Bruce Irvin

Which Raiders might not survive 2018 offseason?

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AP/USATSI

Which Raiders might not survive 2018 offseason?

UPDATE: The Raiders released cornerback David Amerson, the team announced, a few hours after this story was published. Information was inserted below to reflect that fact.

The Super Bowl ended the 2017 season Sunday night. The 2018 offseason officially began Monday morning.

These next few months will be interesting for Raiders fans, with new head coach Jon Gruden adding unpredictability to this stretch. He has massive influence in all roster decisions, maybe the final say, even with general manager Reggie McKenzie in the building. McKenzie will handle the draft – his scouting department as been working on this class of aspiring pros for months – but Gruden and coaching staff will get involved.

Fresh faces will be added in free agency, with roster turnover aimed at finding players who fit new Raiders schemes. Don’t forget that Khalil Mack will get a king’s ransom, an act that factors into everything that happens this offseason. All that will come in time.

We might see some housecleaning first. NFL teams can start shedding players right away, Monday afternoon if they’re so inclined. Most of those transactions often come later, as we head through the spring. One came Monday afternoon, when cornerback David Amerson was released. 

The transaction saved $6 million in salary-cap space, and didn't include a dime of dead money. The Raiders have several others who can go without penalty, a benefit of their preferred contract structure, offering up-front roster bonuses on pacts that become pay-as-you-go deals later in life.

That gives Gruden roster flexibility this offseason. They have $13.7 million in cap space, per overthecap.com, but are able to clear significant room with a few swift cuts.

Let’s take a look as some possible cap-saving roster cuts, with a quick comment on each:

-- Michael Crabtree ($7.7 million cap number): Fans have already debated this prospect this offseason. Crabtree has been clutch, and effective during his three-year Raiders tenure. He’s also 30, and seemed at odds with his team late last year. That was primarily with the coaching staff, but it wasn’t a good sign he seemed lethargic in some games. The new staff won’t love that. Could they keep Crabtree, or add $7 million to a deal for a younger, productive pass catcher entering his prime?

-- Marshawn Lynch ($6 million cap number): Here’s another debated topic. Will Lynch retire, get cut or stick around at age 31? Much of that will depend on an offseason meeting with Gruden, and what the veteran wants to do after that. He was the Raiders’ best skill player in 2016’s second half.

-- Sean Smith ($8.5 million cap number): This one seems like a slam-dunk. Smith really improved down the stretch with proper use, but he’s fighting with felony counts of assault and battery and doesn’t fit every scheme.

-- Bruce Irvin ($8.25 million cap number): Good edge rushers are hard to find. Irvin counts among those, especially if he’s focused on going forward. That’s not bad freight for someone with 15 sacks and 10 forced fumbles over the past two season.

-- Kelechi Osemele ($10.5 million cap number): One of the NFL’s best interior linemen. He’s going nowhere.

-- Rodney Hudson ($8.4 million cap number): See above. Raiders love Rodney.

-- Jared Cook ($5.3 million cap number): Was frustrated by how last year turned out, but also lead the Raiders in receiving yards and could’ve had a few more. Gruden could draw up some interesting plays for the receiving tight end.

-- Cordarrelle Patterson ($3.25 million cap number): Kickoff returners have been mitigated some these days, but that’s pretty cheap for special-teams explosiveness and an effective gadget player.

-- Seth Roberts ($4.45 million cap number): Roberts is the only player on this list who would come with a cap hit. It’s $2 million, a reasonable shot if the Raiders find an upgrade in the slot. They could well look for one, maybe in the draft.

Raiders edge rusher credits Ken Norton for putting him on right career, life path

Raiders edge rusher credits Ken Norton for putting him on right career, life path

Bruce Irvin pays close attention to his team’s offseason moves. Raiders fans know that. That’s why they call the explosive edge-rusher “Baby Reggie (McKenzie)” for trying to fit top free agents in silver and black. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes, other money talks.

Irvin follows personnel decisions and what they mean, regardless. Always has. That was certainly true in his second NFL season, when the Seattle Seahawks signed defensive lineman Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency.

The previous year’s first-round pick spent his athletic life on the defensive line. He had eight sacks as a rookie in 2012, but knew Bennett and Avril meant fewer opportunities to impact the quarterback.

“Those guys played my position,” Irvin said. “When they got there, I knew they were coming to play. That put me on a backburner.”

Irvin wasn’t happy about it. Not mad necessarily, just depressed.

That didn’t change when Ken Norton Jr. offered a lifeline. The respected Seahawks linebackers coach asked Irvin to join his position group. Norton saw athleticism, savvy and passion in this lump of clay, something he could mold and then refine into a top-flight player.

Irvin wasn’t so sure.

“My exact words were, ‘I ain’t smart enough,’” Irvin said. “’There’s too much thinking. I’m not smart enough to do that.’”

Norton was shocked by that response.

“What’d you say?” Norton said, per Irvin’s recollection. “Don’t ever let anyone else in the building here you say that. You can do anything, and I’m going to hold your hand every step of the way, until you get the hang of it.”

Norton stuck with Irvin through good times and bad, and there was plenty of both. Norton never gave up on a once-troubled youth who has turned his life around and devotes significant time, effort and funds toward charity work. Norton didn’t turn his back after Irvin was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. And, over time, he turned Irvin into a quality NFL linebacker.

That’s why Irvin jumped at the opportunity to honor Norton as part of this year’s Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, an annual event where top Bay Area athletes recognize coaches important to their lives on and off the field. Irvin presented Norton at a Friday night gala in San Francisco, an event to be televised Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

Irvin followed Norton from Seattle to Oakland in the 2016 offseason – ‘I heard in his voice he needed me down here’ – and again thrived under Norton’s leadership.

That won’t continue in a professional capacity.

The Seattle linebackers coach turned Raiders defensive coordinator isn’t around anymore. He got fired late last season, a few weeks before Jack Del Rio’s entire staff got let go. Norton was ever-so-briefly a 49ers assistant, before returning to Seattle as Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator.

Norton’s new career path hasn’t changed Irvin’s affection, respect or appreciation for someone he considers a mentor, a coach, a father and an uncle.

“Ken Norton is all that in one with me,” Irvin said. “I love him and his family…Him not being around here (in Oakland) anymore doesn’t change a thing.”

The bond is strong thanks to Norton’s unwavering support of a unique personality.

“He’s a bully and a best friend. He’s intimidating and really nice,” Norton said. “He’s every extreme. People are supposed to be one or the other, but Bruce is all of that. On top of all that, he’s probably the best athlete and friend you’ll ever have. It was easy early on, and then it became a solid relationship.”

Irvin and Norton first met at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. Norton and Carroll were part of a contingent recruiting Irvin to USC. He went to West Virginia instead, but those coaches eventually landed their guy at No. 15 overall in the 2012 draft.

Seattle gave him No. 51, a number Norton wore during an illustrious 13-year career that included three Super Bowl championships. The bond hadn’t formed yet, but the link was there.

It was forged during Irvin’s position switch.

“When I first got in his room, I had no clue,” Irvin said. “I didn’t know how to get in a stance. He was basically teaching a newborn baby how to walk.

“It started off bad, and that was also the year I got suspended four games. That set me back even farther. When I got back, he never judged me. He just put me back in the rotation.”

The suspension created some tension, frustration, and some pushback. Irvin knew he’d miss the first four games of 2013, but was allowed to participate in offseason and preseason activities. Norton prepared then reserve Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith – he spent two seasons in Oakland – to start. Irvin was talking trash to Smith in a preseason meeting, saying Smith’s starting job would only last as long as Irvin’s suspension.

Norton didn’t tolerate that.

“Man, Norton got on me so bad,” Irvin said. “I can’t use the words he said, but the message was, ‘Don’t act like you’re too good. You can always be replaced.’ We got into it then, but that might’ve been the last, or only argument we got into.”

Boundaries were established, as a real respect was forged. Norton kept Irvin on a proper path after returning from suspension by letting him in. Norton created an open-door policy at home, allowing Irvin to join his family for holidays. He counseled him on a decision to get married. He brought Irvin to Oakland and a great situation working opposite Khalil Mack.

Irvin understands that, and is forever grateful.

“All this football stuff could end tomorrow,” Irvin said. “The relationship I have with Norton, that’s forever, man. The guy has molded me into a great man, a great father and a great pro. Any chance I get to talk about him or help him out, I’ll do it. He’s one of the reasons why I’m here.”

How might Gruden's influence impact high-priced Raiders veterans?

How might Gruden's influence impact high-priced Raiders veterans?

There’s no guaranteed money, no dead money against the NFL salary cap should the Raiders chose to part ways with Michael Crabtree, David Amerson, Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin, Marshawn Lynch and several other high-priced played under contract for 2018.

The Raiders have been smart with their contract structure in recent years, working out frontloaded deals with early roster bonuses that become pay-as-you-go deals down the line.

That creates team flexibility, and makes it easier to ditch underperformers without stress.

Watching every snap this season, covering general manager Reggie McKenzie the past five years and head coach Jack Del Rio the last three, provided insight into which incumbents were on the way out.

Jon Gruden changes all that. The presumptive head coach following Del Rio’s ouster will have his own thoughts on guys who stay and go. They might be the only ones that matter.

It remains uncertain how much power Gruden will wield – we’ll dive more into that question in a future post – though it could be significant enough that the organizational structure will change. He might have final say over McKenzie, or at least be on equal footing in terms of signings, draft picks and roster decisions.

One guarantee: Gruden’s influence will be felt on personnel and the Raiders and the future coach could have different views on certain players.

And those players might want to send Gruden a homecoming gift after a formal announcement.

Here are some players who might be on the chopping block:

WR Michael Crabtree ($7 million base salary): The veteran receiver barely played down the stretch of the season’s final two games. It wasn’t injury related. Del Rio used the phrase “missed opportunities” before the season finale – and cited a phantom hamstring injury -- for why the receiver corps’ elder statesman was phased out.

Odds seemed solid Crabtree played his last game as a Raider, though Gruden could change all that. Crabtree had a strong start to the year but faded down the stretch, and his drop volume belied his reputation for solid hands.

RB Marshawn Lynch ($4 million base salary; $1.75 million in roster bonuses): There are two influences on whether Lynch returns. The man himself didn’t miss football during his year in retirement, and could easily step away again. There are some questions about whether Lynch and Gruden would mesh. The physical runner proved he can still produce at age 31, but there were questions about his influence on the locker room and him seemingly to have his own set of rules under Del Rio. That might not play under Gruden’s roof.

CB Sean Smith ($8.25 million base salary): This seemed like an easy decision near midseason. Smith had fallen out of favor and lost his starting spot. Injury handed it back, and Smith played far better under late-season play caller John Pagano. He was matched up with bigger receivers – Smith has always been vulnerable to speed – and finished the season strong. His salary is high given his limitations, and there’s a legal issue to handle. Smith will be tried on felony assault and batter charters this winter, with the possibility of jail time in his future. That might make him an easy cut, either way.

CB David Amerson ($5.5 million base salary): Amerson missed nine straight games with a foot injury and dealt with shoulder and concussions in the season’s first half. He was productive in his first two seasons as a Raiders, but fell off some last year even when healthy. He’s young and has quality ball skills. He could be kept and start opposite Gareon Conley, even if the Raiders continue to add cornerbacks.

Other free cuts who should be safe in 2017: LG Kelechi Osemele, LB Bruce Irvin, C Rodney Hudson, TE Jared Cook