Oakland Raiders: The Case for Reggie McKenzie keeping his job

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Aug 22, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Oakland Raiders wide receiver James Jones (89) during warmups prior to the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Savvy Free Agency Moves

Reggie has received a lot of flak with every Raiders loss for bringing in guys in the twilight of their careers to contribute immediately, and to some extent it is deserved. On the defensive side of the ball, free agent acquisitions Tarell Brown, Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith have all underperformed, and the team has been deplorable on defense this season in large part because of it. On offense, free agent running back Maurice Jones-Drew has already missed significant time due to injury, and is averaging 2.7 yards per carry on 18 carries so far this season.

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  • On the other hand, some of his free agent acquisitions have worked out quite well. After aborting a deal with high-priced Rams guard Roger Saffold early in the free agent signing period, Reggie went out and grabbed three veteran offensive linemen and re-signed fan favorite (not really) Khalif Barnes. In another surprising move, he allowed young, promising tackle Jared Veldheer to leave in free agency. Fans and observers were left scratching their heads.

    But through six games it looks like Reggie has been proven right about his free-agent o-line acquisitions. While Jared Veldheer is ranked 28th among all NFL offensive tackles by ProFootballFocus.com, veteran free agent acquisition Donald Penn is ranked 15th. Raider quarterbacks have been sacked a total of five times, and Donald Penn has allowed only one of those. Penn, thought to be a liability in pass blocking in his last two seasons in Tampa, has been the best pass-blocker on the team, and is doing it on a 2 year deal in which he will cost the Raiders a flat $5M against the cap per year. Veldheer, meanwhile, is on a five-year deal with Arizona that will cost them nearly $8M against the cap in 2015 and over $8M against the cap should he remain on the roster for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons. The Raiders actually upgraded the left tackle spot and saved themselves from having to either take a major cap hit or have major dead money in the 2016 season and beyond, and all the while, second-year tackle Menelik Watson and rookie guard Gabe Jackson can develop.

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  • McKenzie has also managed to improve the strongside defensive end spot, albeit not from the most likely source. When Lamarr Houston was also not re-signed in the offseason, fans and observers again scratched their heads.  Houston was a young, promising, talented defensive end who had led the team in sacks (with six) the year prior. He had been drafted under the Al Davis administration in the 2010 draft out of Texas, and had been a solid player since. Houston took his talents to Chicago, signing a five-year, $35M deal that included $15M in guarantees. Reggie instead chose to sign veteran Giants DE Justin Tuck, veteran Texans DE/DT Antonio Smith, and young Packers DE C.J. Wilson, another 2010 draft product.  Smith and Tuck haven’t quite turned out the way they were expected to, but Wilson has exceeded expectations.  Wilson has been rated the 22nd-best DE in the league according to PFF, and leads the Raiders in sacks with two. Houston, meanwhile, has recorded only 7 tackles for his new team, and not a single sack yet.  The Bears are stuck with Houston for at least the next two seasons (cutting him will cost more than keeping him) and would still owe him nearly $3M against the cap if they cut him in 2016. Wilson, meanwhile, is costing the Raiders $635,000 against the cap this season. Wilson, the same age as Houston, has given Reggie double the value for a fraction of the cost and no commitment.

    Reggie McKenzie’s marquee free-agent signing of the offseason, former Packer wideout James Jones, has also worked out very well for the Raiders. Jones, a 30-year old receiver who many thought would not pan out as a primary target, has been exactly that for quarterback Derek Carr: he has been thrown at 42 times through six games, catching 30 passes for 363 yards and three scores. He has been a key factor in the rookie quarterback’s development, and all for a low low price of $3.8M against the cap…with no guaranteed cap money in 2015 or 2016.

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  • Even the bad signings haven’t been bad. Guard Austin Howard, the second-youngest of the Raider free agent acquisitions (eight days older than CJ Wilson), is on a five year deal that includes just $13.8M in guaranteed money and, after the 2016 season, will allow the Raiders to terminate the contract and save significantly against the cap. Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith are all on two year deals for about $5M per year (give or take) that have no guaranteed money after this season: all three can be cut after the year and the Raiders won’t spend a dime in dead money on them. Running Backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden COMBINED are costing the organization less than $4.2M against the cap this season, and neither are due anything next year. Both could be gone in 2015 and the franchise wouldn’t owe them a penny.

    Reggie McKenzie’s brilliance in the free agency period has been that he has not wed the team to any of these under-performing veteran players for any length of time. He isn’t even leasing with an option to buy, he is flat out renting them and test-driving while he develops the young players he’s brought in through the draft. While under Al Davis’ management the team had developed into a running joke for over-paying to either keep veteran talent or bring in big-name veterans near the end of their careers, the truth behind that was no laughing matter. Davis’ penchant for wedding the team to the Warren Sapps and Tommy Kellys and Richard Seymours of the league is why Reggie McKenzie took over a team that had tens of millions of dollars in cap-killing dead money and a dearth of high draft picks in 2012. It has taken Reggie this long to finally just break that cycle, to allow him to rebuild the team the old-fashioned way: in the draft.