Styx and Foreigner will be playing an outdoor Independence Day concert in the Philly suburbs at the end of this week. They will play all of their hits from the mid-1970s through about 1985, and probably one or two awful tracks from their various reunion albums of the mid-2000s. You know the drill: Sit through from junk from Can't Slow Down or Cyclorama, and you get rewarded with "Hot Blooded" and "Blue Collar Man," plus fireworks.
Rooting for the Raiders is like listening to Styx and Foreigner. Their heyday was so long ago, and they have been irrelevant for so long, that it is hard to even admit that you still like them. No wonder Raiders fans opt for biker cosplay anonymity when rooting for the team publicly: It's more socially acceptable to watch old NFL Films documentaries on Jack Tatum while listening to Grand Illusion on vinyl in the privacy of your own home than publicly stomp and cheer for Matt McGloin.
Yet the Raiders soldier on, with Charles Woodson as their Tommy Shaw or Mick Jones. And just as classic rockers can still entertain with a credible rendition of "Too Much Time on My Hands," the Raiders have a bunch of once-cool old fogeys who could still put on a great show in 2014. Actual relevance may still be beyond the Raiders, but the organization can do itself some good by touring the country, playing competitive football, and showing both fans and future free agents that the Raiders are more than just an eight-track flashback.
In other words, the Raiders want to know what love is. Maybe this edition of OTA's can show them.
Biggest Move: Spending most (but not all) of their cap cash
The Raiders entered free agency with millions of dollars of cap space to burn. And burn it they did! Their free agent haul sounds like a Pro Bowl roster from about four years ago: Matt Schaub, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Maurice Jones-Drew, LaMarr Woodley, Donald Penn and Carlos Rodgers. Also in the mix were Austin Howard, a young left tackle for whom the Raiders clearly overpaid, and second-tier veterans like James Jones and Tarell Brown. All the Raiders need now to dominate the NFL is a time machine.
The bad news is that a huge percentage of the players the Raiders acquired are over-the-hill expendables who were unwanted by their former teams. The good news is that Reggie McKenzie structured the geezer contracts wisely. Jason Fitzgerald and the gang at Over the Cap explain it well: "Most of the contracts are essentially one year deals for players who are out of their primes and looking to prove they still belong in the NFL at higher than average salaries."
Fitzgerald singles out Tarell Brown's contract as a particularly smart one. The 29-year-old cornerback is in town for one year at $3.5 million, no strings attached. If the Raiders like what they see, they can extend or re-sign him. Most of the other contracts have a generally similar structure. Schaub's deal officially lasts two years, but the team can easily cut him after the season with no cap repercussions. Tuck gets a $1.5 million roster bonus if he is still on the roster next spring, but he can also be cut loose with no questions asked or dead money squandered. And on and on.
Now here's the kicker: McKenzie still has over $10 million in cap space to play with this year. The Raiders are also in amazing cap shape for next year: Assuming they cut bait on about half of this year's graybeards, they will have upward of $40 million to spend. This money can be spent on a player like Brown who proves his worth, or on young in-house free agents like Rod Streater looking for a 2015 payday. This year's cap space can also be used to plug a hole that opens during camp or take more chances on other teams' castoffs. And of course, the Raiders can go shopping again in 2015 free agency, but they may be a more appealing employer next year than they were this year, when many marquee free agents were disinterested in hearing McKenzie's pitch.
That's where all those expendables come in. They are too old to make the Raiders contenders, but they can make the team competitive so that younger, better free agents see the Raiders as more than a lost cause. That's why McKenzie splurged with his pocket money but kept the credit cards locked away. The Raiders bought short-term solutions at affordable prices. It was the best an organization that is still recovering from a decade of mistakes could do. Next year, they will be in a position to do more.
Biggest Risk: Backfield ugliness
With Schaub under center and Jones-Drew getting a large share of the carries, the Raiders offense runs the risk of combining the worst elements of the 2013 Texans with the 2013 Jaguars. That means two carries for a total of five yards on first and second down, then a pick-6 on third down. At least all the old guys on defense will be well rested.
Even in his best seasons, Schaub was a quarterback who excelled in a run-heavy, play-action offense that minimized the needs for comebacks or third-and-long heroics. Last season, with age creeping up on him and the offense around him plagued by injuries and predictability, Schaub was awful. He was benched after a string of pick-6s early in the year; when he returned for mop-up duty after Gary Kubiak's firing, Schaub was a checkdown specialist who looked uncomfortable in the pocket and sailed deep passes beyond or behind the reach of his receivers.
Schaub turned 33 in late June, which is not an unusual age for a mid-tier quarterback to suddenly lose it. The Raiders are banking on least a handful of starts before they turn things over to Derek Carr, and they do not appear interested in another extended Matt McGloin showcase. A change of scenery and refreshed playbook could rejuvenate Schaub a bit, but the Schaub who took the field for the Texans in December looked like a quarterback who would be hard-pressed to make it out of training camp.
As for Jones-Drew, here's a sampling of his game-by-game rushing stats from last season: 15-for-45, 10-for-27, 19-for-43, 13-for-23, 21-for-41, 14-for-23, 13-for-45, 13-for-39. Yes, there were a couple of good games mixed in, and no, the Jaguars offensive line couldn't open a hole in drywall with a power drill, but 29-year-old running backs don't bounce back from seasons full of carry totals in the teens and yardage totals below 50. Take away 44 and 48-yard runs against the Texans, and Jones-Drew had one of the most useless seasons of any NFL running back in 2013.
At least Schaub has Carr and McGloin behind him to provide youthful hope. Darren McFadden somehow kept his job despite back-to-back seasons of 3.3 yards per carry. McFadden makes up for his tendency to average about 13 rushing yards per week by providing little as a receiver and always being hurt. The bottom of the running back depth chart is full of those delightfully anonymous players the Raiders always have kicking around: Latavius Murray, Kory Sheets, the ghost of Napoleon McCallum. As always, we take a moment to acknowledge that Marcel Reece is the NFL's best all-purpose fullback, which would be awesome if this was 1977.
Perhaps Schaub and Drew-Jones can provide professionalism for a few months, then gracefully turn things over to Carr and some Murray-McFadden committee. It's more likely that Carr will be pressed into service too early and face too many 3rd-and-longs because of the weak running game. At least the veteran defense has a shot at keeping games close while the backfield searches for answers.
Biggest Question: How good can Khalil Mack be in 2014?
So just how has the fifth player taken in this year's draft looked in minicamp? You had to ask …
New week, new song. Anyway, take it away teammate Donald Penn: "Sometimes he moves like a defensive back. It's crazy for a guy like that to be doing that. He has a motor that's relentless. As a tackle, you stay on him until you hear the whistle or hear the crowd cheer."
Mack may move like a 250-pound safety, but the Raiders are asking him to concentrate on rushing the passer right now. That makes sense: Mack can learn from Tuck and Woodley, make an immediate impact with some sacks, and learn higher-order NFL linebacker skills gradually. Mack has the potential to be the kind of multi-dimensional outside linebacker that has become an endangered species: The kind that combines 6-8 sacks per year with interceptions in pass coverage and sturdy work in run support. Players who fit that profile, like veteran Karlos Dansby, often move from 4-3 outside linebacker to 3-4 inside linebacker as coordinators seek either professional pass rushers (for the 3-4) or coverage specialists (for the 4-3).
Mack may break the mold in the future, but what can he do as a rookie? Let's do one of those mini-studies where we examine the rookie seasons of all of the 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers taken with the top ten draft selections since 2009:
|Player||Year||Sacks||QB Hits||Tackles for Loss||Other|
|Dion Jordan||2013||2||5||2||2 passes defensed|
|Ziggy Ansah||2013||8||11||7||2 forced fumbles|
|Barkevious Mingo||2013||5||12||9||2 passes defensed|
|Von Miller||2011||11||29||19||2 FF, 4 PD|
|Aldon Smith||2011||14||27||13||2 FF, 4 PD|
|Aaron Curry||2009||2||8||6||2 FF, 6 PD|
The chart above tells us … nothing. No wait, that's not true at all. Miller and Smith set the high boundary for what a player of Mack's talents can do as a rookie. Miller is the most interesting comp because he was a strongside linebacker in a 4-3 as a rookie (still is), so his role was generally similar to what the Raiders have in store for Mack. Look for Mack to play nickel defensive end, with Woodley on the other side and Tuck in the middle, just as Miller often plays with his hand in the dirt.
The chart also reminds us that not all super-talented draft picks start recording sacks immediately. Curry famously went backward after a rookie year that was not terrible. Jordan remains a square peg for the Dolphins. Mack appears more professionally hungry than Curry, and the Raiders are carving a niche for him, so a high early sack total is very possible. The next step for the Raiders, of course, is finding other young players to surround him once the expendables leave: If Mack is the defense's only superstar in five years, then he won't stick around for a sixth year.
This is the year Sebastian Janikowski falls apart. McKenzie may want to do some kicker shopping with his extra cash, because Janikowski becomes a cheap cut after this season, and August is a great time to splurge on some kid who went 6-for-7 in preseason games but could not unseat Jay Feely or Adam Vinatieri. Stash him on the practice squad now, and the Raiders won't have to worry, or spend heavily, in 2015.