Oakland Raiders (credit: justblogbaby.com)
Owner Mark Davis was looking for more out of the 2014 season. Late in 2013, he said that 2013 marked the end of a two-year deconstruction phase of a team that went 8-8 in 2011. Last spring, the Raiders led the NFL in available salary cap space and signed (or traded for) a large contingent of veteran players. Some like OT Donald Penn, DC Carlos Rogers, DT Antonio Smith, DE Justin Tuck, DB Charles Woodson, and DB Usama Young were functional within a role. The remaining transactions - OL Kevin Boothe, DC Tarell Brown, OL Austin Howard, WR James Jones, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, RB Darren McFadden, QB Matt Schaub, DE LaMarr Woodley - did not make the desired impact.
This spending spree led Davis to believe that 2014 should show a positive change for the team, but he was clearly disappointed in the 0-4 start to the season, as the team parted ways with Head Coach Dennis Allen before the bye week, placing the interim head coach tag on OL coach Tony Sparano. Sparano’s Raiders did not fare better over the next 6 weeks, as the team opened 0-10 for the season.
Things began to turn around on November 20th as the team posted its first win with a home victory over division rival Kansas City, which ended a 16 game losing streak for Oakland. Rookie QB Derek Carr led the team on a 17 play, game-winning scoring drive, hitting WR James Jones for a 9 yard TD pass with 1:42 remaining to win the game. In addition to Carr’s successes, the Raiders were fueled by 112 yards and 2 TDs from RB Latavius Murray who was just beginning to earn more time in the Oakland backfield.
The Raiders finished up 3-3 down the stretch which led players like Tuck, Antonio Smith, and Donald Penn to push for the interim tag to be removed from Sparano. Some felt that Sparano had a good shot at landing the permanent job as he worked to build a relationship with Mark Davis. That was critical as Davis said he never felt a connection to Dennis Allen after not being involved in the search process that ultimately put Allen in the big chair.
2015 Coaching Changes
The Raiders are our first team to undergo a full coaching change from the Head Coach on down. This immediately adjusts how players will be viewed internally as relationships between players and coaches, along with schematic changes will impact who stays and who goes.
By firing Allen late in September, Oakland was the first team to fire a Head Coach in 2014. They did not hold formal interviews until after the season and the Owner and General Manager Reggie McKenzie took a divide and conquer strategy to the process. Davis explained the process this way:
“The process that we went through is there was a wide net. I did about seven people and Reggie did about five or six. In order to do that in a short amount of time, we had to split up. When it came down to it I had one person I felt should be the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Reggie had somebody he wanted me to talk to for a second time and that was coach Sparano.” “Nobody else really got to the stage of a second interview. After we had the interview with Jack for the second time, Reggie and I went back and talked for about an hour. We fully agreed on it. It was simple. I believe he’s [Jack Del Rio] right for the Raiders right now. I think he is the guy, and he understands us.”
With former Jaguars Head Coach and Broncos Defensive Coordinator, Jack Del Rio in place, the first order of business was to put the offensive coaching staff in place. Del Rio tabbed former Eagles QB coach Bill Musgrave at OC, former Falcons OL coach and Vikings Head Coach Mike Tice as OL coach, former Lions Assistant OL coach Bobby Johnson as TE coach, former Chiefs TE coach Bernie Parmalee as RB coach, former Bills WR Rob Moore as WR coach, and former Bills QB coach Todd Downing to the same position.
The question will be what system will Musgrave leverage in Oakland? When he took over as the Offensive Coordinator in Minnesota under Leslie Frazier, the same questions were posed. He has worked under Mike Shanahan, Mike Mularkey, and Chip Kelly, feels strongly that typical West Coast verbiage is too much and likes a streamlined system with easy to learn formations so players can be fast. Instead, Musgrave typically leverages language from the Ron Erhardt system. He talks positively about West Coast passing concepts, the formations and protections that Mularkey brought from Pittsburgh, and a run game that leverages the strengths of the players on the roster. This would seem to mean that Oakland will remain more of a Gap scheme team, leveraging their current players’ strengths and those of new OL coach Mike Tice. Musgrave explained that he does believe in running the ball and that he learned quite a bit about how to tailor a system to his players during his year in Philadelphia. Musgrave has a history with QB development, and his work with Matt Schaub at Virginia and Matt Ryan in Atlanta was a big piece of him landing the Vikings OC gig. Musgrave prepared two starters last year with the Eagles and seems excited to work with Derek Carr.
On the defensive side of the ball, Del Rio certainly brings his own brand and style, but has also surrounded himself with an eclectic group of coaches. This starts with former Seahawks LB coach Ken Norton Jr as Defensive Coordinator. Then Del Rio reached into the college ranks for former Miami (FL) DL coach Jethro Franklin and former Florida State LB coach Sal Sunseri to the same positions with Oakland. Finally, he dipped back into the Raiders well for DB Marcus Robertson and Rod Woodson as DB coaches.
Del Rio and Norton have a history that dates back to their time as LBs for the Cowboys and early indications are that while both men will work on the gameplans, but that Norton will call the plays. Norton will be a first time playcaller and Defensive Coordinator, but explains that Pete Carroll has been preparing him, along with the other members of the staff, to be coordinators and Head Coaches. He wants to bring the aggressive, proactive elements of the Seahawks defense to Oakland and has already highlighted Khalil Mack as a player who will do a great job in the SAM position that Bruce Irvin fills in Seattle. When you combine that with what Del Rio got out of Von Miller from a similar standpoint in Denver, the future looks bright for Mack. Now while the base defense and fronts in general will be multiple and leverage the personnel accordingly, the biggest remaining question is what will Oakland be looking for in the secondary from a coverage perspective? This will drive much of their defensive decision making.
2015 Roster Changes (as of 3/6/2015)
The biggest changes to the roster have been at the Safety position where the team resigned Charles Woodson to a 1 year deal on January 25th which on paper gave them stability there with the potential healthy return of Tyvon Branch. Unfortunately, that will not be the Raiders’ plan, as they released Branch on March 3rd, saving around $3.0M in cap space. I am less sure of what the longer term plan will be at the position. They could resign RFA Brandian Ross, but he does not bring the same elements to the defense that Branch does when healthy.
The next major consideration is the current roster's health. The team released MLB Nick Roach (post-concussion symptoms) and DB Usama Young’s (ACL/MCL tears) were released with the Failed Physical designation on March 6th. LB Sio Moore is dealing with a hip injury and RB Kory Sheets Achilles’ injury may limit them at the beginning of training camp. Finally, DE Lamarr Woodley should return from his biceps injury by OTAs, but he is rumored to be a potential cap cut and is not the only one. The team is also rumored to be considering the release of QB Matt Schaub. They were also considering releasing RB Maurice Jones-Drew, however, Jones-Drew beat them to the punch by retiring. Furthermore, between the relationship between Musgrave and Schaub and the importance of the backup QB (see NYJ, HOU, TEN, PHI, WAS, ARI, and STL), I would imagine the Raiders find some way to keep their backup QB around
With a projected $55.4M available in 2015 Cap Space, the Raiders will need to decide on what to do with their own free agents which include:
UFAs: TE David Ausberry, DC Tarell Brown, WR Vincent Brown, RB Darren McFadden, WR Denarius Moore, DC Carlos Rogers, DT Pat Sims, DT CJ Wilson, C Stefan Wisniewski
RFAs: DS Larry Asante, DC Chimdi Chekwa, WR Andre Holmes, P Marquette King, DC Brandian Ross, RB Kory Sheets, WR Rod Streater
ERFAs: DE Denico Autry, TE Brian Leonhardt, OT Matt McCants, FB Jamize Olawale, DS Neiko Thorpe
Let’s take a position by position look at the Oakland roster. Positions are ordered by overall need.
Players you can win with: Justin Tuck
Players you will look to upgrade: LaMarr Woodley, Benson Mayowa
What it means: You can never have enough pass rushers and Oakland has very few. Justin Tuck is a quality pro and someone who has value as an interior rusher in certain packages. The Raiders seem intent to release Woodley after only getting 6 games from him and this leaves the cupboard bare. With the versatility of the expected front in Oakland, I would imagine a broad spectrum of players will be on the Raiders radar. Some like Jerry Hughes (Moore/Dowling), Brandon Graham (Musgrave), and O’Brien Schofield (Norton Jr.) have connections with the coaching staff and therefore the team will have the inside scoop.
Expected Avenue to improve: Day 1, 2, and/or 3 of the Draft and Free Agency (J.Hughes, P.McPhee, D.Morgan, B.Graham, O.Schofield)
Players you can win with: Charles Woodson
Players you will look to upgrade: Brandian Ross, Usama Young
What it means: Again, the Raiders resigned Woodson to a 1 year deal, giving him another chance to wear the silver and black. Woodson is not the same player he was, but still has some versatility, coupled with the mental and leadership traits that all teams look for. Now the other starter at DS, along with both starters in 2016, is very much up in the air. Projected starter, and former Pro Bowler, Tyvon Branch and Usama Young have been released after another injury plagued campaign. Brandian Ross is capable of providing depth, but has not made a great deal of impact from scrimmage. I would expect the team to look at all avenues to improve the position. Depending again on the profile they want at Safety and where they want to use Woodson, they could look at a centerfielder like Rahim Moore who has ties to Del Rio or a box DS like Jeron Johnson who has worked with Norton.
Expected Avenue to improve: Day 2 or 3 of the Draft or Free Agency (R.Moore, R.Parker, L. Delmas)
Players you can win with: Justin Ellis (Run Defender), Antonio Smith (Pass Rusher)
Players you will look to upgrade: Pat Sims
What it means: The Raiders have leaned heavily on Free Agency to address DT, bringing in Antonio Smith, Pat Sims, and CJ Wilson. The 2014 draft provided one capable DT as 4th round pick Justin Ellis, otherwise known as “Jelly” has shown the ability to be an effective run defender from the shade. His progression makes it easier to let Sims walk as a free agent. At the 3 Tech, Smith has been able to provide interior pressure like he has done for much of his career. This production overshadows his deficiencies as a run defender much of the time and I would expect him to carve out a role again in 2015. New HC Jack Del Rio has made it clear he likes a “dancing bear” in the middle of his defense and many have pointed to Terrance Knighton as someone who Del Rio could bring to Oakland, much like he brought him to Denver when he landed there as Defensive Coordinator. Ideally the team would add more depth here and find players who have abilities against both the run and the pass, but with so many other needs, this may drop a bit this offseason.
Expected Avenue to improve: Day 3 of the Draft or Free Agency (T.Knighton, CJ Mosley)
Top Coverage Players: Larry Asante, Denico Autry, Marcel Reece, Jamize Olawale, Keith McGill. Teams like SF and PHI have made significant investments in their core ST units by adding players who specialize in these areas. The Raiders have a few quality core teams players based on the 2014 roster, but very few of those players have a solidified roster spot in 2015.
Punter: Marquette King. I look at Punting much like I look at golf. Having a great driver is a unique weapon, but if your midrange and short game is terrible, you are not getting an invite to Augusta. King has that driver, but has yet to fully develop other “clubs in his bag” and while he will most likely be the guy in 2015, I would not be surprised to see the team bring in competition to training camp.
Long Snapper: Jon Condo. Condo has a solid frame and has been a capable player since he earned the job in 2007. While he does not provide much in coverage, he has been solid in the midline and gives his kickers a good ball. He is 33 and the team will soon need to review his long term status.
Place Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski. Seabass only had 17 attempts in 2014, connecting on 14, with 2 of those 3 misses coming from 50+. Janikowski has always had one of the stronger legs, but age is catching up a bit and he may no longer have the top end he once did. No reason to abandon ship yet here.