Editor’s note: Scott Bair is in Indianapolis to cover the NFL Combine. Check back for his comprehensive coverage and catch his nightly updates on SportsNet Central.
Raiders scouts have been in draft meetings for months. They’ve scoured hours of game tape, and travelled to college all-star games earlier in the year. General manager Reggie McKenzie has reached out to some impending Raiders free agents, letting them know an extended future in silver and black is a real possibility.
Offseason work is in full swing, but this week is more important than most. NFL coaches, scouts and executives converge in Indianapolis this week for the league’s national scouting combine, an event that marks the first major event of the offseason.
The combine is essentially a standardized test for NFL prospects, featuring drills and exhibitions that offer tangible data on a player’s athleticism. That’s the main attraction, and will be billed as such during NFL Network broadcasts.
Significant work goes on behind closed doors. Medical evaluations and interviews might be the most important information gathered about prospective draftees, crucial to proper selection during the NFL draft.
The Raiders have been on a roll lately, scoring with each of their recent high draft picks the past two seasons. They found edge rusher Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and starting left guard Gabe Jackson in the 2014 draft’s first three rounds. They picked up receiver Amari Cooper, defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr. and tight end Clive Walford with the top three picks last year. Those groups, plus other late-round hits over the past three drafts, built a young foundation that has the Raiders thinking playoffs next season.
Another strong offseason could make that hope reality. McKenzie hopes to hit a bit farther down the draft board, with the No. 14 overall selection after heading into the draft with top 5 picks in his last three drafts.
He also has over $70 million in salary cap space this offseason, assuming reports of a $155 million cap bear true. While teams aren’t allowed to tamper with players still attached to last year’s employer, the combine is often a time when agents and teams converge and preliminary interest is expressed before the negotiating window formally opens March 7.
It also offers a chance to make progress with a team’s own free agents over dinners and drinks in Indy.
The Raiders hope to make progress toward quality additions at the combine and during an offseason expected to have a defensive tint. The Raiders spent significant funds and draft picks on offensive players, helping improve an attack that featured real firepower.
Cooper and Walford were drafted, and veteran center Rodney Hudson and receiver Michael Crabtree made huge contributions after signing free agent contracts.
The defense needs some major upgrades this offseason, and the Raiders are expected to make big moves to improve that unit.
The secondary needs a major overhaul. Stability must be found at inside linebacker, especially in coverage. The Raiders need numbers rushing the passer, especially with Aldon Smith suspended and Mario Edwards Jr.’s neck issues.
Running back depth and offensive line issues need to get straightened out as well, but head coach Jack Del Rio believes improved defense is the key to better play in 2016.