The current era of the salary cap tends to shorten that chance for NFL teams but at this stage Oakland appears to be as much of a contender to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl as any club. The Raiders entered the free agency period an estimated $50 million over the salary cap but did not dismantle the team the way most folks expected. Plus, what those same people failed to realize is that Oakland has never believed in rebuilding even when it struggled.
Oakland released running back Terry Kirby, wide receiver James Jett, defensive tackle Sam Adams, defensive end Regan Upshaw, cornerback Tory James and safety Anthony Dorsett. For minimal salaries, the Raiders signed Cecil Martin and Chris Hetherington to replace Jon Ritchie at fullback and Dana Stubblefield to fill the vacancy of Adams at defensive tackle.
The rest of the AFC West appears to be better but there are contingencies with each club. Kansas City improved defensively, an area they were dead last in 2002, in signing linebacker Shawn Barber, defensive end Vonnie Holliday and cornerback Dexter McCleon. Running back Priest Holmes is on schedule in recovering from a hip injury that caused him to miss the final two games but will he perform at a similar level?
Denver's marquee attraction in free agency was the signing of quarterback Jake Plummer. He has more talent around him than he ever had with Arizona but Denver has questions surrounding its receivers. Ed McCaffrey has issues with age (34) and health, making it that much more vital for second-year man Ashley Lelie to emerge.
San Diego improved its offense in signing wide receiver David Boston, whose presence may create more running room for LaDainian Tomlinson. The defense looks OK on paper but losing an emotional leader like linebacker Junior Seau may hurt.
The Raiders may not be as deep as they were last season and as long as they can stay reasonably healthy, they figure to be in the mix. The AFC is not totally unlike the NBA's Eastern Conference, where there is not an enormously dominant club. The NFC is not appreciably stronger but the AFC does not appear to have a team ready to bring the league to its knees either.
Vince D'Adamo can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com