Lowell Cohn: Raiders’ improvement an inside job

How is football like baseball?

A team must be strong up the middle.

In baseball, a team needs a good catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. Of course, every team needs more than that, but every team needs to be strong up the middle for starters. Or it’s sunk.

Same goes for football. Same goes for the Oakland Raiders. Remember them?

They made interesting free-agent signings, significant signings. Much of what they did got lost because that other team, the one in the South Bay, has turned into a three-ring circus. When the circus comes to town with its full array of clowns, other news takes a subordinate place. Plus, these are the Raiders and, forgive me here, they have earned a subordinate place, have worked hard to achieve it.

I’ll tell you how the Raiders improved up the middle - a vital improvement in football. But, first, here’s how and where they did not improve.

They did not improve on the outside. In football, the dynamic players tend to play on the outside. I know what you’re thinking. The quarterback stands right in the middle. Humor me. I’m talking wide receiver, cornerback, defensive end. The Raiders didn’t sign any marquee guys who play on the edge. That includes wide receiver Randall Cobb, whom they pursued before he re-signed with Green Bay.

The Raiders are not in the Cobb league yet. They are not a destination for blue-chip players. That may change in a year or two.

For now, the Raiders can land Grade “B” free agents, which is progress. It so happens the free agents they got play mostly up the middle. And that means general manager Reggie McKenzie is building the team sensibly and systematically, putting down the foundation. A solid foundation is essential. Without one, no amount of dynamic outside players counts.

Here’s how the Raiders are building the squad up the middle. Let’s look first at offense.

Rodney Huston, center: He is one of the best centers in the league. You can’t get more up the middle than a center. You’re also in trouble without a good center.

Roy Helu, running back: He is fast, can run up the gut. And he catches passes. Excellent signing.

Trent Richardson, running back: He is known as a bust. Not something anyone wants to be known for. The Browns made him the third pick in the 2012 draft and that means somebody somewhere thought he was good. People used to mention his name in the same sentence as Adrian Peterson.

He’s fast and everyone thought he was the real deal. Forget about it. The Raiders got him cheap. They’re giving him one last chance to have a career. This is a smart signing for Oakland. Richardson is only 24. They are not paying him big money. If he comes through - a big if - he is a brilliant pickup. Nothing to lose. A Moneyball signing.

The Raiders now have three promising running backs - Helu, Richardson and Latavius Murray. The 49ers would be blessed to have a backfield like this one.

Lee Smith, tight end: He is a strong, gritty player. He will be an effective blocking tight end. Something the Raiders desperately need.

Let’s swing over to defense where things get interesting.

The Raiders tried to sign defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who plays in the middle, as per their plan. He had been a superstar in Detroit, but he turned the Raiders down flat. Just as the Raiders aren’t in the Cobb league, they also aren’t in the Suh league.

They still got some good players, although they are not elite.

Dan Williams, nose tackle: He is a run-stopper deluxe. What every respectable defense needs. Remember this. If a defense cannot stop the run, everything is open to the offense. And I mean everything. Running. Passing. Trick plays. A defense must stop the run right up the middle or it’s in big trouble. Williams plays right in the middle of the defensive line. He will help the Raiders play tough. So will their other big addition on defense.

Curtis Lofton, linebacker: Another up-the-middle player. He is a tackling machine. He and Williams are a solid combo.

Malcolm Smith, linebacker: The Raiders are going linebacker crazy. Good for them. Smith is only 25, so he’s not some washed-up veteran trying to hang on. And by the way, he’s the guy who intercepted that infamous pass from Colin Kaepernick - the pass Richard Sherman deflected - that ended the 49ers’ chances in the 2013 NFC championship game. Yes, that Malcolm Smith.

These signings and the hiring of Jack Del Rio as head coach mean the Raiders are approaching the cusp of respectability. Hey, I can’t believe I’m writing such positive things about the Raiders. They deserve all the nice words.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at

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