If you haven’t heard the phrase “It’s a passing league,” repeatedly over the last several seasons, you don’t watch much NFL football. It has become a popular phrase for seemingly every broadcaster working on Sundays. Cris Collinsworth won’t let us forget it. Jon Gruden zealously implores us to recognize it. Even Phil Simms is aware of the Pangea-like shift that the league has undergone.
General managers across the NFL have evolved their entire philosophies to account for the shifting landscape of the league. Along with quarterback, two positions have become essential to hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy: cornerback and pass-rusher.
Two of the most successful NFL teams over the last five years have stuck to this blueprint with much success. The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have compiled elite secondaries and pass-rushing units and, not surprisingly, both have relatively new hardware in their trophy cabinets to show for it.
Many Oakland Raiders fans were surprised that the team bypassed dynamic Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster after he fell in the draft, but this decision was simply a reflection on the state of the league. Instead of taking Foster, Reggie McKenzie and Jack Del Rio pulled the trigger on cornerback Gareon Conley to fill out their secondary.
While Foster is a rare talent to be sure, the reality is that the value of between-the-numbers linebackers just isn’t what it used to be. Was Luke Kuechly a driving force in the Carolina Panthers’ recent trip to the Super Bowl? Of course. In the end, however, it was Von Miller’s reign of terror on Cam Newton that led the Broncos to a dominant 24-10 Super Bowl victory.
Following the blueprints of recent champions isn’t unoriginal, it’s just intelligent. Here are three ways that the Raiders’ personnel decisions have mirrored those of Seattle and Denver since the ‘Hawks lifted the Lombardi trophy in 2014.
1) Edge-rushers who can get to the quarterback in a hurry
After watching Chris Clemons force two fumbles in Super Bowl XLVIII—one that came at the expense of Peyton Manning—McKenzie didn’t waste much time finding a playmaking edge rusher of his own in the 2014 NFL Draft. By some divine intervention Khalil Mack was passed up by Buffalo, where he had played collegiately, at fourth overall, which allowed the future DPOY to land in Oakland.
In Super Bowl 50, another edge-rusher would help decide the game. So much so in fact, that he was named Super Bowl 50 MVP. Von Miller tormented Cam Newton to the tune of 2.5 sacks, including two vital strip sacks.
The following offseason, McKenzie once again invested heavily on the edge, signing Bruce Irvin to a lucrative 4 year, $37 million deal, per Spotrac.
Irvin became the thunder to Mack’s lightning last season, as the two wracked up a combined 18 sacks. Though these two are a vital part of the Raiders’ plans, they are just one part of the winning blueprint, which leads us to point two.
2) Focus on secondary to create time for pass-rushers
The strength of the Seahawks and Broncos over the last several seasons has been their respective secondaries. Neither team allowed their Super Bowl opponents to put up more than 10 points, which made their path to victory that much easier.
The Legion of Boom was nearly impenetrable in the 2013-14 season, led by Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell at corner, and the league’s premiere safety combo in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
The Broncos’ secondary took the mantle in the 2015-16 season with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris locking down the outside of the field all year long and in the Super Bowl, fear-inducing Safety T.J. Ward did his part too, forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble, defending one pass and totaling eight tackles in the big game.
The Raiders have spent significant resources over the last few seasons on creating their own elite secondary, but have yet to match the success of the Broncos and ‘Hawks. McKenzie spent a combined $80.43 million over 10 years last offseason for the services of Reggie Nelson, Sean Smith and David Amerson. He also used the teams first round pick on West Virginia safety Karl Joseph last year in addition to the first rounder on Conley and a second rounder on UConn safety Obi Melifonwu in this year’s draft.
It’s easy to scoff at these signings as the Raiders finished with the 24th ranked pass defense last season, but the reality is that these things take time. McKenzie has spent three high picks on the secondary over the last two years in what appears to be an attempt to match makeup the Legion of Boom.
3) A quarterback making an impact while still on his rookie deal
This one applies to the Seahawks blueprint and it is equal parts strategy, scouting and luck. One of the largest factors in the Hawks’ success was that they were able to compile an elite roster while an unheralded second round quarterback blossomed from a relative unknown to a bonafide superstar.
A lot of parallels can be drawn between the ‘Hawks selection of Russell Wilson and Raiders’ pick of Derek Carr, who was a legitimate MVP candidate last season before breaking his leg. Regardless of your opinion of Wilson, this much isn’t up for debate: his 4 yr/$3 million rookie contract was an absolute steal and allowed Schneider the freedom to compile a Super Bowl caliber roster around him.
The Raiders have been able to do the same with three of their young stars in Carr, Mack and Amari Cooper all still playing on their rookie deals. Of course, the fairytale is soon to come crashing down to reality as all three will need to be generously compensated in the near future.
That being said, getting Carr on the cheap has allowed the team to form a new identity—a winning identity. The fabric of the team has permanently changed and the years of expecting sub .500 seasons are in the rearview. Now it is up to management to ensure a seamless transition for the club once their superstars rookie contracts have come and gone. That’s easier said than done, but having followed the formula of the leagues most perennially successful teams for years now, Reggie McKenzie has given himself and his team the best possible chance for success.
What do the Raiders still need to do in order to seriously contend for the Super Bowl?
This poll is closed
Improve their inside linebacker situation
Find better corners than Smith and Amerson
Get a younger power back than Lynch
Nothing, they could win the SB this year