Oakland Raiders, Reggie McKenzie Having Solid Free Agency Period


Jan 16, 2015; Alameda, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie (left) at press conference at the Raiders practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By now we’ve heard all the talking heads on ESPN and NFL Network and their snarky remarks. We’ve seen beat writers and analysts talk about it on Twitter. We’ve seen many of our fellow fans waffle between hand-wringing and flat out rage directed at the man at the helm: Reggie McKenzie. The narrative is: the Raiders are having another poor free agency period. Same old Raiders. We’ll never turn this thing around.

And it’s true that the Raiders are not winning free agency. The Raiders couldn’t woo Ndamukong Suh or Jared Odrick or Demarco Murray or any of a number of high profile players. The Raiders “low-balled” Terrance Knighton and passed on Julius Thomas and Rahim Moore. Lots of apparent swings and misses, frustrating fans and observers who believe that the Raiders were just as bad at free agency last year, prior to going 3-13.

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Since the free agency signing period opened on Tuesday, the Raiders have formally signed seven players. All seven are under the age of 30, for an average age of 27, as opposed to last years average signee age of 30. Four of the seven started on their previous teams last year and project to start for the Raiders this year at positions of dire need, like center and middle linebacker. The Raiders also added key role-players: Roy Helu, a third-down back. Lee Smith, a top-notch blocking tight end. Malcolm Smith, former Super Bowl MVP and a high-quality pass coverage linebacker with the speed and frame of a big strong safety.

One of the Raiders new acquisitions was the best player at his position on the market, and a clear upgrade. Rodney Hudson, former Chiefs center, is a smart, nimble, aggressive player who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and has improved his game every season since entering the league. At 26, he is just at the beginning of his prime years, and he can be the Raiders starting center for years to come, and will likely play out the entire duration of his reported five year contract with the Raiders.

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  • In Curtis Lofton, the Raiders added a true defensive captain for the middle linebacker position, a tough thumper who can shut down the interior run game and who has started a lot of games already in the NFL at the age of 28. Lofton, who came up in a defensive system in Atlanta orchestrated by two members of Jack Del Rio’s coaching tree (Mike Smith and Brian VanGorder), will be an instant upgrade over Miles Burris, and can give the Raiders defense back a lot of what they lost in Nick Roach. While Lofton is a bit of a passing down liability, the addition of Malcolm Smith gives the Raiders a player who can offset that.

    With Dan Williams, the Raiders now have possibly the best two-man nose tackle rotation in football. Williams, who is every bit the run-stuffer that Terrance Knighton is, but without the weight management and conditioning issues, will likely rotate with Justin Ellis as two-gap block eaters, allowing the aforementioned Lofton to attack the hole and shut plays down quickly. Having two quality players like Ellis and Williams allows the Raider defense to keep fresh big men on the field for a whole game. Williams is only 27, and can likely play at a high level for another four or five years himself.

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  • I will admit that I was not very high on Nate Allen prior to the free agency period. I though Rahim Moore would be a better fit, since Rahim Moore played the last three years in Jack Del Rio’s defense. But I have never coached Rahim Moore, Jack Del Rio has, and if Del Rio wanted Moore in Oakland, the Raiders would have pursued him. Allen is a safety with good size and speed who Reggie McKenzie had pursued last offseason, as well. Allen is only 27, and is coming off the best season of his career, recording four picks and 70 tackles for the Eagles in 2014. He is projected to be Tyvon Branch’s replacement at the strong safety position, though he may end up being the Raiders free safety in the long run, the heir to Charles Woodson.

    While Reggie McKenzie was expected to throw around huge money because of the Raiders’ formidable cap space, he hasn’t been able to lure any big fish with this bait, aside from Hudson. Instead, he’s signed some capable starters and quality role-players to favorable deals, adding pieces to the team that will support and compliment his core players and allow him to draft top talent available rather than looking to fill immediate needs with draft picks. The one large contract – Rodney Hudson – was heavily front-loaded over the next two seasons, meaning more cap space will be there when Reggie needs to pay players like Mack, Carr, Sio Moore and maybe DJ Hayden and Latavius Murray.

    Last year, McKenzie caught a lot of flack for his free agency deals, as players like LaMarr Woodley and Maurice Jones-Drew didn’t pan out, and others took a while to get going. But last year’s free agency period put warm bodies in vacant positions, and didn’t commit the Raiders to any of them in the long run – Woodley and Jones-Drew are already gone, and the Raiders owe them nothing. Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith will probably both start again this season after coming on strong late last year. Donald Penn was more than capable at the key left tackle spot last season, and while Austin Howard struggled at times as a guard, he could be a very good right tackle if he does indeed slide over this year.

    Reggie McKenzie came up under Bob Harlan, Ted Thompson and Ron Wolf in Green Bay, a franchise that deeply believes in drafting, developing and keeping their own talent. Nearly the entire Packer roster currently consists of players who have never taken a snap for another NFL franchise. This is how McKenzie plans on building the team, and that type of team-building takes time and patience. McKenzie will use free agency to put capable players on the field from year to year, but he’s never going to be the type of GM that goes out and spends tons of money on free agent superstars and wins in March every year. Look for him to put together another solid draft like the ones he had in 2013 and 2014, and look for those players to be the core of the Raider organization in the years to come.