The Oakland Raiders entered free agency with the most cap space in the history of the NFL. But rather than bursting out of the gates and making it rain on the free agent market, general manager Reggie McKenzie received more attention for the signing that wasn’t than for the signings themselves.
The first player the Raiders were reported to have signed was offensive lineman Rodger Saffold. Reports of the deal between Saffold and the Raiders first surfaced during the legal tampering period prior to the start of free agency. Almost as soon as free agency began, the signing was reported as being done. Reviews of the signing were immediate and almost universally negative. The general consensus was that McKenzie had overpaid for an injury-prone lineman who was better suited at guard than either tackle spot.
But talk of the contract’s value soon vanished after Saffold was reported to have failed his physical and would not be signing with the Raiders. Media and fans alike blasted McKenzie and rumors of interference by owner Mark Davis brought back memories of his father. It was a disaster from a media standpoint as well as being a big blow to the team which is still looking for a replacement for Jared Veldheer at left tackle.
Almost forgotten in the fiasco of Saffold was the other tackle the Raiders signed, Austin Howard. An undrafted free agent in 2010, Howard has grown into a solid starting tackle who excels in the run game. He is young at 26 and is a monster at 6′ 7″ and 333 pounds. He will represent a big upgrade to the Raiders line and was a very solid signing by McKenzie.
But it did not take long for McKenzie to bounce back, signing defensive end Justin Tuck and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley on the third day of free agency. While both guys are past their primes, Tuck showed he still had some gas in the tank with 11 sacks last season. The two also bring the experience of three combined Super Bowl championships. Plus, both guys are pass rush specialists which is exactly what the Raiders were in desperate need of.
McKenzie then followed up with another duo of signings the very next day with cornerback Tarrell Brown (pictured above) and defensive end Antonio Smith. Brown, the former San Francisco 49er, is probably the best signing of the first week for McKenzie. The 29-year-old signed a one year deal, hoping to parlay it into a more lucrative contract next offseason. Meanwhile, Smith continued the theme of improving the pass rush and will likely be playing both defensive end and defensive tackle where he can bring pressure up the gut.
To recap, the Raiders made five signings, offensive tackle Austin Howard, defensive ends Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and cornerback Tarrell Brown. Four defensive players, one offensive and three of them were lineman (four if you include Woodley who will likely play with his hand in the dirt next season). Four of the five are 29 or older, Howard being the only exception.
Heading into the offseason, the Raiders had their biggest needs along the lines and in the secondary. And that is exactly where McKenzie focused his efforts. It is hard to get past the bungling of the Saffold situation, but all in all it was a fairly successful week for the Raiders. They might not have “won” the first week of free agency, but the teams that make headlines in free agency’s first week do so by overspending. The Raiders still have a lot of work to do, but they made a big dent in the needs in the first week.