The Oakland Raiders could be playing a lot of 37-35 games next season. What's difficult to tell at this point is how often they'll be the team putting up the 37.
It made perfect sense that the NFL's renegade franchise went out and landed one of the league's most gifted but controversial players, wide receiver Randy Moss, this offseason by trading linebacker Napoleon Harris and two draft choices -- including last month's seventh overall selection -- to the Minnesota Vikings. Raiders owner Al Davis has a long and successful history of gathering players who wore out their welcomes elsewhere, and Moss, when he's healthy and properly motivated, is as dominant as any player in the league.
The Raiders probably will get the benefit of at least a few seasons of the good Moss before he becomes the sort of divisive force that he became in Minnesota, and the Oakland offense should be revved up as a result. Kerry Collins takes over at quarterback for former league most valuable player Rich Gannon, who is likely to retire after breaking a vertebra in his neck during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last September.
Collins now has been in Coach Norv Turner's offense for a year and should have a better understanding of how to revive the sort of down-the-field passing approach that Davis loves. He certainly has the receivers at his disposal to make it happen, with Moss joining Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry. The Raiders kept Porter off the free-agent market by signing him to a five-year, $21-million contract extension in February. Curry, if he continues to get opportunities, could be one of the league's best No. 3 receivers. The former college quarterback (and point guard) at North Carolina had 50 catches in only 12 games last season.
The Raiders got the tailback they'd targeted -- former New York Jets backup LaMont Jordan -- in free agency, signing him to a five-year, $27.5 million contract that included a $7 million signing bonus. Some regarded that as a hefty price to pay for a player who never has been a starter and never has had even a 500-yard rushing season in the NFL. But he averaged nearly five yards per carry in his four seasons with the Jets, and now he gets the opportunity that he wanted to prove that he can be a team's centerpiece runner.
The myth about Turner's offense is that it is passing-happy. It gives a quarterback chances to get the ball down the field in the passing game, yes. But it is an offense that requires a straightforward, power runner to keep defenses off balance, and the Raiders must hope that Jordan can do that so that Collins can get the most out of the talents of Moss, Porter and Curry.
Oakland re-signed one veteran guard, Ron Stone, but released another, Frank Middleton. The key for Turner and his offensive assistants before the season will be finding a position for Robert Gallery, the second player chosen in last year's draft, and leaving him there. His rookie season was undermined by the club moving him from one spot to another along the offensive line. He practiced at guard and at tackle, and finally settled in at right tackle. That's where he's slated to play next season. But the Raiders eventually need to get him back to left tackle, the position he was drafted to play. Otherwise, it wasn't worth using the second pick in the draft on him.
The offense, though, should be fine. The defense is another matter. The Raiders ranked next-to-last in the NFL in scoring defense last season, and there are questions about how well they've done in trying to improve the unit.
They released defensive tackle John Parrella and safety Ray Buchanan. They traded Harris to the Vikings in the Moss deal and sent a fellow former first-round draft choice, cornerback Phillip Buchanon, to the Houston Texans for second- and third-round picks. That was a handsome return for a player who never has lived up to his promise, but it left the Raiders painfully thin at cornerback. They used their franchise-player tag on cornerback Charles Woodson to keep him off the free-agent market and apparently would like to trade him, but have found no takers.
Oakland did focus on cornerback in the draft. The Raiders traded tight end Doug Jolley to the New York Jets in a pre-draft deal. They got the draft's 26th overall selection as part of the trade, then traded up three spots on draft day to get speedy Nebraska cornerback Fabian Washington. They chose cornerback Stanford Routt out of Houston in the second round. The Raiders also got cornerback Renaldo Hill, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, in free agency. But even all of that might not be enough, if Washington and Routt need as much schooling as some scouts maintain.
The team made another typical Raiders move by drafting Wisconsin defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne in the sixth round. Hawthorne once was regarded as a likely first-round pick, but his draft stock plummeted because of questions about his work ethic and a reported positive drug test for marijuana at the NFL scouting combine in February. Still, he's a talented player who could end up being a steal.
The Raiders made a solid pickup in free agency by signing defensive end Derrick Burgess away from the Philadelphia Eagles with a five-year, $17.5 million deal that included $6 million in bonuses. Burgess came on strong during last season's playoffs and could be ready to blossom as a pass rusher. The Eagles wanted to re-sign him but weren't willing to meet his asking price. Now, however, he doesn't have Jevon Kearse at the opposite defensive end spot to grab the attention of opposing offenses. Oakland bolstered its defensive-line depth by signing tackle Kenny Smith, a free agent formerly with the New Orleans Saints, and landed linebacker Jay Foreman after he was released by the Texans.
The Raiders have gone a combined 9-23 in two seasons since being overrun in the Super Bowl by the Buccaneers. They went 5-11 last season under first-year coach Turner, and some league observers thought it might be one-and-done for Turner, particularly given that he hadn't even been Davis's first choice for the job. Davis first tried to hire Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach Sean Payton, but the two couldn't agree to a contract. Davis stuck with Turner, though, and the Raiders now have the parts in place on offense to be as interesting as any team in the league. They will help to make the AFC West one of the league's most intriguing divisions in 2005. But they are a flawed team with glaring deficiencies on defense, and it's difficult to envision then turning their run-and-gun approach into a playoff berth.
Around the League
The San Francisco 49ers have made progress recently in negotiations with agent Tom Condon on a contract for Alex Smith, the University of Utah quarterback selected with the top overall selection in last month's draft.
The 49ers hope to sign Smith well before their training camp is scheduled to open in late July. The two sides were unable to agree to a deal before the draft, largely because the 49ers apparently were hopeful then of getting Smith to sign a contract worth less than the six-year, $45 million deal that quarterback Eli Manning signed with the New York Giants last July. Manning, the top overall pick in last year's draft, signed a contract that includes $20 million in bonuses, plus $9 million in additional incentives that could push the deal's overall value to $54 million. Manning's contract also was negotiated by Condon, who reached an agreement with the Giants that got Manning to training camp on time.
It now appears that Smith's contract will be worth more than Manning's. . . .
Free-agent cornerback R.W. McQuarters, cut by Chicago, is scheduled to visit the Miami Dolphins today. He previously visited the Giants and the Washington Redskins.
June Free Agency
Executives around the league are expecting little activity on the June free-agent market this year.
The NFL's second wave of free agency comes annually after June 1 because that's when teams can defer for a year the bulk of the salary-cap hits for releasing players. So on Thursday, another group of veteran players will be on the market, joining a list of still-available free agents that already includes cornerback Ty Law, linebacker Peter Boulware, offensive tackle L.J. Shelton and quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde and Quincy Carter.
The players likely to be released by their teams include Tennessee Titans safety Lance Schulters, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Logan, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Bobby Taylor, 49ers offensive tackle Scott Gragg, Buccaneers offensive tackle Todd Steussie and Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Johnnie Morton. The Raiders probably will part with Gannon but he's likely headed to retirement. The St. Louis Rams could release offensive tackle Kyle Turley, but his football future is uncertain because of ongoing back problems that have had him pondering a switch to defensive end.
Teams generally have done a better job the past few years of managing the salary cap, so June free agency has become less prominent. Agents don't want their clients released in June because so few jobs and so little money remain available, and have forced clubs to make decisions on players earlier by negotiating contracts that have sizable roster bonuses due in March -- compelling teams to cut players then, or retain them and pay the bonuses.