Sometimes one can find some great discarded treasures at a yard sale, at bargain-basement prices. The chip in the paint or the minor defect might not be visible until later.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie did a nice job this past offseason putting together a defense from scrap parts and discarded free agents. A lack of depth has taken its toll as the team has lost five of six, but McKenzie has been pleased with how competitive the Raiders (4-9) have been.
"Unfortunately, with the budget and the (salary) cap being where it was - all the dead money - we didn't have a lot of room to spread a whole lot of money around," McKenzie said. "But we got some smart guys who knew how to play the game and had something to prove."
McKenzie signed eight new defensive starters last offseason. That came after the roster was gutted and he and owner Mark Davis took what they thought were necessary salary-cap hits.
A tough, aggressive bunch with something to prove, the defense led the team to a surprising 3-4 start. It was surprising not only because Oakland was paying $56 million to players no longer with the team, but because many experts thought its roster was one of the worst in the NFL.
Early in the season, the players ran hard to the ball, picked up a blitz-happy scheme quickly and gave up an average of only 15 points in the three wins.
That was then.
The worn out-defense has allowed 31.2 points and 386 yards per game in the past six games, five of them losses. That's up from 21.4 and 331 in the first seven games.
"We were hopeful we could piece them together and put together a pretty good defense," McKenzie said. "We knew that we weren't going to have a top-five defense because we weren't able to land top-five defense-type players, but we definitely were trying to get the best football players we could get. With experience and leadership."
McKenzie signed the majority of the defensive players to one-year contracts. In some cases, that's all he had to offer; in others, it was because the players wanted to play well this season and get back on the free-agent market next year.
"It's a two-way street," McKenzie said. "Any real player would see that as a motivation."
That two-way street was a dead end last year. The Raiders would have loved to re-sign linebacker Philip Wheeler this spring but couldn't afford him.
Oakland will have roughly $70 million to sign players for 2014.
"We knew that we would be playing in the same ballpark that the rest of the league is in 2014," McKenzie said. "We were a little bit behind the 8-ball with contracts and the cap, but that's all right."
Many of the players have expressed an interest in returning, and that was part of McKenzie's recruitment plan.
"The key is we want these guys to be around and get a feel for these coaches, and what we're trying to do," McKenzie said. "What's it like being a Raider. I think that's a selling point, especially when you're heading in the right direction and feel good about it."
Style helps substance
The Raiders have 32 sacks by 14 players, and McKenzie said the aggressive, disguised defense used by head coach Dennis Allen and coordinator Jason Tarver will be a selling point to the upcoming crop of free agents.
"No question, no question," McKenzie said. "It's a good thing when you have creative coaches. They know what we're working with; we don't have a whole bunch of Reggie Whites running around ...
"But that's all right, we've got some guys that can play football and guys that are willing to work. The defensive scheme weighs a lot."
Last offseason, McKenzie targeted "good effort" players and signed six players (five of them starters) between March 13 and 18. Linebackers Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava all signed multiyear contracts. Defensive linemen Pat Sims, Vance Walker and Jason Hunter got one-year deals.