OAKLAND, Calif. — Reggie McKenzie has spent most of his first two years as Oakland Raiders general manager tearing down a team mired in years of struggles.
Only a dozen or so players who were on the team at the end of 2011 are expected back when this season opens as McKenzie has cut ties with failed former first-round picks and high-priced acquisitions.
With about 40 percent of the salary cap tied up in accelerated bonuses from those jettisoned players, it looks as if it will take at least until Year 3 of the rebuilding project for the Raiders to be a contender once again.
With major questions at quarterback, both lines of scrimmage and receiver, this year’s Raiders appear to have a better shot at the No. 1 draft pick than ending a 10-year playoff drought.
Despite those underwhelming prognostications, McKenzie heads into 2013 with optimism about the direction of the franchise.
“I’m not curious, I’m eager,” McKenzie said. “I’m very eager. I’m confident in some areas, but it’s exciting to me. When you add so many new guys, you want to see how they mesh. You want to see how some of them develop. Even regarding some of our new coaches, you want to see how that mesh comes. So far it’s been good. I’m eager and excited.”
Here are five things to watch under McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen:
While Matt Flynn went into camp looking like the best option to start at quarterback this season, Terrelle Pryor outplayed him in the preseason and is sure to get playing time this year even if he isn’t the starter. While Dennis Allen has not yet chosen his No. 1 quarterback, he has committed at least to using a special package for Pryor to exploit his athleticism and big-play ability. Pryor has the speed to run the read-option and has grown comfortable in the pistol formation. He reworked his mechanics in the offseason as he tries to prove he can be a capable pocket passer as well as a running threat.
An already suspect offensive line got considerably worse when left tackle Jared Veldheer underwent surgery for a torn triceps that is expected to sideline him for at least half the season. Without their best blocker at the most important line position, the Raiders had to scramble and are using Alex Barron and rookie Menelik Watson in that spot. Barron was a first-round bust in St. Louis who hadn’t even made a team the past two seasons. Watson has played just two years of football in his life and has never played left tackle. C Stefen Wisniewski is a capable anchor for the line, but questions remain about the effectiveness of RT Khalif Barnes and a rotation of guards.
The Raiders went into training camp trying to find a go-to receiver and that search will continue into the season. Denarius Moore showed signs of being that guy as a rookie but regressed last season and acknowledged his confidence took a hit. Rod Streater, a pleasant surprise as an undrafted free agent last year, is a capable possession receiver but lacks game-breaking skills. Jacoby Ford has battled injuries most of his career; he can stretch the field when healthy and has the versatility to excel on reverses and the screen game. Rookie Bryce Butler emerged as a bright spot in camp but is still raw.
A number of key Raiders are entering the final year of their contracts and their performance this season will help determine whether Oakland tries to lock them up long term, places the franchise tag on them or lets them test the open market. Among those players are RB Darren McFadden, who hopes a return to a power-running game revives his career after he averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry. Others players in that same situation include Veldheer, Ford and DE Lamarr Houston, who is being counted on to lead the pass rush after he moved from left to right end.
CB D.J. Hayden arrived with many questions after being drafted 12th overall despite the fact his college career was cut short by a near-fatal practice injury. The Raiders are still waiting for the answers as Hayden missed the first two exhibition games recovering from follow-up surgery in May and looked rusty in his first exhibition game. The Raiders used seven starting cornerbacks last year. If Hayden can lock down one side, a lot to ask of a rookie, that will allow coordinator Jason Tarver to use more blitzes to support a defensive line lacking a proven pass rusher.