It’s not uncommon for teams to have a lot of roster upheaval, especially when a new head coach rolls into town. But given where the Raiders were a year ago, it’s somewhat shocking that they have so many question marks when it comes to their starting lineup.
By our estimation, the Raiders are set at only nine of the 25 starting positions, which includes place-kicker, punter and long-snapper. That seems rather astonishing for a team that was 12-4 in 2016 and approached last season as if all it needed to do was keep the returning players healthy, plug a few holes, add another player or two, stand back and watch the victories mount.
Yet, that’s what the Raiders and first-year head coach Jon Gruden face as they embark upon one of the most important stretches of the season — scouting combine, pre-draft visits with as many as 30 players, free agency and the NFL draft.
Coaches and managers love knowing that they can count upon a large number of players to fulfill their roles on a game-to-game basis, without having to worry about whether a change needs to be made.
For instance, Bruce Bochy for years knew that he never had to worry about who his No. 3 hitter was because of the presence of Barry Bonds. Imagine how nice it was for the Colts to go so long with Peyton Manning at quarterback, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne at the wide receiver spots and Edgerrin James at running back, along with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis at defense end?
The fewer decisions that a coach/manager has to make, the more time, energy and thought he can put into the ones that aren’t so certain.
With that in mind, the Raiders and Gruden have to figure out how to settle upon the starters for 16 positions.
Here’s a list of the nine players assured starting spots, barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance:
QB Derek Carr, WR Amari Cooper, G Gabe Jackson, C Rodney Hudson and G Kelechi Osemele on offense.
DE Khalil Mack, OLB Bruce Irvin and SS Karl Joseph on defense.
P Marquette King on special teams.
Tight end Jared Cook and cornerback Gareon Conley are in the next tier of players with a strong chance of earning starting jobs. Cook had a starting job last season, but it’s not certain that he is the kind of tight end that Gruden wants in his offense, and Cook is a prime target if the Raiders are looking to free up more than $5 million in salary-cap space. Conley was the Raiders first-round pick last season but played in only two games because of shin splints. He is being counted upon to crack the starting lineup at a position of strong need and little depth.
Then you go to running back Marshawn Lynch and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, both of whom had productive seasons for the Raiders last year but aren’t viewed as building-block players at this stage of their careers. There’s also the question of whether it’s worth paying them what they are due in 2018 and if they would be good fits in a no-nonsense environment that Gruden prefers.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski and long-snapper Jon Condo are slated for free agency and there’s no guarantee that the Raiders will bring back either player.
Left offensive tackle Donald Penn was voted into the Pro Bowl this past season. However, he’s also going to be 35, had a drop in play last season and is recovering from a foot surgery. Right tackle Marshall Newhouse is better suited to be a backup.
Free safety Reggie Nelson is eligible for free agency and a virtual certainty to play elsewhere next season. Same goes for tight end Lee Smith.
Defensive tackle Justin Ellis and defensive end Denico Autry are a different story. The Raiders are interested in re-signing both players, if the price is right. Accomplishing this task would check off a couple of more boxes.
Second-year defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the regular-season finale, and his return date is up in the air.
Beyond that, players such as linebacker NaVorro Bowman remain in the mix, but only if the Raiders can’t find upgrades at the positions in question.
As you can see, Gruden didn’t inherit a turn-key roster the way he did when he was traded from the Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. If he wins a lot of games, even a Super Bowl, right away, people won’t be saying he did so with Jack Del Rio’s team.