(Sports Network) - Does retaining three of the most talented players from a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL improve the Raiders' hopes for a 2004 turnaround?
That's the decision the team faces in free agency. Al Davis isn't taking the Branch Rickey approach of "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you." The Raiders used the franchise tag to retain exclusive rights to free agent cornerback Charles Woodson. If the team does not work out a long- term pact, Woodson would play the 2004 season at a salary of about $6.8 million, the average of the five highest paid cornerbacks.
The young talent the Raiders do have is almost all on the defensive side of the ball. In addition to Woodson, 1999 fifth-round picks Rod Coleman and Eric Barton voided the final years of their contracts to become free agents. Barton emerged as a starter in 2002 and played at a near Pro Bowl level. Coleman led all interior linemen with 11 sacks in 2002, but like Barton, regressed last season. Coleman's decline was due in large part to playing more snaps. The converted lineman is most effective as the third tackle in a rotation. Oakland is banking on the healthy return of run stuffer John Parrella. If the Raiders can't find another tackle to pair with along side Parrella they may let Coleman walk because he has shown he is not effective as a starter. The Raiders would like to retain Barton, but capable replacements are available in free agency.
RB Charlie Garner has said he will exercise an option to buy out the final year of his contract and become a free agent. That would give the Raiders cap relief, separate him from Woodson in the clubhouse and allow the Raiders to pursue a bigger and cheaper back to share the load with Tyrone Wheatley in Norv Turner's new offense. Duce Staley is a player Oakland might be interested in. On the cheaper side, Thomas Jones, Garrison Hearst and Shawn Bryson might fit in a split backfield.
The Raiders' biggest hole is on the defensive line. Robaire Smith and Keith Traylor are the most attractive run stoppers on the market after Ted Washington. The Raiders could offer a contract to street free agents Sean Gilbert and defensive end Lorenzo Bromell, who signed during the season.
After hitting a free agency home run in 2002 with Parrella, Bill Romanowski and Rod Woodson -- players who sustained season-ending injuries last year -- the Raiders whiffed in free agency in 2003. Defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield was injured for much of the season and return man Ronney Jenkins was cut during the year.
The Raiders would be wise to re-sign guard Brad Badger. He emerged as a capable starter last season at both guard positions. Re-signing versatile but oft-injured Matt Stinchcomb is unlikely. The former No. 1 pick is likely to have several suitors and land outside of Oakland's price range. One player who would help Oakland is Baltimore's Adalius Thomas. He made the Pro Bowl as a special teams player but the DE/LB has shown a non-stop motor and a flair for big plays. He's young, fast and can rush the passer.
The Raiders love to raid division rivals, so luring LB Ian Gold out of Denver could be a possibility if Barton leaves. He is a standout on special teams and has the speed to attack the quarterback in Rob Ryan's defense.
KEY UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CB-Charles Woodson (Franchise Tag), RB-Charlie Garner, DT-Rod Coleman, LB-Eric Barton, OG-Brad Badger, S-Anthony Dorsett, OG- Matt Stinchcomb, QB-Rick Mirer, TE-O.J. Santiago, DE-Lorenzo Bromell, LB-Eric Johnson, CB-Terrence Shaw, DT-Dana Stubblefield, DT-Sean Gilbert, WR-Alvis Whitted, FB-Chris Hetherington, QB-Rob Johnson.
KEY RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: OT-Chad Slaughter, QB-Tee Martin.