With free agency set to start in under 24 hours, there is lots of buzz around the Raiders…and most of it, quite frankly, hasn’t been positive. Talks with LT Jared Veldheer, DE Lamaar Houston, and FS Charles Woodson have all hit snags in one way or another, and it seem all three could be set to hit free agency. This has seemed to anger a lot of Raiders fans, and understandably so with all three being big fan favorites, but it is important to realize that not paying these players keeps the Raiders at a league-high $70 million to spend. While Reggie McKenzie could easily afford to give Veldheer and Houston elite-level contracts like they are seeking, their play on the field last season is cause for concern with those contracts. Houston was a fantastic force off the edge, but his pressures resulted in frustratingly few sacks for Oakland last season. Veldheer’s injury seemed to plague his play for most of last season, culminating in a ten-pressures-allowed performance against Denver in the season finale. While it is still unknown how much Reggie McKenzie has actually offered Houston and Veldheer, perhaps it may be best in the Raiders’ interests to see if any other teams will overpay. Keep in mind that it was this time last year that DT Desmond Bryant, LB Philip Wheeler, and P Shane Lechler were all sure-fire re-signings that got offered bigger/better contracts elsewhere…and Reggie seemed to cover his bases well enough.
Now, having said that, Reggie has some BIG shoes to fill if he lets these players hit free agency. Here are four players that I think Reggie McKenzie should be keeping very close eyes on.
1. Eugene Monroe, OT, Baltimore
estimated contract: 5-year contract at $9-12 million/year
2014 estimated cap hit: $12 million
As of the time of this post, the details of Veldheer’s contract situation is incredibly murky. Oakland has sent him offers, but they apparently haven’t been in line with what he believes he is worth. If Veldheer decides to leave, then Reggie will have only one option for replacing him. Monroe was picked ninth overall by Jacksonville in 2009, and despite some very solid play for his team, was traded to Baltimore for a fourth- and fifth-round pick midseason this year. With Baltimore’s contract talks supposedly far apart, the best tackle in the free agency market is set to hit, and he is arguably the only tackle better than Jared Veldheer.
Monroe has regularly been seen as an underrated left tackle across the league and has generally looked impressive when I have seen him. Bucky Brooks praised him coming out of college as the best offensive lineman in the draft, ahead of Andre Smith, Alex Mack (a player I previously have stated my case for), and Will Beatty, and I believe that this is the kind of talent that Reggie McKenzie is looking for. Monroe obviously doesn’t bring the ridiculous size that Jared Veldheer brings, but he looks much more polished in pass protection and at least as good in run blocking. Keep in mind that Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing yards in 2011 (after back-to-back 1,300 yard seasons) before holding out in 2012. Obviously, not all of that was due to Monroe, but it is worth mentioning.
2. Aqib Talib, CB, New England
estimated contract: 5-year contract at $10-15 million/year
2014 cap hit: $15,000,000 (if all health incentives are met)
It was tough for me to choose between Talib and Verner for this spot, but Oakland again whiffed on fielding an acceptable secondary in 2013 and needs to hit a home run. Since Talib has had a more impressive resume and has done it for longer, in my opinion, he needs to be the guy that Reggie targets. Talib’s biggest red flag is durability, and a critical injury in the AFC Championship game didn’t help matters much, but this could prove to actually be a benefit for the Raiders, who could realistically offer him a contract contingent on his health. There are few players that are worth $10+ million a season in the league, but a healthy Talib is one of them. When healthy, he is in the discussion as a top-five corner in the league, and he has had flashes of being the best shutdown corner since pre-injury Revis. He was beaten a couple of times last season, including by a receiver I have later on in the list, but Talib earned a payday after his excellent season. Players of Talib’s caliber don’t hit free agency often, and while Oakland was strapped for cash last season, they should be throwing the bank at him this year.
He comes with some character concerns and is an injury risk, so it is definitely a risky signing, but Reggie and DA don’t have many choices. DJ Hayden looked solid enough when he played, but he still needs time to grow into the position. Mike Jenkins had a few impact plays, but was mostly embarrassing, and Tracy Porter was marginally better. I personally hope both are gone next year, but only if we can find a suitable replacement. Talib could help bring some tough, shutdown play to Oakland, and just imagine how fantastic Oakland’s secondary could be with Talib and Hayden both shutting down opposing offenses. Frontloading the contract would also make Talib’s cap hit less if Hayden develops as well as everyone hopes, which would make it easier to keep this duo in Oakland for a long time.
3. Pat Sims, DT, Oakland
estimated contract: 4-year contract worth $3-5 million/year
2014 cap hit: $6 million
There are a number of people that Oakland needs to re-sign from last year, but I feel as though Sims deserves the first contract. He missed a lot of training camp and had a bit of a slow start, but Sims averaged 4.0 tackles and assists per game after the Raiders’ bye and helped plug one of the few positives of last season: Oakland’s stingy run defense. It finished the season 13th overall, but many would be surprised to know that Oakland was actually surprisingly difficult to run against: the Raiders allowed 3.9 yards per carry (t-7th with Cleveland, SF, Denver, and Seattle) and never allowed a run longer than 40 yards (10th). The Raiders actually hadn’t allowed a run longer than 20 yards for most of the season and led the league in that stat at one point, but the end of the season seemed to deflate the defense overall.
It was even more impressive, though, how Sims took the team’s losing streak to show just how valuable he was. In the team’s final three games, all against AFC West opponents, Sims had the following stat lines:
vs KC: 4 solo tackles, 1.0 sacks
at SD: 10 solo tackles, 5 assisted tackles, 1.0 sacks
vs Den: 2 solo tackles, 1 assisted tackle
For all of the love Lamaar Houston got last season, Pat Sims in week 15 was the only instance all season of a lineman on our team being seemingly unstoppable. He was all over the field all day, and if it weren’t for a terrible set of officiating at the end of the game, his performance would’ve been MUCH more talked about this offseason. Pat Sims proved he could at least be part of a deep defensive line rotation. He could be a starter if the team doesn’t upgrade through the draft as well, but Sims showed that he was more than capable of being disruptive against the pass and the run. Honestly, if we were going to overpay for a lineman based on last season’s results, I would rather it be Sims than Houston. Overpaying for Sims would still probably be no more than $5-6 million, and he would be a great piece of continuity for Tarver’s scheme while not breaking our bank.
4. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina
estimated contract: 2-year contract worth $5 million/year
2014 cap hit: $7.5 million
This surprise tweet from earlier today may have changed what the Raiders were looking for in the draft. Steve Smith, Carolina’s #1 receiver for forever, will be cut on Tuesday. I didn’t have many opportunities to watch Carolina this season, but from what I did see, this still is a pretty big surprise. While Smith may not have elite breakaway speed, he still seemed like the toughest and best receiver they had. He posted somewhat disappointing numbers last season for being a main target in an offense with 64 receptions for 745 yards and 4 TDs, but it interesting to note that he only had four receptions all year longer than 20 yards (44, 42, 23, 21). This suggests that Smith is an older receiver who may have lost his breakaway speed, but is still clutch in bringing down catches that matter. He was incredibly consistent throughout the season with between 20 to 69 yards receiving per game, and best of all, he topped it off with a season-high 74 yards and a TD in the playoff loss to San Francisco. This suggests that Steve still has a lot left to offer to a team in dire need of an elite possession receiver.
If I were Reggie McKenzie, I would be blowing up Smith’s phone to get him to Oakland as fast as possible. While our receiving corps has potential, last season proved that there is still a lot of inexperience. Jacoby Ford, the longest-tenured Raiders’ receiver, had an extremely disappointing prove-it year and is all but gone. Denarius Moore has yet to show that he can develop into a consistent threat, breaking out one game and disappearing for five, and last year’s seventh-round draft pick, Brice Butler, completely disappeared after a breakout preseason. Rod Streater is unquestionably the best receiver on the team, and Andre Holmes had a lot of chemistry with Matt McGloin last year, but adding Steve Smith to the slot suddenly makes this WR corps a lot tougher and give whoever lines up under center a viable possession and 3rd-down receiver.
With the receivers being so young, Reggie can afford to throw the bank at Smith to ensure he comes this year while also looking forward to the future. While here, Smith could give the Raiders’ quarterback a very reliable security blanket while grooming their younger project receivers. Oakland can afford to splurge on a WR for this year with the ridiculous amount of cap space they have, so why not make it one that fits this well?
Plus, doesn’t Steve Smith just seem like a Raider of old? A tough, aggressive, rowdy player with the skills to back it up? Isn’t this the mystique and identity that Oakland has been desperate to find for years?
The Raiders have a ridiculous amount of money to spend, and not all of it will be on big-name free-agents. Some of it will have to be, though, and these are four players I would love to see in the Silver and Black in 2014.