Using most of their offseason resources to bolster an offense that didn’t need fortification and a secondary that certainly did, the Oakland Raiders enter the 2017 season with mostly the same pass-rushing contingent they had last year — you know, the group which managed to produce the NFL Defensive Player of the Year yet still finish with the fewest sacks (25) in the league.
Reggie McKenzie is banking that a similar crew will play better, with the investments in the secondary helping the defensive front by disrupting quarterbacks’ passing progressions. That said, waiting until the third round to add defensive line help was too long.
Oakland’s reserve weapon is not on track to see the field anytime soon.
Aldon Smith was on course to earn reinstatement as recently as February, with the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport noting the oft-suspended pass rusher was set to receive a go-ahead for a return from Roger Goodell, “barring a slip-up in the drug program.”
#Raiders LB Aldon Smith will be reinstated in March, sources say, barring a slip up in the drug program. His request was deferred in Dec.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 5, 2017
Since then, two alleged incidents — while not believed to be drug-related — show how volatile the 27-year-old Smith remains. Police and the NFL began investigating Smith for a “domestic incident” that leaked shortly after Rapoport’s report. A separate transgression, when an allegedly drunk Smith smashed into a police cruiser, has added to the unusual rap sheet compiled by Smith since he entered the league.
While the two-year, $11.5 million deal McKenzie authorized for Smith wasn’t technically a gamble since none of that money is guaranteed, it doesn’t exactly go as a win for the well-regarded GM. Although he said in April that Smith wasn’t in the team’s thought process entering the draft, McKenzie being tethered to Smith throughout this weird series of events doesn’t do much for his reputation. His subsequent Gareon Conley first-round pick continued to show he has some of Al Davis’ risk-taking style.
The Raiders have Shilique Calhoun as their only backup edge rusher of relevance, and the former Michigan State sack artist has a ways to go before being considered a viable second-stringer behind Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
The tantalizing Smith-Mack-Irvin-Mario Edwards NASCAR package foursome doesn’t look like it’s going to be a reality for the Raiders, who may now be thin on edge depth in addition to featuring obvious questions about their interior-rushing capabilities.
Oakland’s ideal sub-package alignment will feature Edwards, and his perpetual “if healthy” caveat, lining up inside Mack and Irvin. Denico Autry would factor in on the inside as well, with Jihad Ward and Darius Latham serving as interior options. Third-round defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes should factor in here to an undermined degree. The team added him after losing Stacy McGee to the Redskins.
But suddenly, the team with one of the most fearsome edge duos in football has a depth issue.
Smith not panning out hasn’t forced McKenzie’s hand in assembling his front seven. He’s been a luxury item from Day 1. However, if Calhoun isn’t ready to become an off-the-bench contributor, Mack and Irvin figure to be stretched thin.
The Chiefs, Broncos and Chargers have quality No. 3 pass-rushing options in Dee Ford, Shaquil Barrett and Jerry Attaochu, respectively. Each took time to develop, but the 25-year-old Calhoun made five tackles as a rookie. So, if Mack or Irvin go down, the Raiders would be in bigger trouble than when the Broncos lost DeMarcus Ware or the Chiefs were without Justin Houston.
A rust-depleted version of Smith would be the perfect fill-in, but good luck predicting that. There are options in free agency if the Raiders want to augment this area, though. They have more than $32M in cap space but were clearly conscious about looming extensions for Mack and Derek Carr, and possibly Gabe Jackson, this offseason. They won’t spend much on a veteran right now.
Elvis Dumervil, whom Jack Del Rio coached with the 2012 Broncos, headlines a list that also houses Trent Cole, Mario Williams, Erik Walden and Dwight Freeney. Cole and Dumervil are 13th- and 12th-year vets, respectively, and coming off major injuries. Owning a questionable motor, Williams hasn’t enjoyed a good season since 2014. Walden is coming off a strong contract-year campaign (11 sacks) that teams may deem fluky — given that the 32-year-old had never previously registered more than six in a season.
Freeney has developed a habit of signing late in the offseason, so it would be unexpected if he committed to joining a team for his age-37 season before camp.
These players would have to take discounts, but if the market dries up, a job as a No. 3 pass-rush man for a Super Bowl contender could entice.
The Raiders filled just about every area of need on their offense and are going to sport one of the league’s best. Defensively, they figure to be better, but questions across the unit remain.
Smith’s status simply doesn’t profile as a front-burner issue.
He’s not Martavis Bryant, who missed one season, but has been reinstated. He’s more like Daryl Washington or Josh Gordon — what-if commodities.
This is an area where the Raiders don’t need to spend much money, but it could be one where notable supplementation is required. Smith’s outlaw stature deprives Oakland of such an option.