ALAMEDA — The Raiders will be watching the playoffs this weekend from the sideline for the 16th time in 17 years.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. They were 4-12 a year ago, improved to 7-9, and seldom does a team that does a total makeover jump from pathetic to postseason in a single year.
A segment of the fan base via social media has come to the conclusion that officiating is to blame. The Derek Carr slide, the non-touchdowns against Denver and anything else you care to name are open game.
In reality, the Raiders are 7-9 because they’re pretty much a 7-9 team. That may be generous. The website profootballreference.com calculates that based on points scored and allowed (313 to 419) the Raiders record projected at 5.3 wins to 10.7 losses.
The 2019 draft was fabulous by any standard, far exceeding any other team in terms of immediate impact. Free agency, as it so often is, was hit and miss. Tackle Trent Brown was as good as advertised but couldn’t stay healthy. Guard Richie Incognito exceeded all expectations. Wide receiver Tyrell Williams had his effectiveness ruined by a pair of aching feet. Lamarcus Joyner’s impact as the slot corner was minimal.
That’s the case in free agency more often than not, and why teams with real continuity build through the draft and cherry-pick free agents that best suit their needs and don’t cost too much money.
So the 2019 off-season was generally positive, but here are five moves the Raiders didn’t make which could have had them competing this weekend:
1. Signing Tyrann Mathieu
Erik Harris would be worth having on anybody’s roster but the plan was never to make him an every-down safety. In Johnathan Abram and Karl Joseph, the Raiders had two safeties who were more enforcer types than instinctive playmakers. Abram didn’t make it past the first game, Joseph had a Lisfranc blowout in Week 10 and missed the rest of the season.
The Raiders signed Joyner for four years and a maximum of $42 million, and were convinced he was a Ronde Barber-type slot corner rather than a safety.
What they really needed was an instinctive, play-making last-line of defense. They either never made a move for Tyrann Mathieu or Mathieu wasn’t interested. He signed for three years and $42 million with the Kansas City Chiefs and may end up in the Super Bowl.
The “Honey Badger” gets it. He sees things before they develop. He makes plays, always has. The Raiders have lacked that kind of player since Charles Woodson retired, and Mathieu is only 27. Earl Thomas was also available, but he’s 30. Mathieu is only 27.
2. Signing Shaquil Barrett
Let’s face it. Thirty-one teams whiffed on signing free agent Shaquil Barrett from the Broncos, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and got lucky and signed him for $4 million in free agency ($1 million in salary, $3 million in bonus).
Barrett, who signed with Denver originally as an undrafted free agent, played 61 games without a start as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense buried behind Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and had 14 sacks. Barrett had showed an ability to infuse energy into the Denver defense though, and the Raiders saw him as an opponent enough they at least had a chance to notice he might be pretty good if given the opportunity.
The Buccaneers hit the lottery. Barrett had 19.5 sacks, leading the NFL and breaking Warren Sapp’s franchise record. He’s 6-foot-2, 250 and not a true fit for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s 4-3 defense, but if you’ve got someone who can put that kind of pressure on a quarterback, you adjust your scheme.
Team Barrett with Maxx Crosby and a much improved defensive line and the Raiders pass rush could have had 40-plus sacks instead of 32. Although the Raiders had 19 more sacks than last season, they still trailed 23 teams in that category.
3. Not trading for Antonio Brown
A lot of people thought trading for Antonio Brown was a good idea, including yours truly. The Raiders didn’t have to pay Brown after acquiring him from the Steelers, and the cost was third- and fifth-round draft picks. Hardly franchise-changing.
But the way coach Jon Gruden was holding out hope, he was obviously preparing an offense to build around Brown, and he had to change things on the fly once his instability was apparent and he was gone for good.
And while third- and fifth-round draft picks don’t sound like much, wouldn’t you have liked to have seen what general manager Mike Mayock and Gruden would have done with two more picks? During the 2019 draft they were on a three-day roll which may not be duplicated.
The Steelers, by the way, used the third-round pick acquired from Brown on Dionte Johnson. Like Brown, Johnson is a Mid-American Conference receiver (Toledo) who is about the same size and also from Florida. He caught 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns, and also returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown. That’s more catches and yards than any wide receiver on the Raiders roster this season.
With the other Brown pick, the Steelers took Zach Gentry, a developmental tight end who played in only four games.
4. Signing K.J. Wright
How long has it been since the Raiders had a linebacker that went sideline to sideline and could cover receivers, backs and tight ends?
It seems like forever.
Wright was there for the taking in free agency. He’s played on a championship-level defense and although he may be on a downward arc, still has skills intact at age 30. Finding no suitors, Wright gulped hard and accepted the Seahawks offer of two years and $14.5 million with $6.25 million guaranteed.
How much does Wright have left? How about 132 tackles, three interceptions and 11 passes defensed.
5. Signing a Smith brother
The Green Bay Packers remade their defense in large part because they landed both Z’Darius Smith (Ravens) and Preston Smith (Washington) in free agency. They combined for 25 1/2 sacks and were Pro Bowl alternates. They’re not really brothers, but portrayed themselves as such.
Z’Darius (6-foot-4, 262 pounds) got four years, $16.8 guaranteed and a max of $66 million. Preston (6-5, 265) got a $16 million bonus on a four-year deal worth a maximum of $52 million. The Raiders should have had all the intel they needed on Preston, considering he played under Jay Gruden from 2015-18.
Both are technically outside linebackers, but are familiar with putting their hand in the ground and getting after the passer.
It’s unreasonable to suggest the Raiders could have made all of these moves, and there’s no guarantee the above players would have performed in Oakland as they did in their new locales.
But even scoring on two of five could have made the difference between playing this weekend and watching on television.
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