Following rookie head coach Dennis Allen leading the Raiders to a record of 8-28 through 2012-2014, the Raiders elected to go with experience in hiring former Jacksonville Jaguar head coach Jack Del Rio. The California native spent nine years as the Jaguars head coach. Although they were three games below 500 in his tenure, he led them to two playoff runs. After Jacksonville, Del Rio took his defensive prowess to Denver where the Broncos finished 3rd in the league in total defense this past season.
To run his offense, Del Rio brought in his former Jacksonville offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Musgrave struggled for two seasons under Del Rio, before he was fired. He returns to Oakland where he began his career as a Quarterback coach in 1997. Although his play calling ability is questionable at best, having a former QB coach could bode well for the development of Derek Carr.
For the defensive coordinator job, Del Rio hired former Dallas Cowboy teammate, Ken Norton Jr. Norton Jr. served as the linebacker coach of Seattle’s vaunted defense. While he has no coordinator experience, he has been a hot name in NFL circles as someone who could make the jump.
Del Rio continued to clear house by replacing nearly all position coaches. Two notable hires were offensive line coach Mike Tice and defensive back coach Rod Woodson. Tice previously served under the same role in Atlanta, has head coaching experience with the Vikings and is seen as one of the premier O-line coaches in the NFL. Woodson returns to Oakland where he played both safety and cornerback for the final two years of his hall of fame career, and where he coached in 2011.
Players In and Out
The Raiders had one of the busier free agent periods in the league replacing many veteran players and bringing in new talent. On the offensive side of the ball they cut ties with QB Matt Schaub, replacing him with Christian Ponder. The former 12th overall pick has a similar skill-set to Schaub with a weak, yet accurate arm and will save them three million dollars as the backup QB.
Sticking in the backfield, the Raiders upgraded their running back depth by replacing retired Maurice Jones-Drew and free agent Darren McFadden with Trent Richardson and Roy Helu, both on cheap two year deals. MJD was far past his prime last year and it showed as he plodded for an abysmal 2.2 YPC. Meanwhile, McFadden limited by frequent injuries has been a bust to this point of his career and a change of scenery was needed. Like McFadden, the former 3rd overall pick Trent Richardson has been a bust so far, but does not lack talent and has worked hard to shed weight this offseason in hope of reviving his career. He should step in to try and earn early down work behind Latavius Murray. Rounding out the backfield, Helu should contribute more than Richardson playing a large role on passing downs. Helu has been an underrated running back with a career 4.4 YPC and some of the best hands out of the backfield in the league.
Graphic via finsmob-exoduss
On the offensive line many wondered if the Raiders would resign consistent center Stefen Wisniewski who was coming off a serious shoulder surgery. Instead of locking him up, they opted to upgrade by making former Kansas City Chiefs center Rodney Hudson the highest paid player at his position over the next five years. While Hudson has played well as both a run and pass blocker, many will question rather the Raiders would have been better off keeping Wisniewski and spending the money elsewhere. Next to Hudson it is projected that fellow free agent signing J’marcus Webb will start at right guard. Webb has bounced around multiple teams and should not be relied upon as an NFL starter.
Finishing out the Raiders offensive pickups are receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Lee Smith. Crabtree will replace released James Jones, just one year after he was signed to a three year 11 million dollar deal. Crabtree is a possession type receiver like Jones, featuring a big body capable of making big catches to move the chains. In his fourth season, he began to look like he was finally living up to his draft stock putting up over 80 catches and 1000 yards. However, in training camp the following year Crabtree tore his Achilles and will most likely never be the same athlete. Due to the lack of interest in him he fell back and took a one year deal with the Raiders, he is playing for his career and I believe he is capable of a bounce back season if his body allows it. Lee smith is one of the better blocking tight ends in the league, but at nine million over three years it is fair to say the Raiders overpaid for him.
On the defensive side of the ball the Raiders trimmed salary by releasing veterans Antonio Smith, Lamar Woodley, and Tyvon Branch. Smith and Woodley were both no brainer cuts as the 34 year old Smith showed signs of aging last season and was on the hook for four million dollars against the cap. While Woodley was due to make 6 million dollars this year despite coming off a season where he had no sacks in six games before tearing his bicep tendon. On the other hand, Tyvon Branch was a much harder loss for Raiders fans to swallow. The 28 year old safety has flashed pro-bowl caliber talent with his ability against the run and in coverage, but has been limited by injury to only five games in the past two seasons.
One of the raiders many struggles last season was against the run. They made a strong first step in addressing this by handing out a four year 25 million dollar deal to defensive tackle Dan Williams. Williams was a first round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2010, he is adept at stopping the run by occupying blockers and space.
Another free agent signing who stands to capitalize off of Williams is MLB Curtis Lofton. Lofton was signed from the Saints on a three year 18 million dollar contract. Lofton is a tackling machine, racking up over 100 tackles every year since his rookie season. That being said he is often caught out of position and is below average in coverage. Despite his flaws, MLB was a glaring need for the Raiders and he will step in as a strong veteran leader for the defense.
Sticking to the linebacker core, the Raiders also inked former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith for the next two seasons. Smith was previously coached in Seattle under new Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. He was buried in a talented Seattle linebackers group, but will provide depth and fill in when Khalil Mack is played at defensive end.
The final need addressed in free agency was a safety to play next to Charles Woodson, Nate Allen. Allen has played with the Eagles his entire career and led the team in interceptions last year. He often struggles if asked to play man coverage but overall is an ok starter. Considering he is an average safety at best paying him 23 million over four years is a tad steep.
The Raiders started off their draft by selecting WR Amari Cooper out of Alabama with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Cooper dominated defensive backs in the SEC on his way to a record breaking 124 catches. Cooper is mature beyond his years as a WR and should be ready to lead the Raiders in receiving as a rookie.
In the 1st round the Raiders selected DE Mario Edwards out of Florida State. Edwards is a unique pick as he has the raw ability of a 1st round pick, but his production doesn’t even warrant him being drafted in the 2nd round. He struggled with keeping his weight and often disappeared at times during games. He should compete for a starting defensive end job and is versatile enough to kick inside on passing downs.
Following Edwards, the Raiders added another weapon for Derek Carr in the third round, selecting TE Clive Walford out of Miami. Walford is an exceptional athlete that should be able to consistently win against linebackers in coverage. In addition, unlike many athletic tight ends, Walford is a capable and willing blocker. He will compete with Mychal Rivera for a starting job.
After selecting Walford, the Raiders opted to select his teammate Jon Feliciano. He is a tough player that is strong in the running game. He will most likely struggle in pass blocking against quicker NFL caliber defensive linemen. Feliciano should serve as a backup guard in his rookie season.
In the fifth round the Raiders selected a pair of linebackers, Ben Heeney out of Kansas and Neiron Ball out of Florida. Heeney has the potential to be a good cover linebacker but is undersized against the run. Ball has had two major surgeries in the last year and should contribute on special teams if he is medically cleared
In the sixth round the raiders took DE Max Valles. He played both on the line and standing up at OLB at Virginia, where he led the team with nine sacks. He is a raw player, but a gifted athlete who could carve out a role in the future.
In the last round of the draft Oakland selected Tennessee St OT Anthony Morris, Florida WR Andre Debose and Kansas CB Dexter McDonald. Morris is a small school athletic prospect who is not yet ready for the NFL, needing time to develop. Debose was a kick returner in Florida, but has been cut since tearing his Achilles in OTA’s. McDonald is a fast tall physical cornerback, but was highly inconsistent in college. He will be fighting for a roster spot.
Preseason Players to Watch
The Raiders open their preseason on August 14th against St. Louis. Three specific players whose preseason games will be especially important are DJ Hayden, Menelik Watson and Andre Holmes.
DJ Hayden, The 12th overall pick in the 2013 draft struggled as a rookie recovering from heart surgery. In his sophomore season he continued to struggle while dealing with foot and groin injuries. Going into an important third season, there are rumors that he may lose out to Keith McGill and he will need to have a big preseason to avoid doing so.
Menelik Watson was drafted by the raiders with the 42nd pick in the 2013 draft and was projected to start right away. Fast forward two years and due to injuries and inconsistent play he is on the outside looking in at the RT position with Austin Howard. If Watson can win the job out of preseason they can kick Howard inside to right guard as an upgrade over Khalif Barnes or J’marcus Webb.
Lastly, Andre Holmes is a 6″4 WR that has flashed incredible talent. A popular breakout candidate last year he continued to show signs of his talent, but could not solidify himself as a number one receiver. Competing with Kenbrell Thompkins for the number 4 WR job, it is important that Holmes has a big preseason to earn snaps.
Graphic via vavel