(SportsNetwork.com) - "Just win, baby" has probably never meant so much for Dennis Allen and Reggie McKenzie.
The Oakland Raiders head coach and his general manager have used their last mulligans and must turn the Oakland Raiders into a competitive bunch in 2014.
No one could or should expect this club to compete with Denver atop the AFC West but it's certainly not unreasonable to expect improvement from back-to- back 4-12 seasons and perhaps the organization's first winning record since its Super Bowl season of 2002.
The Raiders entered the 2014 league year with the most money to spend in free agency, a war chest of well over $60 million at the start of the process.
When saving for your future, it's a pretty good idea to understand one basic premise -- just because you have a few extra bucks in your pocket doesn't mean you have to spend it. The NFL, however, operates by a different set of standards, however.
The salary cap for the 2014 season went up significantly, from $123 million to $133 million. The key number for the players, however, is the salary cap floor.
The final eight years of the current CBA are broken into four-year periods (2013-16 and 2017-20) during which teams are required to spend up to 89 percent of the cap, with a guaranteed league-wide threshold of 95 percent, meaning if certain individual teams fail to hit that 95 percent mark and the league as a whole misses that mark, the owners must pay the difference to the players.
And all of that means Reggie Mac really didn't really have the option to survey the landscape, turn his nose up and save the cash for a rainy day. The league's rules mandate, if you have the money, you have to spend it, and that's akin to taking your entire paycheck to the supermarket when you're hungry.
A quick trip to Texas Instruments will tell you that somehow McKenzie had to spend over $50 million of his available allotment to be in compliance.
The thought process for most is that you build in the NFL through the draft and supplement things in free agency. Only then, when you're close -- sort of like the Broncos right now -- it's carpe diem time -- seize the moment and go for it.
The Raiders are far from close yet they have spent significant dollars on five free agents north of 30 years old -- defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith, offensive linemen Donald Penn and Kevin Boothe, and wide receiver James Jones. Meanwhile, two other gig-name arrivals, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and running back Maurice Jones-Drew, will each turn 30 next season.
The biggest domino fell when the Raiders traded a late-round selection in May's draft to Houston for quarterback Matt Schaub, who turned 33 in June.
Schaub actually has a pretty good resume in what is a quarterback-starved league. Remember, the Houston Texans were an expansion team which compiled a dismal 24-56 record in five seasons before Schaub arrived in a trade from the Atlanta Falcons before the 2007 season. The veteran finished his tenure in South Texas in the black with a 46-44 record as a starter, two Pro Bowl berths, four AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors and a pair of AFC South crowns.
While the wheels certainly came off a season ago when Schaub threw 10 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, including tossing a pick-six in a league- record four consecutive games, the Raiders are obviously banking on the fact that what looked like a sharp decline can be stopped or at least slowed for a few years.
2013 RECORD: (4-12, 4th AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2002, lost to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Dennis Allen (8-24 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Greg Olson (second season with Raiders)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jason Tarver (third season with Raiders)
KEY ADDITIONS: OG Kevin Boothe (from Giants), CB Tarell Brown (from 49ers), OT Austin Howard (from Jets), WR James Jones (from Packers), RB Maurice Jones-Drew (from Jaguars), OT Donald Penn (from Buccaneers), CB Carlos Rogers (from 49ers), DL Antonio Smith (from Texans), DE Justin Tuck (from NY Giants), DE C.J. Wilson (from Packers), LB/DE LaMarr Woodley (from Steelers), LB Khalil Mack (first round, Buffalo), QB Derek Carr (second round, Fresno State)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Jacoby Ford (to Jets), DE Lamarr Houston (to Bears), CB Mike Jenkins (to Buccaneers), RB Rashad Jennings (to Giants), CB Tracy Porter (to Redskins), OT Jared Veldheer (to Cardinals), DT Vance Walker (to Chiefs)
QB: The wheels came off on Schaub during his final season in Houston and it's conceivable the 33-year-old QB's days as a productive starter at this level are over.
"I think every man on the team is counting on him being the guy," veteran safety Charles Woodson told Sirius XM NFL Radio when discussing Schaub. "You know, you bring him over from Houston, and it's been duly noted about the struggles that he had last year. But you can't discount the year that he had before last year so we're looking at last year as being an anomaly and that not being the true Matt Schaub."
Schaub hasn't looked all that good in the preseason but he Raiders are obviously hoping that 2013 was the anomaly and that Schaub will return to being the 4,000-yard passer he was in 2012 when the Texans were making a postseason run.
"We better be close to getting ready for the regular season, obviously," Schaub said after playing poorly against Green Bay in the preseason. "We got off to a good start, which is what we wanted to do -- that was our plan. Then we sort of stubbed our toe."
Rookie Derek Carr, a second-round pick is the heir apparent. The Fresno State product is a natural thrower who flashed sound decision-making skills at the college level. He did suffer a concussion during Week 2 of the preseason against Detroit so that could be a concern moving forward.
"A lot of teams thought he was the best pure thrower in draft," NFL Network Draft analyst Mike Mayock said of Carr.
Matt McGloin is as solid as a third-team QB you will find in the NFL and really showed some signs as a rookie last year, becoming the first undrafted player to throw for three-or-more touchdown passes in his first NFL start since 1987. He also became just the second quarterback to throw for three touchdowns without an interception in his first NFL start since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
RB: Bay Area-native Jones-Drew returns to Northern California and will be expected to spearhead the Oakland running game. The three-time Pro Bowl selection with Jacksonville is fourth on the NFL's active rushing list with 8,071 yards but has struggled with injuries in recent seasons and has some serious mileage on him.
Former Arkansas standout Darren McFadden has never lived up to his college billing but remains an explosive player at times when healthy. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound back has been the key to any Oakland success in recent seasons. McFadden has rushed for 100 or more yards 13 times in his career and the Raiders have posted a 11-2 record in those games, including seven straight wins when he does it.
Fullback Marcel Reece is a solid lead blocker and a nice outlet in the passing game. He reached his second consecutive Pro Bowl in 2013 and was named second- team All-Pro. His his 1,316 total yards over the last two seasons are the most among primary fullbacks in the NFL.
WR: The two primary options in the passing game figure to be third-year pro Rod Streater and the unheralded Andre Holmes, although Jones is a proven commodity from Green Bay who will bring a big-play presence to the edge.
Streater led the team with 60 receptions and 888 receiving yards last season. The Temple product is a self-made player who brings size and length outside the numbers.
Thanksgiving Day in Dallas against his former team was Holmes' coming out party last year. The lanky 6-foot-4 Hillsdale College product posted 136 yards on seven receptions, the most of any Raiders receiver over the last two years and the fourth-best total since 2010. If he can tap into that big-play promise on a consistent basis, Oakland will be thrilled.
Since 2012 Jones, a San Jose native, has 17 touchdown receptions, which is tied for eighth in the league over that time span. In 2012, Jones led the NFL in touchdown catches, posting 14.
TE: The Raiders were thin at tight end with David Ausberry and the USC product has missed most of the preseason after undergoing knee surgery. Ausberry also missed the entire 2013 season due to a shoulder injury so injuries have to be a concern moving forward.
The depth is virtually non-existent with undersized pass catcher Mychal Rivera and Brian Leonhardt, a big-handed small college tight out of Bemidji State fighting for playing time.
Look for Oakland to be active on the waiver wire here.
OL: The Raiders revamped their offensive line with a pair of additions, Penn at left tackle and Howard, who figures to start right guard, sliding in next to talented second-year tackle Menelik Watson.
Penn isn't Jared Veldheer, perhaps the Raiders' best offensive player from 2012 who was injured for much of 2013 and signed with Arizona in the offseason, but he is a veteran who understands the game and can hold things down. Watson was just a one-year starter in college at Florida State so he's still raw but can really pull and run.
Stefen Wisniewski starts his third year at the pivot between Howard and left guard Khalif Barnes. Howard is a massive man better suited inside because he struggled with the speed rush at tackle. Barnes, meanwhile, is aging but has long arms and remains athletic.
Rookie guard Gabe Jackson, a third-round pick, has impressed in the preseason and could push Barnes for playing time.
DL: After compiling 38 sacks a year ago, the Raiders went out and continued to improve their ability to get to the quarterback this offseason by bringing in accomplished sack artists like Woodley and Tuck.
Tuck is no longer one of the best defensive lineman in football but the two-time All-Pro knows how to win at this level. He's the headliner on a completed revamped defensive line which could see four new veteran starters (Tuck, Woodley, Smith and former Cincinnati nose tackle Pat Sims).
Woodley, is expected to move to right end in the Raiders' 4-3 scheme after years of playing in space in Pittsburgh's 3-4. It remains to be seen if he can set the edge against the run effectively.
"You can never have enough rushers in the National Football League." Allen said. "It's all about affecting the quarterback ... I think we've really helped out our pass rush a lot."
Smith is another solid veteran with long arms and fairly good strength although he can be inconsistent off the ball at times while Sims tends to pick his spots to give effort and can be put on skates at times.
Ex-Packer C.J. Wilson can turn the corner on the edge and should be in the rotation along with rookie nose tackle Justin Ellis and perhaps second-year man Stacy McGee.
LB: Nick Roach, originally an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers, made a major impact for Oakland in 2013, leading the team with 152 tackles (92 solo). He will return as the Mike and be flanked by star rookie Khalil Mack on the strong side and Sio Moore on the weak side.
Roach didn't get a lot of publicity while he was in Chicago playing next to Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs but he's has turned into a solid player, while Moore sports good range, speed, and lateral quickness.
Moore, however, suffered a scary neck injury against Green Bay in Week 3 of the preseason, in which he was taken off the field on a stretcher.
"It's always a scary situation, especially when you hear a player say their neck is hurt on the field," Woodson said. "I've seen it a couple times, and it never gets any easier. I don't think anyone wants to play right away after something like that. Hopefully he'll be fine and that he'll be able to get back soon."
Oakland didn't waver at No. 5 overall in the draft when Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, universally regarded as one of the best four players in the process, fell to them. The Raiders certainly had bigger needs like quarterback but McKenzie wasn't spooked by that and stayed true to his board.
"He has a lot on his plate," Woodson said. "Not just from the standpoint of him being a high pick and everybody expecting that 'wow' factor out of him, but as far as the plays, knowing the positions and different things they have him doing, there is a lot expected of him in that sense. You just allow him to grow as a player. I think the sky is the limit for him."
Third-year players Kaelin Burnett and Miles Burris are the top options to fill in for Moore.
DB: Like the front four McKenzie completely remade the cornerback position, bringing in ex-49ers Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown to hold down the fort while the team waits on D.J. Hayden to get healthy.
Rogers is 33 but still possesses solid man-to-man cover ability and decent quickness, while Brown is a smooth and instinctive player who lacks top-tier athleticism. They figure to start on the outside while Hayden gets up to speed.
Woodson will be back to team up with Tyvon Branch on the back end.
Woodson, of course, is one the most beloved players to ever put on the Silver and Black and re-signed with the Raiders last year, returning to the team that drafted him with their first-round selection in the 1998 NFL Draft. Woodson is a declining player but he can still be a difference-maker near the line of scrimmage, especially blitzing from the slot.
Branch had been by far the most consistent Raiders defender for years but was limited to just two games in 2013. His return gives the Raiders a solid in- the-box safety with decent coverage skills.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Known for his booming leg, veteran kicker Sebastian Janikowski is in historic company when it comes to long-distance field goals. With eight more field goals over 50 yards, Janikowski will pass Jason Hanson's NFL record of 52.
Punter Marquette King posted numbers among the NFL's best in both gross average and punting yards last year, finishing sixth with 4,107 punting yards and topping the entire league with a gaudy gross punting average of 48.9. If he can further master directional kicking skills, King has a chance to be one of the AFC's best.
Travis Carrie (punts) and Taiwan Jones (kickoffs) are penciled in as return men but pencils have erasers for a reason and veterans Denarius Moore and McFadden could be in the mix if things falter.
COACHING: Allen hasn't shown much since he arrived from Denver but the talent level has been so sparse, it's tough to judge him. Now that he has some veteran pieces to lean on the curve he's been graded on is going to get much steeper.
Veteran offensive coordinator Greg Olson must figure out of Schaub has anything left and quickly move to Carr and or McGloin if the veteran doesn't.
Defensive chief Jason Tarver has a chance to field a much-improved unit with competent pieces at all three levels.
THE SKINNY: Perhaps no team upgraded its overall talent level more than the Raiders in the offseason.
McKenzie had a ton of money to spend and he brought in a host of veterans who figure to help. Add potential rookie linebacking star Mack to that mix and you can see Oakland is among the most-improved teams in football, at least on paper.