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Raiders using free agency as bridge to build through draft

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland Raiders Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Reggie McKenzie, a disciple of Ron Wolfe, believes in building through the draft. He was only a big player in free agency when he had to get his Oakland Raiders to the salary cap floor while his draft class of 2014 was still on rookie contracts. Even then, he front-loaded those contracts so he could get out of them in couple of years if he needed to.

Free agents are only a means to fill needs to help his drafted players. This way, it’s easier to keep home-grown talent when their rookie contracts are up in 3-5 years. Players usually get one big contract after their rookie contract so when that contract is up, there is room for another player he drafted to get the big contract he earned, keeping his core together.

Head coach Jon Gruden shares in bringing in players that fit his system now. So many were left to wonder what type of personnel philosophy the Raiders would follow now.

From the looks of free agency, the Raiders are still looking to build through the draft. Linebacker, cornerback and interior defensive line were their top needs going into this offseason. But McKenzie and Gruden opted for depth and role players, not expensive stars to fill them.

They made NaVorro Bowman an offer and didn’t hear back but he’s still unsigned so there’s chance he comes back. Then the Raiders went out and got Tahir Whitehead, a 100-plus tackler in back-to-back years for the Detroit Lions who can play with or replace Bowman. They also got Emmanuel Lamur, who produced for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther with the Cincinnati Bengals, in the past. Kyle Wilber was signed for depth.

Cornerback especially became a need after Sean Smith and David Amerson were cut and T.J. Carrie was allowed to leave in free agency. So the Raiders signed little known former Indianapolis Colts CB Rashaan Melvin, who looked like a shutdown CB with 13 passes defensed and three interceptions in 10 games in 2017. Shareece Wright is a versatile, just-in-case player who can play that slot and won’t hurt you too much if you can’t get who you want in the draft.

The Raiders signed big DT Justin Ellis, a part of the class of 2014 the Raiders are now built around. He earned the contract he has now to be the Raiders’ 1-technique. The Raiders were only willing to spend so much on Ndamukong Suh so they won’t get him. This leaves room for talented but oft-injured 2015 2nd-round pick Mario Edwards, to step up as the 3-technique. They also added Tank Carradine as competition and depth at end.

It didn’t seem like safety was a need on that defense but the Raiders were active there too. They signed Marcus Gilchrist in a move to cover their bases just in case 2017 2nd-round pick Obi Melifonwu doesn’t work out. And to teach his system Guenther just had to have Reggie Nelson back on the Raiders for another season.

The offensive personnel didn’t appear to need fixing but Gruden made it more physical. He signed blocking fullback Keith Smith and traded running, pass-catching FB Jamize Olawale to the Cowboys. He also re-signed blocking tight end Lee Smith and brought in another one in Derek Carrier. Carrier is also a good athlete so we’ll see what happens with Clive Walford, Pharaoh Brown, and Jared Cook.

Running back Doug Martin is another player brought in for Gruden to compete with Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington as depth behind Marshawn Lynch. Many criticized the move as if he were a starter but he is just a backup.

Gruden even made changes at the WR position, cutting Michael Crabtree once he was able to get Jordy Nelson for the same price.

In Gruden and McKenzie’s first free agency together, they filled needs with some solid players and potential stars but not proven starters, leaving themselves room to draft the best player available. So the same personnel strategy is in place for the Raiders, only this time to fit into what Gruden wants to do.

The Raiders still build through the draft. Hopefully that philosophy will work out better than it has with the past three classes.