OAKLAND (CBS/AP) — Carson Palmer is throwing passes to Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. Darrius Heyward-Bey is catching them from Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Richard Seymour is home with his family and Rolando McClain is back in school.
Oakland spent four first-round picks on a foursome that turned out to be mostly disappointments. Now, the team has nothing to show for it other than a bloated salary cap that has severely hampered general manager Reggie McKenzie’s rebuilding process.
Those four players count for more than $35 million on this year’s salary cap even though they are no longer with the team. Throw in Michael Huff, Tommy Kelly and a host of others and it adds up to nearly $50 million in “dead money” for accelerated bonuses for players who are gone. The salary cap for 2013 was set at $123 million.
Translation? The Raiders are playing this season with barely over half a deck as about 40 percent of their salary cap goes to players not on the roster. That provides a significant hurdle for a team trying to be relevant again after 10 straight years without a winning record.
“I like being the underdog,” McKenzie said. “I really do. But we have expectations here. I know outside of the Raider walls here, there are certain levels of thoughts. But I’m looking forward to September, I really am. I make no predictions at all but I do know we’re going to play well. We’re going to play some good football. I know we’ll be better.”
It will be hard not to be after going 4-12 in the first season under McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen.
Expectations are not high considering five of the six highest salary cap numbers are for players no longer on the team. There is more “dead money” on the cap than money dedicated to either the entire offense or defense.
“You don’t want to use the rebuilding as an excuse,” defensive end Andre Carter said. “This is just how it’s going to be. Let’s build off that and build something positive rather than just say it’s a rebuilding year. Let’s just wipe the slate clean and say this is the year we stop making excuses and let’s be accountable, let’s focus and study and try to execute the game plan and win.”
The priority under the first two years of McKenzie’s stewardship has been to set up the franchise for sustained success instead of a win-at-all-costs now philosophy. That led to cutting overpriced and underperforming players in order to build from a solid foundation in the future.
That building process won’t start in earnest until next offseason when the Raiders will have plenty of draft picks and lots of money to spend as they try to fill in the myriad of holes on the current roster.
“Obviously you have to have a long-term vision for the organization, but at the same you’re trying to win, trying to do the best for this football team and give us the best chance this season,” Allen said. “It’s a delicate balance, but I think everybody goes through that.”
The Raiders hadn’t done that in the final years under late owner Al Davis, who pushed the salary cap issues into the future by restructuring contracts in hopes of building one more championship contender.
“I’ve never seen that high an amount,” said Andrew Brandt, who managed the salary cap in Green Bay for 10 years when McKenzie was a personnel executive with the Packers. “When you have a lot of dead money, that means you have turned course on a lot of decisions, some of them very expensive decisions. It really signals a huge change in culture and philosophy and direction.”
McKenzie immediately wanted to change that process after being hired by Mark Davis in January 2012, looking to utilize the practice that was so successful in Green Bay of “pay as you go.”
In part because the salary cap situation was more alarming than McKenzie first thought and because the Raiders felt they could contend last season after back-to-back 8-8 campaigns, that process took two offseasons instead of one as the GM restructured deals for Palmer and Seymour that added to this year’s cap woes.
The Raiders will be in better shape next offseason when they are projected to have more than $60 million in cap room even after giving contract extensions to kicker Sebastian Janikowski and long snapper Jon Condo.
“What Reggie inherited requires the patience of a two-year plan,” Brandt said. “They are halfway through it.”
There will be plenty of holes to fill as many of the team’s top players are eligible to be unrestricted free agents after the season, including running backs Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece, left tackle Jared Veldheer, defensive end Lamarr Houston and safety Charles Woodson.
While McKenzie has torn down the roster with only 14 players left from the active squad at the end of the 2011 season, his real test will be how well can he build it back up. He has stressed building through the draft, which was a major problem in Davis’ final years as the team repeatedly missed on top 10 picks with just one first-rounder remaining from Davis’ final 11 drafts.
But building a championship roster is much more difficult than tearing down a mediocre one and McKenzie has not yet shown he has the magic touch in the draft.
Because of previous moves, the Raiders did not pick until 95th overall in 2012. Despite that, the class has still underachieved with none of the six players projected to start this year.
The jury is still out on this year’s class. First-round pick D.J. Hayden has been limited all summer following a near-fatal practice collision in college that scared some teams off. Second-round offensive tackle Menelik Watson has only briefly been on the practice field one day all camp as he nurses a calf injury. Fourth-round quarterback Tyler Wilson, expected to compete for the starting job, has fallen to fourth string.
“I want to see some improvement, see things moving in the right direction,” McKenzie said. “But I make no excuses for the new systems and all that. That’s not an excuse. We can’t do that. … We didn’t have real good football on a consistent basis. We had some good plays. But you know when you see a good football team. Ultimately wins and losses, no matter how you count it, that counts.”
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