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After shedding big names, big salaries Raiders face tough 2nd year in rebuilding project

The first season of the new regime in Oakland got off to a rough start with the Raiders winning just four games and often being uncompetitive one year after being on the brink of the playoffs.

Year two could be even more difficult after second-year general manager Reggie McKenzie spent much of the offseason shedding big names and big salaries as part of a necessary rebuilding process as the Raiders try to end a stretch of 10 straight non-winning seasons.

"I'm getting used to it. But it's for a good reason," said kicker Sebastian Janikowski, the longest tenured Raider in his 13th season with the team. "We need to change and we need to change now."

There will be at least eight new starters on defense, no quarterback who has made more than two starts in the NFL and a collection of low-priced free agents looking to prove themselves to the rest of the NFL.

It's all part of a near-complete overhaul of the team McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen inherited following the 2011 season with fewer than 20 players remaining from that squad.

"We got a lot of change, a lot of turnover on this football team and the thing I've been the most pleased with is the mindset of this team," Allen said. "I know there's a lot of experts out there that might thing differently, but I like this football team."

Five things to watch as the Raiders try to finish above .500 for the first time since 2002.

1. QUARTERBACK BATTLE: With Carson Palmer off in Arizona, Matt Flynn has the inside track at the starting job despite making just two NFL starts in five seasons with Green Bay and Seattle. Whether he can keep it through training camp remains to be seen. Terrelle Pryor started the final game a year ago and offers mobility but is otherwise inconsistent throwing the ball. Fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson might have the strongest arm of the three but is still learning the NFL game. None of the three impressed during offseason workouts, leaving the competition still open this summer.

2. CAPPPED OUT: McKenzie has spent much of his first two years at the helm trying to clean up the salary cap mess he inherited from late owner Al Davis. About 40 percent of Oakland's salary cap will be dedicated to accelerated bonuses from players no longer on the team, most notably Palmer, Richard Seymour, Rolando McClain, Tommy Kelly and Darrius Heyward-Bey. That left little room to spend on the 2013 roster, which lacks both stars and depth. McKenzie will have much more money to spend next offseason but that offers little help this year.

3. MCFADDEN'S HEALTH: RB Darren McFadden is excited about the switch to a power-running game that he excelled in for two years from the zone system he has struggled with throughout his career. But the switch in styles won't matter if McFadden can't still healthy. McFadden has never made it through a season injury-free, missing 23 games over five years with various ailments. The Raiders are counting on a return of the big-play back that averaged more than 5 yards a carry in 2010-11 and was a threat to score from all over the field.

4. SAD SACKS: The Raiders tied a franchise-low with just 25 sacks last season and lost most of their top pass-rushers from that squad. The current roster accounted for just 20½ sacks last season, led by 4½ from DE Lamarr Houston. Oakland is hoping a healthy year from Andre Carter and rookie LB Sio Moore will help upgrade one of the defense's biggest weaknesses from a year ago.

5. HAYDEN'S HEART: The Raiders raised some eyebrows when they drafted Houston CB D.J. Hayden 12th overall despite the fact his college career was cut short by a near-fatal practice injury. Those questions only intensified when Hayden's offseason program was derailed when he needed surgery to remove scar tissue from the abdominal region. Hayden is expected back for training camp but has not had a contact practice or game since colliding with a teammate in practice last November, leading to a tear of the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. How Hayden responds this summer will determine whether he can provide needed immediate help to a cornerback position that has been completely overhauled for a second straight offseason.

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Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org