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Raiders have turned weaknesses into strengths through free agency

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Denver Broncos v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With the way the Raiders are attacking free agency, you’d think Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have been reading Levi Damien’s “What state are the positions in” articles. Wide receiver group? Bad! Offensive line? Bad! Linebackers? Very bad!

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius (or a Levi fanboy) to look at the Raiders roster and spot some holes that need to be filled. At the end of last season, the Raiders were one of the most talent-bereft teams in the entire NFL, with needs essentially everywhere. But the Raiders had a ton of cap flexibility (thanks, Bears!) and have utilized almost all of it to turn many of their team weaknesses into strengths.

Levi listed the condition of the Wide Receiver group as Critical, and 72% of the readers agreed with him. It was absolutely critical and has received the lion’s share of the financial attention this free agency period. The Raiders’ new WR group of Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams and JJ Nelson, to go with some of the receivers the team still has from last year, looks on paper like one of the strongest receivers groups in the NFL.

The condition of the offensive tackles group was listed as Serious, but 43% of readers listed it as Critical. It doesn’t seem the Nation has much faith in Brandon Parker and Kolton Miller as the starters, even though when Miller was healthy he did alright. Mayock and Gruden didn’t have that kind of faith either, and made their first free agent move to bring in Super Bowl champion tackle Trent Brown. Miller should still have a starting spot, but Brown is a huge upgrade from the massive question mark we had at the other tackle spot.

Linebacker was also a huge weakness last year, and Levi listed the position in Serious condition, while readers were even less confident, as 53% went with Critical. Linebacker was a wasteland last year for the Raiders, who at the end were reduced to having Jason Cabinda in heavy rotation alongside Nicolas Morrow. Neither are bad players, but both are better suited as backups and occasional rotation guys. Tahir Whitehead was the only LB mainstay, and he can best be described as “okay.”

The Raiders did not pounce on a linebacker early in free agency, letting CJ Mosley sign with the Jets and Anthony Barr return to the Vikings. The Raiders bided their time, waiting for the second and third waves of free agency to get their men. First came Vontaze Burfict, who despite his bad reputation has a mastery of Paul Guenther’s defense that most linebackers, even those who were with the Raiders last season, do not have. He has an old-school Raider mean streak and is a better coverage linebacker than you might think. His concussion history and penchant for senseless violence are concerns, but there are not many players better suited for this team this season.

Then today, the Raiders signed former Broncos linebacker, Brandon Marshall. He was cut from the Broncos by cheapskate John Smellway for making too much money, and the Raiders snatched him up. Marshall is not as athletic as he once was, but he’s certainly better than what Oakland had last year, especially in coverage.

That seems good!

Burfict and Marshall are both on one-year deals, which will in no way preclude the Raiders from drafting a linebacker in the first round if one is there that they like. The Raiders have committed extraordinarily little in the way of cap space or guaranteed money past next season, giving them even more flexibility in Las Vegas.

This isn’t to say that the Raiders have plugged all their roster holes. They still have a need at guard, and even though they signed Isaiah Crowell they still could use another running back. They lost Jared Cook and now need a tight end when they didn’t need one last year. Edge rusher is a total disaster that absolutely must be addressed in the draft, since there are few options remaining in free agency.

But when we look at certain positional groups on the Raiders going into this FA period, some of them were the worst groups in football with no discernible starting-caliber players, but now they look like very strong positional groups indeed. The Raiders and Mike Mayock have done exactly what they needed to do in the last few weeks, and still have the ability to add several superstar-level players in the draft. On paper at least, that could turn the Raiders from one of the worst teams in the AFC to one of the best.