Releasing Sean Smith, Marshall Newhouse save Raiders cap space, create needs

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders saved a combined $10.75 million against their salary cap Monday in releasing cornerback Sean Smith and right tackle Marshall Newhouse, two moves that were not all that unexpected.

Not with Smith’s massive cap number of $8.5 million and lingering legal issues and returning coach Jon Gruden’s less-than-enthralling scouting report of Newhouse at the combine two weeks ago.

“We had some inconsistency at right tackle obviously,” Gruden said in Indianapolis. “Newhouse, he had his moments where he played well. He had some moments where he obviously struggled.”

And yet ...

Even with the moves being expected, so too are the holes left by the departures, and at key positions on this, the second day of the NFL’s so-called “legal tampering” period before the league year begins on Wednesday.

Consider: As poorly as Smith played in relation to his four-year, $38 million contract in the two years in Oakland, he was the Raiders’ best defensive back the last quarter-plus of the season. His 36.3 passer rating allowed in Weeks 12-16 ranked eighth among cornerbacks with at least 110 coverage snaps in that time frame, per Pro Football Focus.

Newhouse, meanwhile, was an offseason free-agent signee who battled through injuries to still start 14 games. But, as Gruden intimated, he was a weak link on the Raiders’ oft-dominant yet oft-disappointing O-line last season. PFF had Newhouse surrendering 38 pressures, or 15 more than left tackle Donald Penn, 35 more than center Rodney Hudson.

“There’s a lot of change going on over there,” Newhouse told ESPN’s Josina Anderson. “Outside of [general manager] Reggie [McKenzie], no one else familiar with me there. I’m a good pro and teammate. I have a lot of flexibility to live wherever in the country. Still young and healthy.”

The Raiders boast the most expensive O-line in NFL history, with left guard Kelechi Osemele and right guard Gabe Jackson each having cap numbers of $10.5 million, Hudson at $8.45 million and Penn at $8.38 million.

The most obvious front-runner to replace Newhouse, who also opened training camp as the starting left tackle with Penn’s holdout, would be Vadal Alexander, a seventh-round pick of the Raiders in 2016 who started at right tackle the two games Newhouse missed in 2017. Then again, David Sharpe, a fourth-round pick last spring who started the Raiders’ last two games at left tackle for an injured Penn, and Jylan Ware, a seventh-rounder last year, also might get a shot.

A vet in free agency? Cameron Fleming is ESPN’s No. 10-ranked offensive lineman -- the highest-rated right tackle -- and while he has more experience at right tackle for the New England Patriots than Alexander, Sharpe and Ware have in Oakland combined, his price may be more than McKenzie is willing to pay.

And what if Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brown’s poor combine performance allows him to slide to the Raiders, not only at No. 10 overall, but at No. 41 overall in the second round? He might be too tempting to pass up.

The secondary obviously is a more pressing issue.

Smith is the second veteran cornerback released by the Raiders this offseason, along with David Amerson. And with TJ Carrie about to become a free agent, Oakland’s cornerback depth chart consists of Gareon Conley, last year’s first-round pick who was limited to two games due to injury, Antonio Hamilton and Dexter McDonald, along with safety Obi Melifonwu and his one start at corner among his five games played.

Surely, the Raiders would love Conley to be healthy and live up to his hype, re-sign Carrie to play in the slot and add a veteran on the outside.

After all, Oakland allowed an NFL-worst 17.8 yards per attempt on throws at least 20 yards downfield last season, with opponents completing 47 percent of those throws for nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

But if, as Sports Illustrated reported, McKenzie told Richard Sherman he did not have enough cap space for him, how could the Raiders afford the likes of ESPN’s No. 8-ranked free agent Trumaine Johnson, who played under the franchise tag for the Rams the past two years and made $30.7 million? Or No. 14-ranked Bashaud Breeland? Or No. 15 Aaron Colvin? Or No. 16 Kyle Fuller, whose transition tag slapped on by the Bears is worth $12.97 million? Then there’s Malcolm Butler, ESPN’s No. 22-ranked free agent, and his mysterious Super Bowl benching by the Patriots. And Orlando Scandrick, who requested his release from the Cowboys on Monday.

With the Smith and Newhouse cuts, and before factoring in the re-signing of defensive tackle Justin Ellis and signing receiver Griff Whalen, Oakland would have more than $27.31 million in cap space. Plus, McKenzie still has to sign edge rusher Khalil Mack to a contract extension, which could potentially give the Raiders more room. (Mack is scheduled to have a cap number of $13.84 million in 2018.)

Then what about using that No. 10 overall draft pick on a cornerback, and reuniting Conley with his old Ohio State running mate Denzel Ward, so long as Ward is still on the board?

Or Iowa’s Josh Jackson? Or Central Florida’s Mike Hughes?

Of course, the Raiders also are thin at linebacker (re-signing NaVorro Bowman is a priority and Georgia Tech’s Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds might be the draft target) and on the interior of the defensive line (Sheldon Richardson? Star Lotulelei? Dontari Poe? What about drafting Washington’s Vita Vea?)

“We have some needs that are obvious,” Gruden said at the combine. “You don’t have to be a football genius.”