be the nickel and could start if Hayden struggles after an injury-plagued rookie season. Hayden underwent surgery earlier this summer to repair a stress fracture in his foot, which has turned him into merely an observer during training camp. The team is hopeful he will be back on the field before the end of the preseason. Free safety Charles Woodson, another veteran with a Super Bowl ring, decided to play another season after returning to the Raiders from Green Bay last year. Starting strong safety Tyvon Branch returns after missing the final 14 games last season with a broken leg.
Mack appears ticketed to start at weak-side linebacker. Middle linebacker Nick Roach, a former Chicago Bear, led the Raiders with 112 tackles and had 5.5 sacks last year, his first with Oakland. Strong-side linebacker Sio Moore, a third-round pick from Connecticut, had 50 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a rookie.
Marquette King took over for long-time punter Shane Lechler and averaged an NFL-best 48.9 yards per punt as a rookie. King, however, had a net of just 40.1, tied for 12th in the league. He needs to combine more control and accuracy with his power. Placekicker Sebastian Janikowski had an off year after signing a four-year contract extension. Taiwan Jones, who has developed into a special teams coverage ace, averaged 24 yards on kickoff returns.
If Schaub can regain his 4,000-yard passing form, Oakland’s free-agent pickups produce and Mack makes an impact, the Raiders have a chance to finish .500. Of course, those are big ifs, and the Raiders face a killer schedule that includes games against defending Super Bowl champion Seattle, New England and San Francisco.