Return to Relevance
By Adam Hocking
Special to Pro Football Guru
The Oakland Raiders have not had a winning season since 2002 when they were demolished in Super Bowl XXXVII. In fact, their record since 2003 is a combined 53-123 with zero playoff appearances.
The late Al Davis, the franchise’s former owner, was once a great football mind on top of the NFL world. But toward the end of his tenure he had transformed the Raiders into a laughing stock, a team filled with great athletes that lacked much discernible football skill.
A new era appears to be dawning under general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen, both who joined the organization in 2012. Coming to Oakland by way of the Green Bay Packers where he was, amongst other roles, the director of player personnel, McKenzie brings the tremendous credibility of the Packers’ brand, one that has been consistently excellent at building a competitive franchise year after year.
Oakland approached this offseason with more money to spend than any other NFL franchise and a mandate from long-suffering fans to improve an under-performing roster. It would appear they have done just that.
Key departures include left tackle Jared Veldheer (Arizona Cardinals) and defensive end Lamarr Houston (Chicago Bears). Oakland aggressively replaced lost players with an influx of big-name veteran talent, and many of the newly-signed additions come from winning programs.
Quarterback Matt Schaub was acquired via trade from the Houston Texans. Schaub struggled last year, but he brings impressive credentials to the quarterback position that Oakland simply hasn't had in years. In seven seasons with Houston, Schaub compiled a 46-42 record, was named to two Pro Bowls and amassed a quarterback rating of 90.9. If he can replicate that type of production, the Oakland front office will be doing back-flips.
James Jones comes by way of McKenzie's old stomping grounds, the Packers. A productive receiver with good deep speed, something the Raiders value, Jones knows how to play with a top-notch quarterback after spending his entire career with Aaron Rodgers. Not over the hill at 30 years old, Jones has been a consistently-productive receiver who has often hovered just below the 1,000-receiving yard milestone.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew arrives from the Jacksonville Jaguars. He appeared to show significant signs of decline over the past two years, though is just two seasons removed from rushing for over 1,600 yards. By pairing Jones-Drew with the oft-injured but talented Darren McFadden (whom the Raiders re-signed) Oakland will field a versatile and experienced set of tailbacks.
Left tackle Donald Penn comes aboard from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to replace Veldheer and has long been a reliable starter.
The Raiders were perhaps even more aggressive in rebuilding their defense. Former New York Giants’ defensive end Justin Tuck and former Houston Texans’ defensive lineman Antonio Smith were brought in to bolster the defensive line. Both are on the wrong side of 30 but are still productive players that have played in traditionally winning systems.
Newly-signed LaMarr Woodley brings pass-rushing skills and also comes from the Super Bowl experienced Pittsburgh Steelers. Woodley has surpassed 10 sacks in a season three times in his career and will make the move from outside linebacker to defensive end with Oakland.
The aforementioned trio has been named to a combined four Pro Bowls while Tuck (2), Smith (1) and Woodley (2) have also played in five Super Bowls.
Former San Francisco 49ers’ cornerback Tarell Brown was added as well. Brown has been a starter for the majority of the last three seasons which saw the teams go to three straight NFC title games and reach Super Bowl XLVII.
If this were 2010, bringing in Jones-Drew, Schaub, Woodley, Tuck, and Smith would have Raiders fans' predicting a Super Bowl run. Though many of those additions are a bit past their prime today, they still are high-quality players that know from experience the cost of winning in the NFL.
The Raiders have injected talent and addressed multiple roster holes that once were glaring vacancies. Now the front office can use the draft, particularly the fifth overall selection, to add the best players available.
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins could be the pick and provide an excellent complement to James Jones.
An offensive tackle like Jake Matthews from Texas A&M or Greg Robinson from Auburn would create a nice tandem along with the freshly-signed Penn.
Oakland could take the best defensive player available, whether that might be Buffalo linebacker Kahlil Mack or South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and continue their facelift on that side of the ball.
They could even draft a quarterback and groom the young signal caller behind Schaub, a fine veteran from whom the rookie could learn the NFL ropes.
The point is that the franchise now has options and doesn’t have to reach for a player with whom they aren't in love.
The Raiders have added starting-level NFL talent all over their roster. These aren't the type of moves that have everyone in the NFL craning their neck to see what's in the water in Oakland. However, they have made solid, smart and for the most part sound, economic decisions that won't leave Oakland in salary-cap turmoil for years to come.
It feels like a new era for the Raiders, and it may not start with a playoff run. But it does appear as though a return to relevance is imminent. Considering where this franchise has been, that should be music to Raiders fans’ ears.
Adam Hocking is from Saint Paul, Minnesota where he covers the sporting world on his site: The Day in Sports. You can also check out his podcast by searching "The Day in Sports" on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter at @tdis_humblebrag.