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Raiders, McKenzie have cash to splash

2013 began impressively for the Oakland Raiders before imploding like a Cadbury Creme Egg on Easter morning.

Entering 2014, the Raiders are in a unique place. General Manager Reggie McKenzie has more cash to throw around than any GM in NFL salary cap history.

Major dilemmas are still afoot though, with a glaring hole at the quarterback position, others on offense and a secondary that was among the NFL’s worst in 2013.

McKenzie could have as much as $70 million in cap room, with only a few must-sign players.

Two of those are left tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston. Neither will be cheap, though both can be highly productive when healthy.

Further, McKenzie can front-load the contracts, creating excess cap space down the line while meeting the 87 percent threshold he needs to.

The current CBA is relatively complex. Team’s must not go over the cap, but need to spend a minimum of 87 percent of the cap as well.

Two quarterbacks likely to get contract offers from Oakland are Matt Schaub and Josh Freeman.

Schaub, released by the Houston Texans, can be a very effective passer but throws interceptions by the bunches. A team with an average defense cannot win alongside a stream of offensive turnovers.

Freeman is a candidate with youth and killer arm strength. That same strength has been a weakness, though, often over-throwing his receivers.

The caveat with Freeman is that during his first two NFL seasons, he worked well with Raiders current offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

During the second year, Freeman threw 25 touchdowns to only six interceptions, with a 61.4 completion percentage and started all 16 regular season games. He looks to be the front-runner between the two.

Recipients of Raiders’ passes could be a litany of players. Anquan Boldin and Jeremy Maclin are atop the list, though there’s also a chance they are re-signed by their respective teams before the March 15 deadline.

There’s also Eric Decker, Julian Edelman, Golden Tate, James Jones and Kenny Britt. All of the aforementioned would be upgrades beyond Rod Streater. All of them would also create a situation where Denarius Moore and Streater would be able to line up in the slot, creating a nice matchup problem for defenses.

There could be more names on the list if other players become cap casualties, which is nearly inevitable.

Oakland looks pretty solid at running back, and should re-sign Rashad Jennings. There’s a strong possibility they add Donald Brown (formerly) of the Colts, who led the league in yards after contact (3.3yac) in 2013. Jennings happens to be sixth on that list with 2.8 yards after contact.

LeGarrette Blount may also be a possible addition. The three in a committee backfield could be dominant, providing that the passing game gets going.

There are also a few upgrades at offensive guard, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz being the most notable. Both played in Kansas City last season, so both had it much easier than they would with the Raiders, who have the toughest schedule entering 2014.

While there doesn’t appear to be any upgrades at tight end, there’s several at linebacker.

Sio Moore claimed to be the best linebacker in the draft this time last year, then proved it. Pro Football Focus, an advanced metrics source, ranks him eighth overall in 4-3 outside linebackers. That’s ahead of Jarvis Jones (Pittsburgh, first round) and Jamie Collins (New England, second round).

Nick Roach, who arrived in Oakland last year via free agency also performed well, leaving just one upgrade option at the third linebacker spot.

Brandon Spikes is one guy who looks like a safe bet to hit the market. Playing for New England last year, he recorded 86 tackles and one interception before abruptly being placed on injured reserve. The designation was for “lateness,” not injury and Spikes’ agent has stated that argued that it was a mutual decision.

Spikes also believed that any incident that occurred was explained and unavoidable.

Another name of interest in Karlos Dansby, who Pro Football Focus ranks as their top free agent linebacker. At 32 years old, what Dansby lacks in youth, he can more than make up for in experience.

A 10-year veteran, Dansby recorded 114 tackles, 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble and four interceptions.

He would be a presence that could benefit Moore and the other young players in the Raiders locker room.

Oakland also has a solid shot at drafting Anthony Barr, the most highly touted linebacker prospect this year. Smart money is on the Raiders doing just that, though it’s McKenzie’s job to lose and Dansby is the safer bet. Not to mention the cap room avails them to do both.

Assuming the Raiders re-sign Lamarr Houston, which has been a top priority this offseason, they’ll still need to fill the other defensive end spot. The two candidates that emerge immediately are Greg Hardy and Michael Johnson.

Hardy is far ahead of the pack, but is a top priority for the Carolina Panthers’ front office. He figures to be retained, though there’s growing speculation that he may hit the free market. In any case, his salary would be enormous and McKenzie doesn’t seem to want to put all his eggs in one basket.

In any case, Hardy is a game-changer. For a team with a very tough schedule ahead, he might be the key to getting above .500.

Johnson is two notches below and still the next best option. He recorded 3.5 sacks in 2013 and added two forced fumbles and an interception. Not bad. But certainly not close to the 15 sacks Hardy had last season.

A top-flight interior pass rush would make those numbers even better. Randy Starks owns the top spot on that list and is in a similar position as Hardy. He’s by far the most valuable free agent on the team, but will command a huge salary.

Moreover, the Dolphins also have a long list of players to re-sign — and sign. Starks is 30 years old and the ‘Phins might concede Starks to the free market.

His four sacks and single forced fumble might not be incredibly impressive on paper, but he didn’t have much help, either. Beyond Starks, there’s a number of comparable names (Arthur Jones and Pat Sims being two), but Linval Joseph sticks out the most.

Joseph is only 25, and is monstrous. Six-foot-four and 320 pounds of raw muscle, Joseph could be a defensive end’s best friend — and clearly the enemy of whomever stands in his path. His numbers in 2013 are nearly identical to Starks’ and has the youth that no other defensive tackle can claim.

Onto the secondary, Vontae Davis is among the best corners in the game and will be available (if the Colts can’t ink a new deal). He’s only 26 and there was only 10 cornerbacks that were thrown at less in 2013.

So don’t be amazed that he made this list with only one interception, be amazed that of the 85 times he was targeted, he allowed catches on just over 50 percent of plays — while covering guys like Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson.

Walter Thurmond is the other guy. We saw him in the Super Bowl. That should say enough.

There’s no immediate need at safety and McKenzie could address that position in the draft, if he chooses to at all. He’s certainly not going to draft Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. And yes, my immaturity shines through every time I read that name.

Free agency begins March 15th, with the legal tampering period (the time agents can begin discussing potential contracts) starting March 12th. Until then, enjoy watching basketball. (Sigh.)

Follow @SFBay and @JLeskiwNFL on Twitter and at for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.

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