The Raiders have had tons of salary cap space in years past. General manager Reggie McKenzie created it with tough decisions early in his Raiders tenure, and used it on veteran free agents aplenty.
That’s not his ultimate goal. He prefers to build through the NFL draft and reward homegrown players for hard work.
Free agency is a supplement, one to be used with caution. The best never leave their club, inflating value on many who hit the open market.
McKenzie had to bandage his roster in recent seasons while a young, drafted foundation grew. That effort drew mixed results. Patchwork didn’t produce much in 2014, when aging veterans generally cashed the Raiders’ checks.
McKenzie spent big on players in the prime the past few seasons, and hit on several key components signed early in the free agency period. Count Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele, Donald Penn, Bruce Irvin and Michael Crabtree as home runs. Nate Allen was a swing and miss. So was LaMarr Woodley and Matt Schaub. Sean Smith might fall into that category in time, or reverse a trend after a so-so 2016 season.
The Raiders made a bunch of splash signings in recent offseasons. That number could decrease this time around.
The Raiders have $43 million in salary cap space heading into the start of free agency. That’s a lot, not as much as before.
The NFL’s legal tampering period begins on Tuesday morning, a two-day stretch where teams are allowed to contact player representatives and negotiate contract terms.
Players can formally agree to new deals and sign contracts starting Thursday, the formal beginning of free agency. Terms are often agreed upon during this negotiation window.
The Raiders can afford to sign players in free agency. They could use help at inside linebacker, slot cornerback, running back, receiver and along the defensive line.
The big splashes should decrease in volume. Extending quarterback Derek Carr is a top offseason priority, with big money going to Khalil Mack in the relatively near future. Gabe Jackson and Amari Cooper are also players worth rewarding down the line.
“You try to do the best that you can to work the contracts so you can keep as many good players as possible,” McKenzie said in January. “But, we all know that you cannot have a roster of a lot of multi-million dollar players. That’s just not the way this system works. So, we’re just going to have to continue to strive to get good players for the lesser amount. I mean, it’s just the way it is. Our quarterback is going to command a high dollar. Khalil’s going to command a high dollar. So, we’ll work around it. But we don’t feel, at this point, threatened by it.”
The Raiders owe big money to Hudson, Osemele and Smith among others, so another giant class of big contracts may not be advisable despite fans wanting big names like Dont’a Hightower, Tony Jefferson and Calais Campbell arriving together.
The Raiders could use some depth on offense, but free agency might be means of improving a defense that didn’t live up to internal expectation despite having Irvin and Mack rushing strong off the edge.
There is talent available in free agency’s second wave, which comes after the opening salvo. Teams with significant cap space get associated with many players looking for a competitive market in a relatively week free agent class. The Raiders will look for good scheme fits, depth and maybe to see if some of their own free agents can return as they continue to strengthen a playoff roster still lacking in a few areas.