In this week’s FPC Raiders Square Up, Chris Simmons and Ray Aspuria will debate the impact and recent history of Reggie McKenzie. Although, he receives credit for the Oakland resurrection, some of McKenzie’s moves continue to baffle.
There are some circles of Raiders Twitter that believe that Reggie McKenzie is a lower-tier GM. They feel that Jon Gruden’s presence is proof of an inability to add talent. While McKenzie certainly does not own a spotless record, the notion that he has somehow fallen short remains wildly inaccurate. When McKenzie arrived as the first GM not named “Al Davis” in Raiders history, the cupboard looked empty and filled with roaches. In the six seasons since, he compiled a roster that, even with its holes, could evolve into a perennial contender. More specifically, McKenzie cleverly navigated the unforgiving trial of free agency and managed to bring them from punchline to high-end destination.
The first few seasons of Reggie McKenzie’s tenure may have spelled the doom for most any GM if taken in a vacuum. He entered the draft with no first round pick, an unhappy quarterback. Moreover, the Raiders earned the image as the league’s most radioactive franchise. His first season, the Raiders sat almost $30 million over the league’s salary cap. In addition, they would have over $50 million in dead cap space over the next two seasons. However, McKenzie did not shrink at the challenge, cleaned house to work his magic. He cut high profile mistakes such as Richard Seymour and Darius Heyward-Bey. Additionally, he moved on from Carson Palmer, despite the dearth of options.
The willingness to make these hard choices alone is an important component to the value McKenzie brings to the organization. A franchise that formerly operated only on impulse has not only throttled back, but also implemented a coherent value system for their own free agents.
While McKenzie has certainly made a name for himself in terms of willingness to self-evaluate the roster, his contract structuring is almost unparalleled. Perhaps no example of this is more poignant than what transpired in the defensive backfield in 2015. That off-season the Raiders thought they had landed a big fish (Sean Smith) who would be able to help the team against upper tier offenses. Instead, he proved almost immediately that he was over-the-hill and would not be worth his $38 Million price tag.
Furthermore, the Raiders had also just given waiver wire gem David Amerson a raise to the tune of $33 million thinking he would be the perfect bookend. Both players proceeded to have disastrous seasons but cut in March with no dead cap. Even embattled Left Tackle Donald Penn see his release for a dead cap hit of just $3 million against the $18 Million possible. Consistently McKenzie has giving the Raiders secret passages out of contracts and to avoid spending money that they would regret later.
After his initial tear down, and through shrewd deal making, McKenzie has also managed to turn the Raiders into a prime destination. While in football there really is no “hometown discount” or “pay cuts for the team” because careers are so short players cannot afford this.
However, Oakland’s bigger signings have panned out of late. Sean Smith and David Amerson were certainly Free Agency busts, as were players such as Justin Tuck and Lamar Woodley. Yet for his cheap misses, McKenzie has made some expensive hits that were well worth the risk. Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson, Bruce Irvin, Charles Woodson, and even the much-maligned Reggie Nelson have all made significant impacts on winning. Again not a perfect record but obviously a constant search for upgrading talent.
If the list was measured one for one it would not be surprising if the margin tip slightly one way or the other. In the end, the Raiders should be grateful of what they have rather than envious of what they do not. McKenzie is not likely to ever morph into Bill Belichick or even Ozzie Newsome, but he dragged the silver and black from the absolute depths of salary cap hell to cap stability. His situation now has certainly gotten more complicated with Jon Gruden’s return but considering his body of work, he should be safe.
In fact, I would not be terribly surprised if Mark Davis kept him around for longer than some might expect, as it is clear Davis has come to appreciate McKenzie’s input. Time will tell how McKenzie’s job evolves with a new cook in the kitchen but if he were shown the door, it would not be for lack of ability to perform the role. In fact, if he were fired today, he likely would only have to wait until February of next year to return to a front office somewhere. His is by no means a perfect candidate but other teams know just how much McKenzie has helped and it would behoove the Raiders to recognize the same.
Reggie McKenzie is not sound in the free agency game. Not. Even. Close.
Granted, free agency is the NFL equivalent of a yard sale. Many personnel men live barely above the Mendoza Line during the annual exercise. McKenzie, however, resides below the dreaded line.
McKenzie’s initial signings provided a window to his acquisition acumen.
You can say extenuating circumstances handicapped him in 2012. However, signing injury-prone cornerbacks Rod Bartell and Shawntae Spencer to be the starting corners was a disaster. Both, not surprisingly, fell injured and Bartell walked out with $3 million while Spencer pocketed $850,000. Oh, the cornerback theme will come up aplenty.
Jump to 2014 and there is the Roger Saffold debacle. A big-money deal in principle scuttled by owner Mark Davis. The team doctor re-examine Saffold’s bum shoulder and the deal fell through. Then, veteran washouts LaMarr Woodley, Carlos Rogers, Terrell Brown, and Maurice Jones-Drew limped towards retirement.
Forward to 2015, a year where cap space became available. As a result, McKenzie handed a ridiculous amount of coin to Nate Allen, Curtis Lofton, and Dan Williams. Lofton, a sure-tackling linebacker, pegged to plug the hole at the Mike. It did not take long for Oakland to realize his limitations. Sadly, Lofton pocketed $10 million for nine games of work. Allen was oft injured while Williams was solid for one year before losing conditioning discipline.
Middle linebacker remains a black hole on the Raiders roster ever since Nick Roach. Roach, a quality McKenzie free agent signing retired due to concussions.
More cap became available in 2016 and McKenzie forked over a four-year, $38 million deal to corner Sean Smith. It was the first time the Raiders had a burn-victim unit on the sideline.
That was acquisition. Let us move to retention.
McKenzie hit with one-year deals for Philip Wheeler, Rashad Jennings, Brynden Trawick, Darren Bates but none was brought back. Homegrown products like Michael Bush, Jared Veldheer, Lamarr Houston, Stefan Wisniewski, and Latavius Murray signed elsewhere.
Things have certainly changed with Jon Gruden back in the Raiders fold. The $100-million head coach does not cash checks to just teach X’s and O’s. This, for better or worse, is his team now.
Roster moves, more specifically the draft, screams Gruden. He jettisoned free agent signees Michael Crabtree, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Marshall Newhouse. He ditched McKenzie draft picks in Jihad Ward and Elijah Hood.
The tides have changed. No way does McKenzie trade a third-round pick for ‘troubled problem-child’ receiver Martavis Bryant. One can infer McKenzie’s influence remains on this year’s crop of free agents. Nevertheless, perhaps, that will be the extent of it. McKenzie is in a difficult situation. Signings succeed, praise be to Gruden. They fail and blame bestowed upon Big Reg.