Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. After taking a break for the NFL combine, we’re back at it, breaking down the Oakland Raiders, who have plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the ball this off-season. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
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Key free agents
OT Donald Penn, OL J'Marcus Webb, OL Tony Bergstrom, OLB Aldon Smith, LB Benson Mayowa, SS Taylor Mays, FS Larry Asante, QB Matt McGloin
Players that must be re-signed
Penn, Webb, Mays, Bergstrom:The good news for Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie in the fifth year of his complete rebuild—besides the young talent he’s drafted—is that he doesn’t have many impact free agents to worry about. Penn, who will be 33 in April, performed fairly well as a run-blocker but dipped in overall quality in 2015, giving up seven sacks. The best move here would be to lock him up for a few more years with a mid-level deal as McKenzie brings in the left tackle of the future. Penn is still a smart, hard-working player with a lot of value in the locker room.
Webb was a complete disaster at tackle for the Bears and Vikings, but has performed fairly well in Oakland as a guard. He’s a decent enough bookend for Gabe Jackson—just give him a short deal and keep him the heck away from the outside at all times. That said, if the Raiders decided to get a guy in the middle rounds to replace Webb, nobody would blame them; a 6' 7" guard who can’t play outside is a bit of a liability.
Mays will never be the football player the Bengals thought they were getting when they selected him with the 49th pick in the 2010 draft (San Francisco was blinded by pure athleticism as opposed to football skills). However, he has developed decent skills, and with Oakland’s secondary in flux, he’d be a good guy to bring back. Bergstrom is a good backup who can swing between center and guard—maybe he’s someone worth bringing back to define the inside of the line along with Jackson at left guard and Rodney Hudson at center.
Most important position to improve
Cornerback: The only thing that saved this group last year was the September signing of David Amerson after the Redskins inexplicably gave up on him. It’s a testament to Oakland’s coaching staff that Amerson was able to improve as much as he was in 2016.
However, the other faces in the Raiders’ cornerback class haven’t quite panned out as such. D.J. Hayden, taken with the No. 12 pick in 2013, still hasn’t brought his great collegiate skills to the NFL—he allowed five touchdowns to just one pick last season, and he wasn’t any better in the slot than he was outside. T.J. Carrie, a seventh-round pick in 2014, has shown more potential. But McKenzie shouldn't let the Hayden fiasco scare him away from taking another cornerback in the first round; it’s a clear need, and something that must be corrected before the Raiders can expect to compete in the postseason.
Other positions to improve
Free safety, defensive line, offensive line: With Charles Woodson retiring and starting his Hall of Fame countdown, and Nate Allen unable to play up to hopes with an injury-plagued campaign, it was up to Larry Asante to take most of the snaps Woodson didn’t. Asante was okay, but for the Raiders to take the next step on defense, they’ll need to do better. It's mandatory to have quality and depth at the safety positions if you want to stop the multiple passing games of today. The Raiders did re-sign Allen to a one-year deal in early February, so they’re clearly hoping that he can play more than the five games he saw in 2015 due to knee problems.
Oakland has one of the best pure pass-rushers in Khalil Mack, but the actual defensive line is a bit undefined. Justin Tuck retired, and Aldon Smith’s off-field dramas make him a liability. While underrated guys like tackle Dan Williams and end Mario Edwards, Jr. played well last season, there’s a clear need for a bookend to take some of the attention away from Mack.
As for the offensive line, McKenzie is in danger of doing what he tried with the defensive line a couple years back—ignore the problems in the short term, and hope veteran spackle can fix what isn’t there. The smart play would be to draft at least one tackle and one guard high in this class, and let the kids come up while the vets do the dirty work in 2016.
Overall priority this offseason
Develop a championship defense: Overall, McKenzie has done a terrific job in Oakland. He was given nothing to work with, and it was his job to blast the franchise through the disastrous effects of Al Davis’s last days. This he has done estimably. The Raiders have true franchise players at three of the game’s most important positions—quarterback in Derek Carr, receiver in Amari Cooper and pass-rusher in Khalil Mack. However, there’s work to be done on the defensive side of the ball.
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Outside of Amerson and maybe Carrie, the Raiders might want to take a mulligan on their entire secondary, and there’s not much in the way of pass-rush after Mack. What pass-rush did come came from blitzes and different packages, and coach Jack Del Rio prefers an execution defense. To make that happen, he’ll need better players at a lot of positions. Linebackers Curtis Lofton and Malcolm Smith aren’t three-down guys, and more needs to be done along the line.
Del Rio has talked about the team addressing the secondary in an aggressive fashion, which is a great start, and the Raiders will have about $60 million in cap space to make whatever big splashes strike their fancy. If the team is successful, we might be reviewing a playoff team next year, instead of a 7–9 squad with all kinds of potential.