Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise, and proposing solutions for each. Our series kicked off with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars. Today, it's the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders are as close to an expansion team as you can get without actually starting your own franchise. Their roster is full of unknown youngsters and guys you thought were out of the NFL two years ago (hello, Andre Gurode). Their cap situation, on the other hand, is the stuff of Dan Snyder daydreams, thanks to a 2013 season of eating Ramen noodles and setting the thermostat at 60 degrees to clear zillions of dead-money dollars off the books. The Raiders are not looking to take the next step, but the first: They are practically starting from scratch, and their offseason plan must focus on filling multiple holes, as well as putting a face on what has become a faceless franchise.
Problem: The Raiders use the term "53-man roster" very loosely.
Solution: Trade down.
The Raiders currently have just 50 players under contract for the 2014 season. That's more than the Packers (46), Bears (46) or Super Bowl champion Seahawks (45). But those teams all have a recognizable core of starters in need of a supporting cast. The Raiders' 50-man roster includes the likes of Neiko Thorpe, a former Chiefs bit player in the secondary who did not take the field in the NFL in 2013; Torrell Troup, a former Bills defensive tackle who also didn't play last year; last-legs journeyman quarterback Trent Edwards, and many others like them. This is an old NFL Europe roster at most positions, and the Raiders need quantity (and the competition for jobs that it brings) as much as they need quality.
The Raiders are flush with $60 million in cap space, but they must spend that money judiciously. There is no sense in paying a premium to find a guy to take Troup's roster spot, when even an average NFL player would represent an upgrade. The Raiders need some extra draft picks, and they can get them by sliding down from the No. 5 spot.
If the Raiders stay put, they will settle for the crumbs that fall from the Manziel-Clowney-Bridgewater feeding frenzy among the top four teams. Those crumbs may be pretty tasty -- Jake Matthews, Sammy Watkins, or Blake Bortles would be a heck of a consolation prize -- but if the Raiders are forced to settle, they might as well wait a few more minutes. A simple example of what they could do: The Falcons, picking just after the Raiders, may be hungry for Matthews or Greg Robinson, two tackles the Raiders could also use, but the Falcons have zero interest in a quarterback or receiver. If Matthews is already gone and the Falcons fear the Raiders' interest in Robinson, they will dangle at least a fourth round pick in front of GM Reggie McKenzie. The Raiders could walk away with a Bortles, Watkins, or Darqueze Dennard (CB, Michigan State) type, plus an extra pick that could easily upgrade their depleted roster.
The Raiders could choose to slide further, or to repeat the process at the start of the second round. Either way, the Raiders want to come out of the draft with more than seven players (they probably will not get much love when compensatory picks are announced). Getting a little better in a lot of places is as necessary for the Raiders as getting much better at any one place.
Problem: Quarterback prospects with very iffy prospects.
Solution: Start over.
Both Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin had their moments last year, but neither showed much evidence that he was the quarterback of the future. What's worse, their inexperience hampered the whole offense, which had a ripple effect. The Raiders have a lot of prospects to develop, and receivers and offensive linemen have a hard time getting better when the quarterbacks can barely deliver the football on time and on target.
Pryor and the coaches clearly lost confidence in each other late in the season, when Pryor was sent onto the field for change-up drives and could do little but execute a predictable option package. It's time to give up the "we still believe in Pryor" façade and try to trade him while he still has some value. Teams that love to speculate on top talents and have no immediate quarterback emergencies (the Patriots and Packers leap to mind) might throw a late-round pick or two at a toolsy 24-year old.
With Pryor gone, the Raiders must acquire a veteran quarterback who does not need a lot of practice reps to provide basic competence: an "innings eater" who can start games or provide relief while McGloin and/or another prospect gets most of the practice attention. Josh McCown and Chad Henne both fit the bill. Michael Vick would be an outside-the-box, ghost-of-Al-Davis choice, but not a ridiculous one: Vick might be coaxed to Oakland with an incentive-laden contract and a chance to start, and the Raiders have a package in place for a scrambling starter.
Finally, the Raiders need a better long-range prospect than McGloin. If a Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater falls into their lap, they will know what to do. If they decide to trade down or address other needs early, they should pursue a high-upside wild card like Zach Mettenberger in later rounds. With McCown and McGloin holding down the McFort for a season, the rifle-armed Mettenberger could recover from his injuries and ease into NFL life.
Problem: A secondary that brought out the Montana in everyone.
Solution: Find solutions without and within.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 68.1 percent of their passes, threw 33 touchdowns, and earned a 105.1 efficiency rating against a Raiders secondary so full of exhausted stars of yesteryear that Lester Hayes made a few tackles. The Raiders need a quick-jolt upgrade, and their beaucoup cap bucks should make them major players in the Alterraun Verner sweepstakes. Verner does not turn 26 until December, has been a starter for most of his four seasons with the Titans, and graded out by most sources as the best cornerback east of Puget Sound in 2013. If the Raiders are going to use their sparkling new credit rating to outbid the league for any one player, Verner should be the guy.
The Raiders should also get help from within. D.J. Hayden, the 12th overall pick in last year's draft, missed most of last season with groin injuries and a sports hernia. Hayden's injury history is very worrisome (a torn vein leading to his heart jeopardized his college career, to say nothing of his life), but he has special talent. Tyvon Branch missed almost all of last season but should return this year to provide a much-needed upgrade at strong safety. When Brandien Ross (a former undrafted rookie at cornerback) replaced Branch last season, the Raiders were essentially playing 10-on-11.
Other than Branch and Hayden, the rest of the defensive back rotation needs a complete overhaul. That means a fond farewell to Charles Woodson, as well as the old Saints castoffs (Usama Young, Tracy Porter) who the Raiders cobbled together last year. The middle rounds of the draft are full of secondary talent, and the Raiders can pick up players like Jaylen Watkins (CB, Florida) and Dion Bailey (S, USC) with all the extra selections they get from trading down.
Problem: Develop an identity.
Solution: Draft and spend in a clear direction.
They could be Verner and Manziel. They could be Jake Matthews and Chiefs tackle Brandon Albert. Heck, they could be Watkins and Vick. No matter who it is, the Raiders need a core of players to establish their direction for 2014 and beyond.
So far, the Raiders' post-Al Davis identity has been "the post-Al Davis Raiders," a team in salary cap detox after Davis' late-life excess and the weird Hue Jackson coup. They were a placeholder franchise in 2013, which was a necessary step toward solvency. But the credit cards are now reactivated, and the Raiders are living in a home with no furniture. Coordinators Greg Olsen and Jason Tarver appeared to be running emergency schemes last year, cobbling together gameplans based on whoever was healthy and knew his assignment.
The new quarterback should provide some shape to Olsen's designs: A Manziel/McCown combination would favor the pistol/option wrinkles, while a McGloin/Henne/pocket-rookie combination would call for something more traditional. Tarver clearly wants to blitz everyone but the towel boy; Verner could shut down one side of the field and take some of the risk out of all of those safety blitzes. The Raiders could do something totally different from what we've suggested -- sign Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy with their Monopoly money, draft Watkins, hand the keys back to Pryor -- and it would help the team, as long as it set the tone for their post-apocalypse rebuild.
"Establish identity" sounds like sportswriter-speak, but the Raiders must define themselves to themselves if they want to do what teams like the Seahawks and 49ers did: create a methodical, integrated rebuilding project. The Raiders can do almost no wrong in this offseason, and that's dangerous, because there's a risk of grabbing a few upgrades and declaring mission accomplished. The Raiders need good ideas as much as good players, and good ideas are not always as easy to find.