Raiders

Help wanted: Raiders defense must improve 'at all levels'

Help wanted: Raiders defense must improve 'at all levels'

The Raiders were pretty darn good last season, with the talent required to make a playoff run. Not, however, without their MVP. Quarterback Derek Carr’s broken fibula brought the season crashing down, with the Raiders losing both games played without him. The last was a playoff flop at Houston that closed proceedings for good.

While few teams could absorb a franchise quarterback’s loss, especially with the timing of Carr’s injury, the MVP candidate covered up some weaknesses general manager Reggie McKenzie hopes to fortify this offseason.

Fixing a flawed defense tops the agenda.

“We’re just going to have to improve in every area,” McKenzie said a few weeks back. “We’re going to have to figure out the players, number one. We’re going to have some free agents and we’re going to have to overcome some injuries that we had late, but we should be okay with that.

“We feel like, at each level, we need improvement. That’s D-line, linebackers and the DB’s. We need to get better at all levels. We really do. I don’t think we’re locked in anywhere as far as position.”

That’s especially on the interior. Let’s take a look at some areas where the Raiders need an upgrade.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

The Raiders struggled getting solid push up the middle from their defensive tackles. While that position group was hampered with Mario Edwards Jr. out 14 games with a hip injury, more is required from the interior pass rush.

The Raiders had a league-low 25 sacks, and 19 of them came from edge rushers. That has to change, which head coach Jack Del Rio made clear shortly after the season.

“The interior pass rush, it’s critical for us to get that going. We were not nearly effective enough. I think Stacy (McGee) had the 2.5 sacks in there and Mario, we got Mario back late and he wasn’t a huge factor. (Jihad Ward) wasn’t a huge factor, Denico (Autry) played with that wrist all year and he wasn’t (as effective).

“I didn’t feel like we got enough inside push. That’s going to be an area for sure that we’re going to have to be better and do better.”

Defensive tackle could be a target in free agency or high in the NFL draft. There could be some turnover as well. Dan Williams’ salary could be trimmed without penalty, and McGee is an unrestricted free agent, and Ward might be better suited developing as a rotational player.

INTERIOR LINEBACKER

Expiring contracts leave the Raiders with a skeleton crew at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, positions generally posted in the middle of the field in coverage and against the run. Ben Heeney (recovering from ankle surgery) and Cory James are the only options under contract. Perry Riley and Malcolm Smith started there, and both guys are set to hit unrestricted free agency.

Riley could be brought back to add a veteran presence in the middle. Coaches like Smith, though he may have played too key a role in recent seasons. He could return or the Raiders could look for an upgrade in search of speed and sure tackling at that spot.

EDGE RUSHER

Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin were obviously strong getting after the quarterback, but there was no support behind them. Depth is needed at this spot. Shilique Calhoun wasn’t effective enough as a rookie sub, though Aldon Smith could be a huge addition if he’s reinstated. He’s an excellent pass rusher, and could help especially in sub packages. His reinstatement could come in March and would impact how the Raiders proceed in this area.

CORNERBACK

Many fans were disappointed in the return on investment from Sean Smith, but he wasn’t all bad and should benefit from offseason shoulder surgery and another year in the Raiders system. David Amerson wasn’t as good as 2015 following a contract extension last summer, but it’s reasonable to expect him and Smith to start outside again. DJ Hayden is a free agent and could be brought back, though TJ Carrie fared well despite a hamstring tear. One can’t have too many good cornerbacks, so a draft pick is certainly possible here.

SAFETY

The starting lineup seems set with Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson and 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph. Depth is required, especially if Nate Allen signs elsewhere in free agency. A versatile player could help in the back, and Nelson’s replacement could be groomed right away, with the Pro Bowler playing next season at 34 and in a contract year.

Khalil Mack wants to be Raider for life: 'That’s a no-brainer for me'

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AP

Khalil Mack wants to be Raider for life: 'That’s a no-brainer for me'

The Raiders gave quarterback Derek Carr a massive contract extension last June. Right guard Gabe Jackson got paid later that month.

Khalil Mack’s big deal is coming, likely this offseason. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie anticipates a deal getting done, and hopes Mack’s agent feels the same way.

Mack’s rep and Raiders contract folks will work out details of a massive contract extension. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year doesn’t have interest in all that. He has one preference above all.

Mack doesn’t want to go anywhere. He wants to stay with the Raiders long term.

“Of course. That’s not even a question,” Mack said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Bay Area’s Fallon Smith, which airs in this week's episode of "Raiders Central." “That’s a no-brainer for me, especially when you think about coming into this organization and try to build something special, that’s something you want to be a part of for a lifetime”

Mack has plenty of money, top-5 overall draft picks often do. The No. 5 selection in 2014 considered that first deal life-changing money, enough to help his family.

“That has been a treat for me so far,” Mack said.

He doesn’t daydream about signing a nine-figure contract. He doesn’t long to be the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player (although that might be in the cards, anyway).

“I’m not really even thinking about that,” Mack said. “I’m thinking about the Patriots, that’s just my focus that’s just my mindset – anybody who talked to me about that matter, whether it be my best friend, my mom, my dad, I tell them the same thing. I’m thinking about the Patriots and sacking Tom Brady.”

That, unlike signing a record contract, was a career a goal. Mack said in a post-draft press conference he wanted to sack legends. Peyton Manning and Brady topped the list.

Manning retired before Mack could check his box. Mack will have a second chance at Brady Sunday when the Raiders play New England in Mexico City. He had eight tackles and two quarterback hits against Brady’s Patriots in 2014, but didn’t bring the quarterback down.

Mack considered his third regular season game a welcome-to-the-NFL moment.

The University of Buffalo alum has accomplished a ton since then, with 34.5 sacks and last year’s top defensive honor to his credit. He’ll need a Herculean performance against the Patriots to help the Raiders win a pivotal game. A sack would certainly help, but Mack isn’t calling his shot.

“Yeah, I’m not one to talk,” Mack said. “I’ll express that when I get on the field, but I can’t wait, I can’t wait to play against him.”

How Guy Fieri became friends with his childhood idol Ken Stabler

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AP

How Guy Fieri became friends with his childhood idol Ken Stabler

Guy Fieri has long been a gregarious sort, a risk taker to be sure. That was the case well before he became one of the planet’s most popular celebrity chefs. The Food Network star and restaurant mogul owned a few spots around the North Bay, only starting to build what has become a vast empire.

He heard legendary Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had an endorsement with a local Chevrolet car dealership. That was Fieri’s hero growing up a diehard Raiders fan, when the Silver and Black mystique reached its zenith.

Fieri thought he’d take a shot in the dark. If Stabler was interested, Fieri told the car dealer, the quarterback could have a meal at his place, on the house.

One Saturday night shortly after, Fieri got a call he’ll never forget.

“They said, ‘Someone who looks a lot like Kenny Stabler just walked in the restaurant,” Fieri said on this week’s episode of NBC Sports Bay Area's Raiders Insider Podcast. “I had a bunch of people over for a dinner party, but I left right away and rushed to the restaurant. There was Kenny having dinner. I introduced myself, and we just started talking football and food, and became fast friends.”

That was the start of a long-lasting friendship with the Raiders. Fieri is as die-hard as they come, and has bled Silver and Black his entire life. He’s become an honorary Raider of sorts, and remains incredibly active in the Raiders community. He has hosted tailgate shows from the Raiders parking lot. He has cooked for John Madden’s birthday parties, and hosts a special cookout each year at Raiders training camp. He participates in Raiders charitable endeavors, and even participated in Jack Del Rio’s charity bocce tournament last week.

Nothing however, compares to becoming friends with Stabler. The relationship started as fan and favorite athlete, but they bonded over common interests and stayed in contact for a long time before Stabler died from complications of colon cancer in 2015.

“Kenny and I became great friends, and getting to meet and get to know him in the last 10 years of his life was a great opportunity for me,” Fieri said. “He could tell you a story about a play or moment in history like he was there. He had such a great memory. I remember talking to him one night and asking, ‘Do you know why I am the way I am? You had such an influence on me.’ I mean, he made his own rules. He had his own style, and he wasn’t going to be put in a corner. He was going to play the way he played and live the way he lived. I always admired him so much.”

Fieri has strong relationships with modern Raiders as well, from ownership down to the players.

Before he got on the inside, he was a fan who owned the Oakland Coliseum parking lot. He would come to Raiders games ready to cook.

“I used to bring an arsenal of cooking gear,” Fieri said. “I would bring a jambalaya pot. I used to smoke meats the night before and all that stuff. I would never have to buy a ticket. If I would cook, my friends would find a way to get me to the game. Some of my best Raiders buddies came through those tailgate events. People would just have a great time and take care of one another.”

Fieri is best known for hosting Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," "Guy's Grocery Games" and many other Food Network Specials. His new show, "Guy's Big Project," airs on Food Network on Sundays at 9 p.m.