If you like long shots, stay away from the Raiders. They’ve improved as much as anybody in the NFL’s free-agency period.
This year, it won’t just be the crackpots who pick them for the postseason. They became a legitimate playoff contender last week with the free-agent signings of cornerback Sean Smith, linebacker Bruce Irvin and offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele.
Who knows, maybe they’ll even finish above the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in the AFC West. Denver has lost two quarterbacks, Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler to free agency, since stuffing another one named Cam Newton at Levi’s Stadium six weeks ago. Defensive end Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan also split town. The Broncos still have Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, but the super sacker may never recover from his offseason dance program. He might sprain an ankle on a twirl, or his brain, wondering how Marla Maples got on “Dancing with the Stars.” What’s she done lately?
No, there won’t be much support for the Broncos to repeat. Kansas City should be the pick in the AFC West, with the Chiefs’ top challenge coming from the Raiders, who for the second year in a row are getting an impressive offseason performance from general manager Reggie McKenzie. The experts are giving him top grades for the signings of Smith to play at corner, Irvin at the edge and Osemele to hold the dike at left tackle for the living wage of $58.5 million over five years, with $25.4 million guaranteed.
Osemele becomes the highest-paid player on the team, which is fine with quarterback Derek Carr, who one day hopes to be. McKenzie and the Raiders paid Osemele a premium in an effort to ensure Carr’s continued health. This is not meant to disrespect Donald Penn, last season’s left tackle. Only problem with Penn is he’s doing what Smith, Irvin and Osemele did, and that is testing the free-agent market. Penn is still available if you’re worried about protecting your blind side. Who can’t use that kind of help these days with Maples’ ex-husband riling the passions of America?
“Just have a lot of weapons,” Osemele said of the Raiders’ roster on a conference call Friday. “A lot of tough, young guys that get after it, that are aggressive.”
Smith at $38 million for four years with $20 million guaranteed gives the Raiders a big cover corner. Smith is 6-foot-3, and he stays on his man a long time. He intercepted two passes and knocked down 12 in 13 games for the Chiefs last season. Some people think he was this year’s best free agent.
“It’s all about the dark side now – Raider Nation,” Smith said on his conference call.
In the trenches, the Raiders in the past two years developed a superstar at defensive end in Khalil Mack. People used to say he was “emerging.” No more. He emerged the afternoon of Dec. 13 in Denver when he sacked Osweiler five times. Mack finished second in the league in sacks with 15, and now he has another partner on the other defensive flank in Irvin, a four-year signee at $37 million with $9.250 million guaranteed. Irvin has 22 career sacks, including 5.5 last season. With Mack drawing all the double teams, expect Irvin’s production to jump.
“The players that they’ve brought in in K.O., me and Sean, you can see that the program is really on the up and turning around,” Irvin said.
The man to thank, of course, is McKenzie.
He walked into the GM’s job four years ago having to pay more than $70 million to players no longer on the roster. Once he cleared out the bad money against the salary cap, he picked up Penn and since-retired star defensive end Justin Tuck as free agents in 2014. He played bigger in the market last year by signing wide receiver Michael Crabtree, center Rodney Hudson, linebacker Malcolm Smith, nose tackle Dan Williams, safety Nate Allen and offensive lineman J’Marcus Webb.
Along with all the cash out the door, McKenzie discovered when he arrived in Oakland that he had limited choices in his first two drafts. The first-round pick in 2012 and a second-rounder in 2013 had been traded for quarterback Carson Palmer. But McKenzie still came through in 2013 when he drafted in the lower rounds for eventual starters in running back Latavius Murray, tight end Mychal Rivera, and offensive lineman Menelik Watson. The next year, McKenzie hit the jackpot up high with Mack and Carr, not to mention solid starters down low in offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, defensive tackle Justin Ellis and defensive back T.J. Carrie. Last year, McKenzie dialed up another draft bonanza in superstar-in-waiting wide receiver Amari Cooper, defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and tight end Clive Walford.
Now we wait to see what McKenzie does with his fifth draft next month – and he still may not be done playing free-agent roulette. We also wait to see where the Raiders establish their long-term future, which, hopefully, will be in a rebuilt stadium in Oakland where O.co Coliseum stands . That’s where the Raiders will play this year and where a young team is taking shape as what looks like an NFL contender for years to come.