Raiders have less cap space, fewer needs heading into 2017 free agency

Raiders have less cap space, fewer needs heading into 2017 free agency

The Raiders have had tons of salary cap space in years past. General manager Reggie McKenzie created it with tough decisions early in his Raiders tenure, and used it on veteran free agents aplenty.

That’s not his ultimate goal. He prefers to build through the NFL draft and reward homegrown players for hard work.

Free agency is a supplement, one to be used with caution. The best never leave their club, inflating value on many who hit the open market.

McKenzie had to bandage his roster in recent seasons while a young, drafted foundation grew. That effort drew mixed results. Patchwork didn’t produce much in 2014, when aging veterans generally cashed the Raiders’ checks.

[BAIR: Ranking the Raiders' free agent needs by position]

McKenzie spent big on players in the prime the past few seasons, and hit on several key components signed early in the free agency period. Count Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele, Donald Penn, Bruce Irvin and Michael Crabtree as home runs. Nate Allen was a swing and miss. So was LaMarr Woodley and Matt Schaub. Sean Smith might fall into that category in time, or reverse a trend after a so-so 2016 season.

The Raiders made a bunch of splash signings in recent offseasons. That number could decrease this time around.

The Raiders have $43 million in salary cap space heading into the start of free agency. That’s a lot, not as much as before.

The NFL’s legal tampering period begins on Tuesday morning, a two-day stretch where teams are allowed to contact player representatives and negotiate contract terms.

Players can formally agree to new deals and sign contracts starting Thursday, the formal beginning of free agency. Terms are often agreed upon during this negotiation window.

The Raiders can afford to sign players in free agency. They could use help at inside linebacker, slot cornerback, running back, receiver and along the defensive line.

The big splashes should decrease in volume. Extending quarterback Derek Carr is a top offseason priority, with big money going to Khalil Mack in the relatively near future. Gabe Jackson and Amari Cooper are also players worth rewarding down the line.

“You try to do the best that you can to work the contracts so you can keep as many good players as possible,” McKenzie said in January. “But, we all know that you cannot have a roster of a lot of multi-million dollar players. That’s just not the way this system works. So, we’re just going to have to continue to strive to get good players for the lesser amount. I mean, it’s just the way it is. Our quarterback is going to command a high dollar. Khalil’s going to command a high dollar. So, we’ll work around it. But we don’t feel, at this point, threatened by it.”

The Raiders owe big money to Hudson, Osemele and Smith among others, so another giant class of big contracts may not be advisable despite fans wanting big names like Dont’a Hightower, Tony Jefferson and Calais Campbell arriving together.

The Raiders could use some depth on offense, but free agency might be means of improving a defense that didn’t live up to internal expectation despite having Irvin and Mack rushing strong off the edge.

There is talent available in free agency’s second wave, which comes after the opening salvo. Teams with significant cap space get associated with many players looking for a competitive market in a relatively week free agent class. The Raiders will look for good scheme fits, depth and maybe to see if some of their own free agents can return as they continue to strengthen a playoff roster still lacking in a few areas.

Defense on the menu as Raiders enter 2017 NFL Draft

Defense on the menu as Raiders enter 2017 NFL Draft

The Raiders offense is stacked. It was before this offseason, when tight end Jared Cook, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse entered the mix.

Then Marshawn Lynch signed up on Wednesday and filled the last immediate offensive need.

The Raiders have talent and depth at most every offensive position, contrasting the defensive depth chart.

The Raiders need help there, possibly with a few instant impact players taken in this weekend’s NFL draft. The first round starts Thursday evening, with the next two rounds Friday afternoon and the remainder of this draft starting Saturday morning.

Despite clear needs, Reggie McKenzie says position is secondary to his ranking system.

“We’re going to take the best player,” McKenzie said in his pre-draft press conference. “There are some good defensive players in this draft, but we’re going to follow our board like always.”

The Raiders general manager says that could lead to an unexpected draft haul. At least he tried.

“Don’t be surprised if I draft all offensive players,” McKenzie said, unable to keep a straight face. “How about that?”

McKenzie knows his roster is strong, with clearly identifiable needs on defense. The Raiders need a starting inside linebacker. They need a slot cornerback. They need help rushing on the defensive interior. They need safety help.

McKenzie tried to fix some of those areas in free agency, but could find a match beyond weakside linebacker Jelani Jenkins. The draft offers the best opportunity to upgrade on defense, and volume could help fix that unit.

“Hopefully we can get a couple of defensive players that can help our team,” McKenzie said. “But, like we both said, we just want to help this football team, regardless of who comes at a spot whether it’s first or seventh round. And hopefully we get some good players after the draft. That’s the plan, we just want to keep stocking and let the chips fall.”

This draft is critical as the Raiders enter a new phase. He deconstructed the roster and reconstructed it while getting right with the salary cap. Now they need to extend members of the awesome 2014 draft class, including quarterback Derek Carr, guard Gabe Jackson and edge rusher Khalil Mack. Drafted quality must continue to cycle through to keep the team strong and the team’s competitive window open.

McKenzie must keep an eye on the horizon, though a few more quality players could push his unit into serious contention for a conference title.

“What we want as a team moving forward, we just want more impact players,” McKenzie said. “You can never have enough playmakers on both sides of the ball and depth on both sides. That’s when you come in and try to get you the best player who can do those things. We’re not just going to plug holes if that’s what you’re asking. We’re going to get some good football players regardless of who we have here.”

Marshawn Lynch excellent fit for Raiders scheme, ailing Oakland fan base

Marshawn Lynch excellent fit for Raiders scheme, ailing Oakland fan base

Marshawn Lynch is a Raider. He announced that fact on Twitter in his own unique way Wednesday, completing a month-long process from initial interest to final signature.

The Raiders gave him a new contract and traded Seattle for his rights, allowing the Oakland Tech High grad and Cal alum to come out of retirement and play for his hometown team.

That’s good news for Raiders fans on several fronts. He fills an immediate need at running back created when Latavius Murray left for Minnesota.

It temporarily tempers, though certainly doesn’t extinguish, rage about the Raiders relocating to Las Vegas.

[RATTO: Here's to hoping Marshawn Lynch upstages the NFL Draft]

Owner Mark Davis hopes to move his team when a new stadium is complete in 2020. 

Lynch won't be there. Lynch won’t represent Vegas. He’s an Oakland Raider, playing for the city he champions at every turn. Lynch regularly gives back to this community and might be its most popular native son right now.

Lynch missed playing football, but he wanted to represent his hometown. That was clear in his tweet. He explained it this way: “I’m really from Oakland doe like really really really from Oakland doe…town bizness breath on me.”

He’ll celebrate joining the Raiders on Thursday with a block party and autograph signing in Oakland.

Lynch will give East Bay fans something to cheer for that won’t be shipping off to Vegas in a few years.

Nothing can cure the pain of an NFL team leaving Oakland a second time. Wins are ibuprofen, giving short-term relief to an ailing fan local base. He can certainly help the Raiders provide that.

The Silver and Black needed a big, physical primary rusher to pair with elusive, yet smaller backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington.

Lynch is that guy. There’s no question he’s a football fit.

Lynch is a strong interior rusher from several different formations. He could run well behind fullback Jamize Olawale, as a lone shotgun runner or in jumbo packages with quarterback Derek Carr under center and behind a hulking Raiders offensive line.

While new offensive coordinator Todd Downing will add some wrinkles to an existing scheme, the Raiders employ a versatile system that could suit Lynch’s many strengths.

Lynch ranks among the toughest, most aggressive backs of his generation and one of the best resisting tackles.

He averaged 4.3 yards per carry and 2.8 yards after contact per rushing attempt in his career, according to analytics site Pro Football Focus.

Lynch led the NFL with 245 broken tackles between 2013 and 2016 – 56 more than the next guy -- and he didn’t even play last season, per PFF.

He led the league with an unreal 3.1 yards after per contact in 2014, his last year fully healthy. He played just eight times in 2015 due to an abdominal injury that required surgery.

Lynch is completely healthy after his year travelling the world, doing charity work and expanding his clothing line, but effectiveness is always questioned of running backs over 30. Lynch turned 31 last week. He heads into his 10th season without having been hit in a while, and many believe he can produce like few others his age have in the NFL.

He’ll take the lion’s share of carries in a three-man rotation with Richard and Washington. He reportedly gets an extra $2 million if he's just the second Raider since 2010 to reach 1,000 yards. There’s motivation to push for that and other incentives in the deal. If Lynch is in vintage Beast Mode and fans are happy, the Raiders will gladly pay the extra freight.