Jack Del Rio accelerates a rebuild

ByJohn Clayton ESPN logo
Tuesday, August 11, 2015

NAPA, Calif. -- Thirteen years ago, Jack Del Rio took over a Jacksonville team that, nine years after entering the league, once again had the look of an expansion squad.

Despite Tom Coughlin's great coaching, the Jaguars' roster was in bad shape when Del Rio arrived. The Jaguars had started strong by going to the playoffs in four of the first five years after their expansion under Coughlin, and though the franchise still had the new car smell, the roster was older and weaker. The result was four consecutive non-playoff seasons and Coughlin's exit.

The job description for Del Rio in his new job as head coach of the Oakland Raidersmight appear similar, but the circumstances are different. This Raiders roster has more youth than Del Rio's first Jaguars team, a group that was phasing out 33-year-old quarterback Mark Brunell and had 14 players who were 29 or older

"It's a different situation altogether," Del Rio said. "In Jacksonville, I said this many times over. I thought Tom Coughlin had done a great job before me of milking out the number of wins he did. There was a dire need for talent. We became good, but it took time. I feel better about what we have here."

The Raiders have been in a time warp. Del Rio's first year of coaching for the Jaguars was the first year of a 13-year playoff drought for the Silver and Black. It took Del Rio three years to get the Jaguars to the playoffs. What's nice for him is the Raiders are developing a young core of players from the 2014 and 2015 drafts.

While outsiders believe the Raiders need one or two more good drafts to think playoffs, Del Rio came to Oakland with a win-now approach.

"We are in the one-draft approach until proven otherwise," Del Rio said. "We're not in this thing to be patient. You know there is no reason why we can't put in the work and expect to win now."

To his credit, Del Rio came to the Raiders with fresh eyes and a best-man-starts mentality. Cornerback D.J. Hayden was the 12th player selected in the 2013 draft. That hasn't stopped Del Rio from putting two 2014 draft choices ahead of him in fourth-rounder Keith McGill and seventh-rounder Travis Carrie. The Raiders are paying guard Austin Howard $6 million a year. That didn't stop Del Rio from starting J'Marcus Webb, who is making minimum salary, ahead of him.

The Raiders could end up starting seven draft choices from 2014 and 2015 along with nine veteran free agents picked up over the past two years. If this two-year turnaround works, it will be the model of how to reconstruct a team at the bottom of the league.

"It's not all young guys," Del Rio said. "We are certainly counting on developing young guys from last couple of drafts. You throw in a [defensive tackle]Dan Williams. You throw in [wide receiver]Michael Crabtree. You throw in some of these salty veterans, guys who have been in league and understand what it takes to prepare."

In 2014, the class of free agents signed by the Raiders was too salty and left a bad taste. General manager Reggie McKenzie tried to speed up the rebuilding process with 11 veteran signings of players of players mostly between the ages of 29 and 31. Matt Schaub, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones, Antonio SmithandLaMarr Woodley start of long list of 2014 roster casualties.

Left tackle Donald Penn and defensive end Justin Tuck may end up being the only starters the Raiders acquired from 2014 free agency.

Where the Raiders were smarter this offseason was the concept of targeting players who were signing their second contract in the league, not a third. Those players are younger and closer to their prime. Crabtree, Dan Williams, andRodney Hudsonhead that list.

"We really tried to stay in the area of getting guys coming off their first contracts," Del Rio said. "That was the idea, staying in that five year to seven-eight year kind of guys. That is the window where make sure guys are excited about our cause and our effort here."

Training camp practices now have music. The vibe is good. It took two years for Del Rio to build a playoff team around Byron Leftwich, whom the Jaguars drafted in 2003. The pace might be quicker building around Derek Carr, who has one season of experience behind him.

From the inbox

Q: I have mixed emotions about the release of Aldon Smith, but I agree with the decision. Hearing about his possible DUI (or any player's DUI) is bewildering to me. I thought the NFL provided a chauffeuring service. Does it not? And if so, why don't players take advantage of it?

From Greg in Shreveport, Louisiana

A: You are 100 percent correct. The players can not only call for a chauffeuring service, but the identity of the players who makes that call isn't revealed to the team. This is a different age, and players need to be aware of it. Resources continue to be added such as chauffeuring services. Unfortunately, players continue to make mistakes. Look at the price Aldon Smith is paying. He had a contract that could have paid him $9.7 million this fall. All he has in his pocket is the $500,000 workout bonus. A great season could have put him in position to ask for a $16 million per year. Whatever happened in Santa Clara puts all of that in question.

Q: Why don't NFL players pursue situations in free agency like LeBron James, with year-to-year contracts with player options?

From Teron in Okinawa, Japan

A: In basketball, the contracts are guaranteed. In football, it's hard to get guarantees beyond the first year. Going year to year puts NFL players at risk because of the high rates of injury. Teams have a lot of leverage in negotiations these days. Sure, you are going to get a few players willing to go year to year. Nick Foles, for example, signed a contract extension that gave him leverage to get another deal if he does well on the field. There is leverage for the franchise players. They could go year to year for a couple of years getting a 20 percent raise in each of the first two years. Not many players are franchised, though.

Q: How much do you think the push by the Rams to move to Los Angeles is influencing Chargers ownership? Even if Dean Spanos really wants to keep the team in San Diego, one would think he would be really worried about a new Los Angeles Rams team encroaching upon the Chargers' Southern California fan base.

From Daniel in La Jolla, California

A: The Spanos family is well aware of the impact. A good portion of his season-ticket base is in Orange County. That is why he would need a good deal to stay in San Diego. A bad deal would put him in a weaker position financially if he has to compete against one or two franchises in the Los Angeles area. Sad to say, I think the odds of the Chargers staying in San Diego aren't good. Still, anything can happen over the next five or six months.

Q: In contract negotiations, how does a team balance keeping a player happy while also articulating the true value they place on the player? For example, how would a team tell a QB he is not worth top-5 money but instead is at the 6-10 range while still making that QB feel like a valuable asset? I imagine negotiations can reveal the team's true feelings.

From Tony in Lackawanna, New York

A: That's why it is wise to hire an agent. A player could get emotional about things said in negotiations. This is business. Players want max dollars. Teams want to sign players for as little as they can. Because players are so competitive, they may not want to concede other players are better than them. Emotions get involved. The price of elite players is skyrocketing, which might make negotiations harder to get deals. Look at the Justin Houston signing. He's making $16.8 million a year. Many players will be thinking they are better than him, but many aren't going to come close to that number.

Q: Now that the Seahawks have worked out extensions for Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner, I am curious how much cap room they have left. How does their cap room look for 2016 if Marshawn Lynch plays under his current deal?

From Bradley in Bellevue, Washington

A: They have $4.8 million left for this year and $17.2 left for next year if the cap goes up to $153 million as expected. While they might not have enough room to do much more this year -- signing Russell Okung or J.R. Sweezy -- they can do something for next year. If Marshawn Lynch retires, the Seahawks would save $5 million of cap room. His salary is $9 million. The dead money would be $5 million.