AFC West: The Oakland Raider Rebuilding Project
2002 was the last time the Raiders made the playoffs, making them the owners of the second longest playoff drought in the NFL. Life in Oakland has been anything but sweet, as their futility has been mostly due to their own ineptitude, rather than the result of a divisional powerhouse. Don’t get me wrong, San Diego has been a road block, just not as much as the Patriots have been to the Bills and Steelers/Ravens have been to the Browns, the two other franchises with long playoff droughts. And besides, to make the playoffs you usually need to have a winning record – something else the Raiders haven’t accomplished in nine season. When a team is this bad for this long you can only point to one thing – management.
The errors in Oakland have been plentiful and well documented. They change head coaches far too often. They trade away high future draft picks for past-their-prime players (Richard Seymour, Carson Palmer – you get the idea). When there isn’t an over-the-hill veteran to their liking they prefer to trade those same high future draft picks for mid-round picks in the current year. In the 2011 Draft for instance, the Raiders traded their 2012 2nd-rounder to draft lineman Joe Barksdale (no starts) and running back Taiwan Jones (16 carries). This is the reason the Raiders haven’t made a draft pick in the first round since 2010. This year they were without a pick until the 3rd round. Next year they will be without either their 1st or 2nd rounder, depending on this season’s success, thanks to the Carson Palmer trade.
As aforementioned their last first round pick was in 2010, where they took 8th-overall, Rolando McClain, a heavy hitting linebacker from Alabama who might have fit right into the MLB spot on the Oakland defense in 1993. But in the pass focused league of 2012 McLain is a liability. He was one of the most targeted and least effective linebackers in coverage in the entire league last season (Football Outsiders Almanac 2012). McClain is simply not a three down player in the NFL, and you cannot afford to waste top 10 picks on 2-down players. Rolando is an illustration of how the Raiders have been doing things, which is probably best categorized as “their way”.
No team seems to follow their own rules and draft “consensus” late round players higher and more often than the Raiders. The decision to take a gamble on these poorly rated players usually comes down to one attribute: speed. Doing things this way hasn’t always produced negative results. It allowed them to select Darrius Heyward-Bey in 2009 and Denarius Moore in 2011. It has brought them running backs Darren McFadden and the aforementioned Taiwan Jones, potential all-stars who have never seen a full season on the field. But overall the Oakland player personnel philosophy has too often left the team short-handed at key positions.
This is the case now as the franchise starts down a new path. Al Davis has passed on and his son has taken over. He immediately installed an outside GM to run the franchise and steer them in a different direction. Reggie McKenzie was hired away from the Packers to presumably bring in some elements of the Green Bay way of doing things. He was quick to dispatch head coach Hue Jackson and install his own man, Dennis Allen, the Raiders’ first head coach with a defensive background in, well, forever.
But change doesn’t bring instant results. Despite the Raiders poor finishes in the standings their tendency to bring in free agents to play key roles has left them tight against the cap. McKenzie’s first moves after hiring a coach was to let go of several capable veterans for salary cap purposes. Even more troubling is that key contributors like Michael Bush and Stanford Routt, amongst others, were allowed to leave as free agents. The Raiders simply didn’t have the cap space to adequately replace all their losses.
Their recent losses have impacted the Raider defense the most. Over the last two seasons they have lost their top two cornerbacks, Stanford Routt and Nnamdi Asomugha. This offseason they let go of coveted pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley. These are subtractions from a defense that already finished 27th against the pass last season. Pass defense has always been a particular problem for the Raiders. Over the last four seasons they have played eight games against elite quarterbacks and have given up an average of over 37 points per game and held only one team to less than 30 points (QB’s: Eli, Peyton, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger). The only elite QB they have had any success against is division rival Philip Rivers. Even against him they are 3-5 over the last four seasons with an average of over 25 ppg against.
Going against the Raiders when they were up against a top QB was one of the surest things in sports (as I pointed out in my picks column for week 2 last season vs. NE, but someone totally dismissed for week 14 against Green Bay). But all that may change now as Dennis Allen comes to town with his own brand of defensive football. As defensive coordinator in Denver last season Allen was able to piece together a decent unit out of mostly scraps, so there is some hope for this Raiders defense for the first time in ages.
The other side of the ball in Oakland is a different story. Years of drafting for speed have left this squad with an abundance of potential on offense. McFadden, Jones, Heyward-Bey and Moore are four of the fastest players in the league. If they could ever stay healthy together the Raiders could have one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
However, quarterback Carson Palmer is a bit of an enigma. After some rough years in Cincinnati he was able to settle into a groove late last season in Oakland. He returns to lead the team this year but will be learning a new offense. He offers intriguing possibilities as their leader, but at 32, it is a long shot to be able play well enough to carry a substandard defense. That means a lot of the workload will fall on 5th year back, Darren McFadden. Not many players have the potential to be the best running back in the NFL but McFadden is one of them, and all he needs to do is complete a full season. In 2010 he was able to start 13 games, while in his other three seasons he has failed to hit double-digit starts. The depth behind McFadden is not strong and the experience on the rest of the offense doesn’t match the potential.
Oakland has an intriguing roster. But for them to contend for the playoffs they would have to stay remarkably healthy all year-long because they simply do not have the depth. I think GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen know they are part of a major rebuilding process this season and this led to their decisions to let so many players go this offseason. With their still aging roster and lack of draft picks I wouldn’t be surprised if this rebuilding is a long-term project.
Because of their unique offense I could see Oakland getting off to a hot start or even going on a strong short-term run mid-season. But in the end they aren’t deep enough to compete for a full 16 game schedule. Expecting more than eight wins from the Raiders this year is unrealistic.
The beat goes on…
Find team-by-team analysis in my column, “3rd String NFL”