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Raiders add depth, stay in hunt for big names

It might have been quiet on the western front at one time, but certainly not at Raiders headquarters Wednesday.

The Raiders announced a flurry of free agent signings, six in total, and early indications are that the team is closing in on tight end Jermaine Gresham and running back Demarco Murray.

Murray, the hottest player currently on the market, is reportedly keying on the Raiders, Eagles and Cowboys. Oakland appears to be the only plausible destination from a salary cap stance.

Of all the announced signings, defensive tackle Dan Williams and center Rodney Hudson should provide the largest initial upgrade.

Williams, who played his first five seasons in Arizona after the team selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft, is one of the best run-stuffing players at the position.

Hudson was ranked as the third-best center of 2014 by Pro Football Focus, and is a major upgrade over departing center Stefen Wisniewski, according to the stat service.

Hudson earned positive grades in the run and passing games, while Wisniewski was graded -2.5 overall, No. 22 out of 32 starting centers.

Oakland’s run game was anemic at best in 2014, and the defensive side was even worse after losing starting middle linebacker Nick Roach to a serious concussion.

Danville native Roy Helu Jr., the former Washington running back, was signed on to help. Helu had the best elusiveness rating of all qualified backs in 2014 per Pro Football Focus, and is a dynamic pass catcher.

Helu also has some between-the-tackles ability, and players from his high school day have noted his physicality.

Respectively, former Super Bowl MVP linebacker Malcolm Smith was brought in to help in the second level. He doesn’t care, he says, where he plays. He just wants to compete.

Smith was a logical fit after Oakland brought in Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator, Smith’s previous position coach during his stead in Seattle.

Helu, too, said Wednesday that he looks forward to working with Oakland’s new coaches, and that they have made it their life goal to turn the team into a winner.

Oakland also announced the signing of Lee Smith, formerly a tight end with Buffalo, who figures to serve as the team’s inline blocker in two tight end sets.

Smith has only 20 career catches to his name, but in the limited opportunities, has done alright for himself.

It’s clear that the Raiders are looking to improve the running game on both sides of the ball after ranking last in the NFL in offensive rushing yards and 22nd defensively against the run.

Former Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton was also signed after passing his physical. Lofton recorded 100 solo tackles and 45 assisted tackles last season.

The Raiders could have easily added four wins in 2014 with a better rush game on both sides, and maybe even better than that.

Should teams be forced to pass the ball, hybrid linebacker Khalil Mack could exceed 10 sacks in his sophomore year.

Plenty of defensive signings could be coming over the next three weeks, as new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave‘s scheme will be uptempo, and thus require rotational defenders to keep pace.

The Raiders are believed to have another $40 million in salary cap room, which could escalate to $55 million with a few cuts.

Names to Watch

LB Brandon Spikes; LB Akeem Ayers; LB Nate Irving; FS Nate Allen; DT Nick Fairley; DT Henry Melton; WR Steve Johnson; WR Percy Harvin; G Justin Blalock; OT Anthony Collins; OT Joe Barksdale

Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.

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