Starting relatively fresh under new head coach Jack Del Rio, the Oakland Raiders made several big splashes in free agency this month. They stole center Rodney Hudson away from the AFC West-rival Kansas City Chiefs for $44.5 million over five years, spruced up a rushing defense that ranked No. 22 last season by adding defensive tackle Dan Williams for $25 million, former New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton for $18 million, and Seattle Seahawks outside linebacker Malcolm Smith for a paltry $7 million, and filled a significant need at safety by signing Nate Allen away from the Philadelphia Eagles for $23 million.
Essentially, it would appear Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie made stellar improvements, mostly on the defensive end, and did so with more than $28 million in salary cap space to spare, according to Spotrac.com.
But there are still several major questions the Raiders must answer prior to the start of the 2015 season, and most begin with April and May’s draft. Oakland, holding seven total picks, including the No. 4 overall choice, did little to bolster the skill positions around second-year quarterback Derek Carr.
The Raiders added running back Trent Richardson, a two-year deal with only $1.9 million guaranteed, and signed tight end Lee Smith, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, for $9.1 million. However, neither is the type of playmaker Raider Nation hoped the team would land in free agency, like running back DeMarco Murray.
The Raiders are still positioned well in nearly every round and can fill in the holes around Carr, as well as a few others, through the draft.
Here are several players to keep an eye on as the first round, beginning the night of April 30, creeps up.
Kevin White, WR, West Virginia
The wide-standing assumption is that Oakland will go with a receiver at No. 4, with the decision coming down to either Alabama’s Amari Cooper or White. Both had exceptional 2014’s, displayed eerily similar 40-yard dash times at the NFL scouting combine last month, and possess the prototypical frames desired of a deep threat. The belief is that White has more deep-threat playmaking ability than Cooper, but Cooper has a more complete resume, with three full seasons with the Tide, two of which he went for 1,000 yards or more.
But another option is taking a burgeoning pass rusher like Florida outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., instantly pairing him with last year’s top pick Khalil Mack to a improve a pass rush that was second-to-last in the NFL last year, and waiting until the second round to take Auburn receiver Sammie Coates or USC’s Nelson Agholor. This year’s draft is especially deep at receiver, especially in the first few rounds, so waiting could be a solid strategy for McKenzie.
Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon
Starting left tackle Donald Penn will be a free agent after next season, and the Raiders can gain a talented, multi-faceted lineman in Fisher and some negotiating leverage with Penn. Del Rio and new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave have already stated that they hope to run more of a no-huddle offense, and Fisher is already well-equipped and experienced at running plays at lightning speed.
Fisher’s been projected as a first or second-round pick, but if he falls to the second he represents a huge value pick for Oakland.
Damarious Randall, FS, Arizona State
Veteran and eight-time Pro Bowler Charles Woodson, 38, will be a free agent after next season or could retire rather than seek a new contract. Allen’s signing goes a long way in assuring a smooth transition after Woodson’s imminent departure, but the Raiders No. 16 pass defense could use an infusion of youth.
This year’s class isn’t very deep at the safety position, with most of the prospective talent at cornerback, but the senior Randall has the requisite speed and experience to eventually take over the starting position. He came up with a solid 4.46 40-yard dash time and a 38-inch vertical that should be enough to convince scouts he can take receivers bigger than his 5-foot-11 frame might suggest. He also snatched six career interceptions with the Sun Devils over two years.
Projected as a second-to-third round selection, spending a third-rounder on Randall could work out quite well for the Raiders.
Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
When the run on rushers begins is anyone’s guess, but the second round figures to be the most likely spot just like in recent years past. Enter Langford, who came up with the fastest time of any running back in this year’s class with a 4.42 40-yard dash, and even excelled in the broad jump.
But Langford’s real value lies in his consistently stellar production with the Spartans the last two seasons. He racked up 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013, and topped that with 1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. Teams need only look at the success former Spartan turned Pittsburgh Steeler Le’Veon Bell has had at the next level for a projection as to how well Langford can make the transition.
Langford’s main drawbacks appear to be his running style. He’s not the same kind of tackle-busting rusher some teams desire, and Langford didn’t gain a lot of yardage after he was hit, one NFC East scout said to NFL.com.
But for the Raiders, selecting Langford in the third or fourth round could be worth the limited amount of risk.