NFL teams want their top paid players to perform well. I know, I know, I’m generalizing here, but bear with me. The top-four teams in the NFL get production from their top-five paid players. The Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Michael Turner, Dunta Robinson, and Tony Gonzalez all produce consistently. Same with Alex Smith, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, and Dashon Goldson of the 49ers. Same with the Baltimore Ravens and the Houston Texans.

Now, this could be a coincidence. Or this could be clear evidence that successful teams practice frugality and pragmatism — two characteristics the Raiders have yet to show.

The Raiders’ current cap hell isn’t the fault of general manager Reggie McKenzie. That distinction belongs to the late Al Davis. Still McKenzie was forced to make some tough decisions this offseason in order to get the Raiders under the salary cap. With the season looking like an abysmal failure, it’s fair to question McKenzie’s decisions. To do that, let’s look at the Raiders top-five earners in 2012, and see how those investments have paid off.

Tommy Kelly 

Signed seven-year, $50.125 million contract in 2008. 2012: $825,000 (+ $5.175 million “signing” bonus), 2013: $6.5 million, 2014: $7 million, 2015: Free Agent

Tommy Kelly has been horrible. He hasn’t recorded a tackle on run defense since Week 7 (Does that strike anyone else as absolutely crazy?). He’s recorded one quarterback hurry since Week 8, when he had four against the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s also committed five penalties for 45 yards, tied for second among defensive tackles.  Pro Football Focus ranks his overall contribution to the Raiders as -13.2, which makes him the worst defensive tackle in the league. The worst. And yet, he is the fourth highest paid player at his position.

Obviously, McKenzie made the decision to keep Kelly on the roster. The reasons for this are beyond me. Certainly, the effect on the salary cap could have been a large factor. That said, Kelly is owed $19.5M in base salary over the next three seasons (2012 included). He is owed roughly $6M in bonuses. Typically, base salaries only become guaranteed after Week 1 of the given contract year. Which is to say, in all likelihood, the Raiders could have voided the $19.5M owed to Kelly for just $6M. If this is the case, which it was for Kamerion Wimbley and Stanford Routt, then McKenzie clearly made the wrong decision.

Darrius Heyward-Bey

Signed a five-year, $38.25 million contract in 2009.  2012: $5.279 million (Total cap hit: $8,159,000), 2013: $7.721 million, 2014: Free Agent

In general, Darrius Heyward-Bey (DHB) has been good. Palmer has a QB rating of 101 when throwing to DHB. His 6.6 yards-after-catch average ranks him tenth among receivers who’ve played at least 25% of offensive snaps. Still, his 1.42 yards-per-route ranks him 59th in the league and is almost six-tenths of a point behind his 2009 draft mate, Michael Crabtree.

Though his receiving skills are not top-ten quality, DHB’s salary is. His $8.1M total cap hit is the ninth highest. He’s owed $10.4M in base salary on the remainder of his contract ($7M this season), and $5.4M in bonuses. I’ll let you decide whether DHB’s performance warrants the extra $5M.

Darren McFadden

 Signed a six-year, $60,013,750 contract in 2008. 2012: $5.63 million (Total cap hit: $7,812,167), 2013: $5,856,250, 2014: Free Agent

Pro Football Focus ranks Darren McFadden as the worst running back in the league among those who have logged at least 25% of offensive snaps. His 1.96 yards-after-contact ranks fifth worst, his nine broken tackles ranks in the bottom ten, and his pass blocking efficiency (sacks, hits, and hurries allowed while blocking) ranks second to last. In other words, McFadden has been bad. Really bad.

McFadden is owed $11.4M in base salary over the remainder of his contract, and $4.2M in bonuses. It’s hard to fault McKenzie for keeping McFadden. I mean, what choice does he have? He can’t part ways with a player like McFadden, who is not only the team’s the greatest offensive threat but also a fan favorite.

Kamerion Wimbley (Tennessee Titans)

Signed a five-year, $48 million contract in 2011. 2012: 6,500,000

Though he might not put up monster sack numbers, Kamerion Wimbley is effective in other ways. Hiss 46 total quarterback pressures ranks him fourth, while his 39 hurries lead the league (Lamarr Houston and Desmond Bryant — the Raiders’ top two rushers, statistically — combined for 27 hurries). Pro Football Focus ranks Wimbley as the seventh best pass rushing 4-3 DE.

I don’t have the specifics of Wimbley’s contract, other than he would have been guaranteed $19M over the life of his contract if he had made the roster this season. For the kind of production Wimbley  is capable of, I’m not sure that’s a prohibitive number, especially for a team like the Raiders that is in desperate need of a pass rush. Because of this, it’s hard to believe that McKenzie made the right move.

Stanford Routt (released by Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 5)

Signed a five-year, $54.5 million contract in 2011. 2012: 5,000,000

This is an easy one. Routt has been the Tommy Kelly of cornerbacks this season. His 2.33 yards-per-snap (yards allowed divided by coverage snaps played) is the second worst. He’s also surrendered the third most yards-after-catch, while allowing quarterbacks to complete 64% of passes thrown his way. Adam Schefter also filed this report on Nov. 16:

He does have blemishes on his résumé from his time in Kansas City — coaches there did not like him, he missed curfew, and he wanted to use the technique he learned with the Raiders rather than the Chiefs’ technique. But still, thanks to some impressive work from agent Van McElroy, Routt has been this season’s most overpaid player.

Clearly, McKenzie made the right choice.

Conclusion

Some of McKenzie’s moves thus far have been successes. The signing of Philip Wheeler and Rod Streater. The drafting of Miles Burris. The release of Stanford Routt. All are representative of McKenzie’s keen scouting abilities. However, he’s also made a large number of mistakes. The signing of Mike Brisiel and Ronald Bartell. The release of Kamerion Wimbley. Perhaps even the retaining of Tommy Kelly and Rolando McClain. All of these could be considered failures.

Extenuating circumstances certainly didn’t help McKenzie, and so, it’s hard to know just how much blame he deserves. That said, in the words of Mark Davis, we should see progress, not regression. Right now, all Raiders’ fans are seeing is regression. The responsibility for that must belong to the man responsible filling the roster.