Short-Term Free Agents to Consider for Raiders

Hello and Welcome to the Autumn Wind Blog!

It’s been a while, #RaiderNation. Since the last post, we’ve gone from top 5 pick to top 5 Super Bowl contenders. We have a legit quarterback, beast offensive line, stud receiver and perennial DPOY candidate, plus a long-term coach for the first time since Jon Gruden (1998-2001). The future is bright in Oakland, Las Vegas, Mars, or wherever the Silver & Black end up calling home.

Despite going 12-4, this roster is not without its weaknesses. With over $47 million in cap space, Reggie McKenzie and Co. can do some shopping to fill holes, but that cap space is about to tighten up. A new deal for Derek Carr is expected this off-season, while big extensions for Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, and possibly Gabe Jackson are coming in the next one to two years. Given the ability to win now, I foresee the Raiders front-office going for short-term deals to fill the current roster holes in order to maximize cap flexibility. Here are five veterans who could be had on short deals that would bolster this team for a legit Super Bowl run.

Andrew Whitworth, OT

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Whether it was the slow-footed Austin Howard or “wait till next year” Menelik Watson, right tackle was a glaring weakness for the Raiders in 2016. Seeing Jadeveon Clowney and Von Miller abuse our right side and then Derek Carr break his leg (due to pressure from the left) should be just the prescription for an aggressive solution to this problem.

Enter Andrew Whitworth. Now, soon-to-be 36 year-olds aren’t usually a hot commodity, but Whitworth has maintained amazing consistency during his 11 seasons in Cincinnati. The question here would be if either he or Donald Penn would be willing to switch to and excel at playing Right Tackle, a position neither has played in the NFL. If Whitworth is willing to chase a title on a one year, $7.5 million deal, he would be the final piece in the NFL’s best offensive line.

Pierre Garçon, WR

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In 2016, Player A had 1 drop compared to 79 catches and an impressive 69% catch-to-target rate. Player B had some late-game heroics but totaled 5 drops compared to only 38 catches and a poor 49% catch rate. Player A was free agent Pierre Garçon. Player B? Incumbent slot receiver Seth Roberts. Garçon has totaled more than 750 yards receiving and at least 68 catches in his four years in Washington. He’s coming off a 1,031 yard campaign and 79 catches, and is a prolific route-runner out of the slot.

Garçon’s 52 catches for a first down in 2016 ranked 12th in the NFL, meaning he would give Derek Carr a great option over the middle on 3rd down to complement the outside duo of Coop & Crab. Maybe his presence could remind Crabtree, who lead the league in drops, how to catch the ball consistently. If Garçon is okay being the #3 on a prolific offense, a two year, $16 million deal would likely do it, front-loaded of course.

Perry Riley Jr., MLB

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Ben Heeney & Cory James. Alex, what are career backup linebackers? Those are your current 2017 contenders at MLB, a similar situation to what the Raiders saw this past year. The results were not good. Heeney was replaced after two games of abysmal defense, and James saw his first two career starts before being supplanted by in-season free agent signing Perry Riley Jr. The defense made noticeable strides after solidifying the middle. With Riley in the lineup, Oakland allowed more than 5 fewer points per game (27.6 ppg over 5 games vs. 22.3 ppg over 11 Riley starts).

Now, some of the improvement was the result of new pieces jelling, but there is no doubting Riley’s ability in this defense. He’s currently Pro Football Focus’ #2 graded free agent linebacker, with borderline elite grades against the run. I am fully comfortable signing Riley to a two year, $7 million contract, similar to what Malcolm Smith received but with proof of concept in our scheme to back it up.

Eddie Lacy, RB

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I saved Fat Eddie for later in this post so that new and returning readers wouldn’t hit “Back” and block this blog immediately. I know his story: always overweight, oft injured, yada yada yada. But the nice thing about players who have flashed brilliance but been an overall disappointment is that they tend to come cheap. The funny thing is, Lacy was on pace for a career year before ankle surgery sent him to the I.R.

Through five games, Lacy averaged 72 yards rushing per game and 5.1 YPC; a full yard per carry more than fellow free agent Latavius Murray. Lacy’s bruising running style would complement the scat-back duo of 2nd year players Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington to form a formidable three-headed monster. A one year, $3 million contract could keep Lacy in his P90X workout mode and provide the Raiders with a cheaper replacement for Murray, who will likely command a silly large deal from a running back needy team.

Captain Munnerlyn, CB

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“Pass Interference. Defense, Number 25.” Stop me if this sounds familiar. Over the course of his career, when not injured, D.J. Hayden has drawn an astounding 31 penalties to the tune of 391 yards. That’s five more penalties than his 26 career pass deflections! I’d love to say he’s improving, but the numbers are hard to argue. The solution: O Captain! My Captain!

In 160 more snaps, Captain Munnerlyn only drew four penalties in 2016 compared to Hayden’s eight. With plenty of experience in both Nickel and Dime, Munnerlyn can be a versatile piece to complement the weaknesses of Sean Smith (short, quick receivers). Reggie McKenzie may not have given up on D.J. Hayden, but I sure have. Give me two years of Captain at around $8 million for a quality slot defender.

Summary

There you have it! Five short-term signings who can help put Oakland over the edge in 2017. Even if we signed all five, we could afford our rookie class plus the first year of Carr’s extension, depending on how that is structured and who we cut. Thoughts? Hate it or love it, let me know on Twitter @Josh_Gabel.

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Projected 53-man Roster

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With mandatory Mini-Camps wrapping up and Training Camp 6 weeks away, I thought I’d take a look inside my crystal ball to project who will make the final 53-man roster come week 4 of the preseason. Feel free to agree or disagree, as this is merely an educated speculation.

QB: Palmer, Leinart, Pryor
My take: Carson Palmer is the clear starter, but the battle for back-up QB could get intriguing if Terrelle Pryor continues to impress and improve.

RB: McFadden, Goodson, Jones
My take: This is a speedy, talented group. Darren McFadden is an All-Pro and rushing title-contender when healthy. Taiwan Jones may be the fastest player on the team. Mike Goodson is talented but needs to prove he can hang onto the rock.

FB: Reece, Schmitt
My take: Marcel Reece is a dangerous, versatile weapon who creates mismatches. Owen Schmitt is the classic blocking fullback the Raiders have been missing in recent years.

TE: Ausberry, Myers, Gordon
My take: This is a young, inexperienced group. Brett Myers is the front-runner due to experience and consistency, but David Ausberry is a unique athlete.

WR: Heyward-Bey, Moore, Ford, Criner, Streater
My take: This group needs to take a step forward. DHB, Denarius Moore, and Jacoby Ford all provide speed, but Juron Criner could be the big, possession target this offense needs to take the next step. Rod Streater impressed in mini-camps and could edge out the oft-injured Louis Murphy for the final receiver spot.

OT: Veldheer, Barksdale, Barnes, Hurd
My take: Jared Veldheer is a Pro Bowler in the making at LT. Hopefully Joe Barksdale will push the unimpressive Khaliff Barnes at RT, but his progression is slower than hoped. Sam Hurd makes the cut for depth, as he is versatile and familiar with the team (member of the practice squad last year).

C: Wisniewski, Parsons
My take: Wiz II played well in his limited time at center a year ago. His transition could make or break the cohesiveness of the Raiders offensive line. Alex Parsons provides depth, and has been taking first-team reps in mini-camp while Wisniewski heals up.

OG: Brisiel, Carlisle, Bergstrom, Nix
My take: Mike Brisiel will solidify the RG spot instantly. The aging Cooper Carlisle will be pushed by 3rd round pick Tony Bergstrom for the LG spot. Lucas Nix is a promising rookie who played tackle and guard during his time at Pitt.

DE: Houston, Shaughnessy, Crawford, Tollefson
My take: Lamarr Houston is primed for a big year. Matt Shaughnessy is back from a nasty shoulder injury and was sorely missed last year, especially in run defense. Free agent signing David Tollefson can get after the quarterback, while draftee Jack Crawford has the physical tools to contribute right away.

DT: Seymour, Kelly, Bryant, Bilukidi
My take: Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly both have Pro Bowl ability, but must make the leap from very good to dominant in order for this defense to progress. Desmond Bryant is a versatile, athletic big man who rushes the passer well. Christo Bilukidi is very raw but has two great teachers to help refine his talent.

OLB: Wheeler, Curry, Burris, Ihenacho
My take: Phillip Wheeler is a sure tackler who is solid against both the run and the pass. Aaron Curry needs to show his mental makeup can match his physical abilities. Burris is a promising, versatile linebacker who could contribute as a pass rush specialist. Ihenacho stays on as depth.

MLB: McClain, Goethel, Stupar
My take: Rolando McClain needs to perform well on the field this year, or he will be cut by new GM Reggie McKenzie. Off the field antics can be swallowed (to some extent) if the performance is there; so far in McClain’s short career, it has not been. Travis Goethel could be the starter if McClain misses time, and has shown some ability when healthy. 7th round pick Nathan Stupar offers depth at both linebacker positions, but should see most of his time in special teams.

CB: Bartell, Spencer, Van Dyke, Chekwa, Underwood
My take: Free agent acquisitions Ron Bartell and Shantae Spencer have plenty of NFL starting experience, but fell out of favor with their former teams mostly due to injury. Second year corners Demarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa both have the speed necessary for the position, but need more game experience to make improvements. Brandon Underwood is familiar with GM Reggie McKenzie from their time in Green Bay, and is a wild card of sorts after being buried on the depth chart there.

FS: Huff, Giordano
My take: Michael Huff simply needs to make more plays. Matt Giordano lead the Raiders in INTs with five last year, but has shown inconsistency in coverage.

SS: Branch, Mitchell
My take: Tyvon Branch is one of the most gifted safeties in the league, and will finally be in a defense which utilizes his abilities. Mike Mitchell, pegged as a huge reach when he was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2009 NFL draft, needs to show he’s worthy of playing in the NFL.

K/P: Janikowski, Lechler LS: Condo
My take: The best special teams unit in the NFL. If they play to the level they’re capable of, all three should make the Pro Bowl.

Raiders 2012 Draft Review

3rd round, 95th pick overall: Tony Bergstrom, OG/T, Utah

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New GM Reggie McKenzie’s first pick is a brute. Tony Bergstrom is a 6’6”, 315 lbs. three-year starter at right tackle for the Utes. A First-team all-Pac-12 selection, Bergstrom is already well-versed in the zone blocking system. He’s a tough, lengthy player who could start effectively in a year or two.  He’ll likely push Cooper Carlisle for the left guard spot this year, but is probably best served as a depth option for the 2012-13 season. As a Ute, Bergstrom completed his blocks at an 85% success rate, which was the highest on the team.

4th round, 129th pick overall: Miles Burris, OLB, San Diego State

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Burris is a lengthy, versatile linebacker coming out of the Mountain West Conference. He’s good-sized (6’2”, 246 lbs.), athletic (4.67 40-time), and strong (31 bench press reps). He’s a back-to-back first-team all-MWC selection (fellow Aztec alum Kirk Morrison was the last SDSU linebacker to do this) who’s described as being relentless and always around the ball. He played outside linebacker in the Aztec’s unique 3-3-5, but was moved around the field. I expect him to push Philip Wheeler at the SAM while providing vital depth both outside and inside.

5th round, 158th pick overall: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State

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At 6’5”, 273 lbs. Jack Crawford looks the part of an NFL defensive end. He is, however, a raw prospect at this point – he’s only been playing football for just over five years but did start for Penn State the last three. Crawford gives the Raiders a much-needed pass rusher. He’s athletic and big, and has the frame to add bulk. Crawford is another project pick who probably won’t contribute for a year or two, but for now, he gives Oakland some much needed depth on the defensive front.

5th round, 168th pick overall: Juron Criner, WR, Arizona

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Juron Criner was a luxury pick. What’s more, he is a true sign of the changing of the guard occurring in Oakland. With a 4.68 40-yard time, Al Davis never would’ve drafted Juron Criner. Reggie McKenzie, however, did not let combine numbers alone dictate his evaluation of at least this prospect. Criner is the big receiver (6’2”, 224 lbs.) the Raiders need. He’s got soft hands and is a big red-zone target (22 TDs in the last two years). The other receivers on the roster can stretch the field; Criner gives Carson Palmer a receiver who can go up and fight for jump balls. He was a bargain, too, as most draft sites had him going in the second or third round.

6th round, 189th pick overall: Christo Bilukidi, DT, Georgia State

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Bilukidi is another intriguing yet raw prospect. He’s big (6’4”, 311 lbs.) and fast (5.05 40-yard dash time). Bilukidi started 10 of 11 games for the new-to-Division I Panthers, where he had 38 tackles, 9 for a loss, and 5 sacks.

7th round, 230th pick overall: Nate Stupar, OLB, Penn State

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Nate Stupar was going to be high on teams’ undrafted free agents lists, so the Raiders made a good move snagging him in the last round. Stupar is an instinctive, intense backer with limited top-end speed. He will be a special teams contributor and offers more depth at linebacker.

Raiders Get in the Draft Mix, Take OT/G Bergstrom

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After almost three rounds of waiting, the Reggie McKenzie era has kicked off. The Raiders selected OT/G Tony Bergstrom from Utah with the 95th overall pick (Compensatory, 3rd round). Bergstrom is a tough, versatile player who has shown good strength and mobility. This 2011 All-Pac-12 Conference First Team selection played OT in college but will likely push Cooper Carlisle for the starting left guard spot. This fits a need and is about the range Bergstrom was expected to go, so I like the pick.

GM Reggie McKenzie had this to say [of Bergstrom] “There’s no way you can know who you’re going to take at No. 95 until you see names come off the board. He was still there and was the one we liked.”

The main reason Bergstrom fell to Oakland is that he will turn 26 years old this year because of a LDS mission trip before college. The Raiders have made their first pick, and it looks to be a good one.

DE Tollefson a Raider Once Again

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Northern California native and former New York Giant defensive end Dave Tollefson has signed a two-year, $2.5 million deal. Tollefson was a key reserve for the Super Bowl winning Giants, having tallied 5 sacks in a rotational role. He will add to an already talented defensive line, and gives the Raiders defense another pass rusher. Based on comments from the various football sites, Tollefson was a fan favorite who was known as being a high-character and high-motor guy. This signing brings Tollefson full circle; he is from nearby Walnut Creek, CA and was a practice squad player for the Raiders in 2007.

New GM Reggie McKenzie is now six-for-six in signing free agents who he has had visit. This is another solid signing, but also further signifies that the Raiders free-spending days of the past are over. Bringing in good football players at a bargain is what makes teams competitive for years.

State of the Raiders: Defense

This is the second of a three part series. My first post covered the offense; this post will cover the defense. Now that the free agency dust has more or less settle, the Raiders starters seem to be set. Last year, the defense was flat out bad. In fact, it’s one of the reasons Hue Jackson was replaced by the defensive-minded Dennis Allen. The 2011 Oakland Raiders were 29th in points against/game (27.1) and 29th in yards allowed (387.6). These numbers alone do not tell the whole story. If you, like me, watched the games, then you know the pain of watching the defense cave in the most important times of games. Against Buffalo and Detroit the team lost on last minute drives. In five of the other six losses, the defense never even showed up to the game (I blame the week 7 loss to the Chiefs on the 7 turnovers committed by quarterbacks). Yet, a new scheme is coming to Oakland, and there still exists quite a bit of talent, especially on the defensive line. Here is a breakdown of each positional group, along with a letter grade.

Defensive Line

This group is made up of a wealth of talent and experience. Richard Seymour is coming off a Pro Bowl year, and has become a true leader in the locker room. Fellow DT Tommy Kelly had numbers similar to Seymour’s, and some could argue he was deserving of a nod to Hawaii as well. Defensive end Lamarr Houston has impressed so far during his two year career, and has rare physical ability. DE Matt Shaugnessy has a clean bill of health, and is an above-average starter with a high motor. Desmond Bryant offers versatility in reserve as both a pass-rushing DT or a run-stuffing DE. The Raiders are also reportedly interested in former Giants defensive end David Tollefson, who would offer some much needed pass-rushing abilities. Versatility is the key with the defensive line. If Dennis Allen does implement a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense, he’ll have plenty of toys up front to play with. This unit can pressure the quarterback and stop the run, but needs the rest of the team to improve to see its true potential unfold. Grade: A-

Linebackers

Going into the 2011-12 season, I knew we had one of the largest 4-3 linebacker cores in the league. Yes, they were big and fast. But I had my doubts – could they cover? The resounding answer was no, no they couldn’t. Aaron Curry brought more speed and aggressiveness, but still lacks the football IQ and coverage skills necessary of a Will linebacker. Rolando McClain consistently proved to be… inconsistent. Aside from a mid-season arrest, McClain’s season was full of incorrect angles, poor coverage, and over-aggression against the run. He is very talented and was a leader at Alabama, so it is disappointing to see him acclimate to the NFL so slowly. Incumbent starting Sam linebacker Kamerion Wimbley was cut, but offered little more than pass rush. In fact, I find him to be highly over-rated; he’s never tallied more than 69 tackles in a season, despite playing in all but one game for his teams during his six-year career. To put that in perspective, free agent acquisition Philip Wheeler scored 80 tackles in only 11 starts last year. While not the pass rusher Wimbley is, Wheeler is better both in coverage and against the run, and should bring in some much-needed discipline.

This unit is in serious need of depth. Travis Goethl is a serviceable player but has durability concerns. Practice squader Carl Ihenacho is the only other linebacker currently on the roster. Yikes. Look for at least two more players to be brought in for depth and special teams. There’s lots of talent here, but Dennis Allen will need to bring along Curry and McClain (especially) if there will be any improvements from last year. Grade: B-

Secondary

Where do I begin? This unit was so bad that both incumbent starting cornerbacks were cut. They were so bad, Matt Giordano got significant playing time. I think Calvin Johnson just scored again. All kidding aside, a big goal for GM Reggie McKenzie this offseason was to overhaul a broken coverage unit. Stanford Routt’s silly contract was terminated. Chris Johnson was sent packing as well. This left 2011 draft picks Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus Van Dyke as the only NFL-level talent (at corner) on the team. Reggie McKenzie, however, saw an inexpensive solution: enter Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer. Both are big, fast, and experienced cover corners. While not elite talents, they come on-the-cheap, and will at least offer more consistency than last year’s unit. McKenzie pulled from his Packers days by adding CBs Pat Lee  and Brandon Underwood, but neither should see much playing time aside from special teams duties.

The safety positions are set in stone, with incumbent starters Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch giving it another go. My hope is that both thrive in Dennis Allen’s more aggressive/less man-oriented defense. Branch is a stud, and it will be interesting to see how a true defensive mind uses him. Huff will need to be better in coverage and make more plays, or his bloated contract could be ended at year’s end. Talent-wise, this unit is about the same on paper. Can a new scheme make that big of a difference? Let’s hope so. Grade: C+

Johnson & Eugene Cut, Curry Restructures

I have to hand it to new GM Reggie McKenzie. He had some difficult, yet slightly obvious decisions to make with the Raiders nearly $25 million over the cap and so far, he’s made all the right moves. Over the weekend, the Raiders cut Johnson ($3.5 million) and Eugene ($2.25 million) and restructured Aaron Curry’s $5.75 million cap number (saving up to $5 million this season). That’s $10+ million more off the books. Oakland is now most assuredly under the cap, and can still make moves to add even more space.