It’s March, which means, according to science, you’ve inevitably given up on your New Year’s resolutions. Would you like another chance at a fresh start? Well, you’re in luck! March 11th marks the beginning of the NFL’s fiscal year, when contracts officially come off the books and the free agent process begins. Teams will fight to get under the salary cap, re-sign star players and strategize their use of the franchise tag. Basically, it’s the GM’s time to shine.
For the Oakland Raiders, the last few New Years have failed as spectacularly as my resolution to quit crystal meth. Coming off back to back 4-12 seasons, and navigating contract hell, the Raiders have been at the bottom of the NFL for years now. However, with shrewd maneuvering and some patience, GM Reggie McKenzie has managed to create a favorable salary cap situation, setting the Raiders up to be one of the most intriguing teams this offseason.
McKenzie had his work cut out for him after all the damage Al Davis did before his death in 2011. For starters, Al threw away draft picks like yesterday’s trash: only four picks in 2008, no first round in 2011 and no first or second in 2012. This deprived the Raiders of young, cheap talent. That deficit proved especially detrimental, when later in life, Davis started throwing insane money at anyone who could run a fast 40. Players like Randy Moss, Javon Walker, and JaMarcus Russell never played up to expectations, yet their bloated contracts still haunt the Raiders books, despite long having moved on.
It took McKenzie three seasons to get out from under that mountain of dead money. I mean we are talking mad stacks homie. With $65 million, that’s right, $65 million, in cap space to work with this year, the Raiders can accelerate their rebuilding process and still have enough to buy a small island off the cost of Europe.
Like every team in the NFL, the Raiders have their own free agents that they must deal with first, before pursuing new talent. In house, the team is concerned with resigning safety Charles Woodson, running back Rashad Jennings and either Tracy Porter or Mike Jenkins at cornerback. However, there are two bigger names, in particular, that NEED to be resigned.
Jared Veldheer and Lamar Houston are arguably the best two players on the Oakland Raiders roster. That may not be saying much, but Veldheer and Houston are the real deal. Jared Veldheer, the left tackle out of Hillsdale, missed the first 11 games due to a tricep injury and was sorely missed. The Raiders pass protection finished in the bottom four without the Hulk protecting the blind spot.
Lamarr Houston is without a doubt my favorite Raiders player. A tenacious defensive end, the former Longhorn looked like he was on his way to Hawai’i until opposing offenses realized he was the Raider’s only real threat, and started double or triple teaming him. Both Veldheer and Houston are only 26 and are about to hit their prime. Besides being borderline pro-bowlers, both players are team leaders. Veldheer has complained about the lack of urgency with extension talks, and with recent rumor swirling that Veldheer is heading to the Cards and Houston to the Pack, McKenzie has some work cut out for him, yet again.
In free agency, the Raiders not only need to add talent, which is severely lacking, but they also need to address depth. To put it kindly, the Raiders depth chart resembled a kiddie pool. As I stated above, the most glaring weakness is their putrid pass rush and with the possibility of Houston leaving. Enter Jared Allen.
Jared Allen is like the crazy, redneck, bathtub-wine of the NFL. He only gets better with age. In the last three seasons Allen has a combined total of 35.5 sacks and nearly broke the NFL single season sack record of 22.5 sacks three years ago. Last season he tied for 7th with 11.5 sacks. Need more? Allen is also one of the biggest characters that the NFL has seen in some time.
The dude bleeds red white and blue. For an entire season Allen rocked a mullet, and he big game hunts with a spear. Awesome! The only problem is Allen is 32 next season, and is still looking for his chance at the Super Bowl. It falls to McKenzie to convince Allen that, with his help, the Raiders will be quick to turn things around. There are reports that Allen has narrowed his list to 5 teams and rumors are that the Raiders are still in that top 5. So, if McKenzie can make Allen believe in the commitment to excellence, don’t be surprised to see number 69 in the Silver & Black.
The second most pressing issue is their offensive line and with the almost seer certainty that Jared Veldheer is heading to the desert bulking up and adding depth at the O-Line is almost as pressing of an issue as the pass rush. This leads me to the name that has been connected to the Raiders in the last 48 hours, Rodger Saffold.
The five year man from Indiana, Saffold, has the ability to play both Tackle and Guard positions but may be better as a Guard. Saffold played his first few years at guard then switched to right tackle this year when the Rams signed Jake Long. He had a solid season for the Rams at right tackle and right guard playing against some of the best rushers. A big concern is that he has missed 17 games over the last three seasons, but when healthy he Saffold has proven himself. Is Saffold an upgrade over Jared Veldheer? Not really, but he is the same age and has just as much upside. It’s still not out of the realm to sign both Veldheer and Saffold, but paying two offensive linemen upwards of 7 million a year, when you have as many holes that the Raiders do, is not the path to above .500 football.
Which still leaves the crucial question: who would they be protecting? The higher ups in Oakland have publicly stated they don’t believe that the future QB is on the roster. However, the Raiders have also stated that they don’t want to start a rookie QB next year. This leads us to the two best options in free agency, Josh Freeman and Michael Vick.
A lot of talk surrounds the possibility of Josh Freeman coming to Oak-Town. Current OC, Greg Olsen, was the OC when Freeman had his best years in Tampa, and the Raiders were considered the front runner when Freeman was on the trading block earlier in the season. While Freeman may be a good fit, the better option, to me, is Vick. We all know about Vick’s past but he has clearly matured as a person. Michael Vick has shown that he can still sling the football but more importantly he has proven to be a great teammate unlike Freeman who I view as a cancerous teammate. When Vick went down to injury he became Nick Foles biggest supporter and teacher. This is exactly what the Raiders need right now, a guy who can keep them competitive while giving a drafted QB time to develop into a stud. Okay, let’s be honest, he’ll buy the guy five games before he gets injured again but hey we’ll all know what we’re getting into with Vick. It’d be a lot easier to quarterback in Oakland, though, if they had an offensive weapon.
The Oakland Raiders desperately need a number one wide out and have needed one for quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, Denarius Moore is a good deep threat and the homeboy Rod Streater has proven that he has the potential to be an excellent number two. However, adding someone like Hakeem Nicks would free up Moore and Streater to reach the next level of development. The addition of Hakeem Nicks would allow Streater to continue his role as a passion number two/slot and let Denarius Moore come in three receiver sets. Even with Nicks coming off a subpar season (trust me, he killed my fantasy team) where he caught 56 passes for 896 and ZERO TD’s, he would have been second on the Raiders in both catches and yards. The former Tar Heel has proven that he is a number one when healthy, so hopefully with a change of scenery Nicks can become the stud we all know he can be.
This is a big offseason for the Raiders brass. For the first time in forever, the Raider have money and a full load of draft picks. Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen have been given another chance to prove that they are indeed the right men to steer the Oakland Raiders back to relevancy. I realize that the Raiders have a tough slate ahead of them, but this doesn’t mean that McKenzie and DA’s seat will start to feel warm if they don’t improve on back-to-back 4-12 seasons. Realistically Raider fans aren’t asking for much. A 6-10 record is good enough for me. If the Raiders can get a few of the top tier free agents listed above and keep their own, this will go a long way to turning around this franchise. Here’s hoping that the Black Hole will finally see some light after this long tunnel of futility.