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Raiders aim at top of AFC West with big splash in free agency

We're only one day into the new NFL calendar year, and one thing is already obvious: The Oakland Raiders are going to be much improved. They've got a franchise quarterback who's already blossomed into a star after two seasons. They have a supporting cast of young playmakers with similarly bright futures. They also have a start to this free agency period that suggests this long struggling franchise has a plan that could pay huge dividends in the near future.

The Raiders spent Wednesday making the kinds of acquisitions that should've excited their entire fan base. Kelechi Osemelesigned and immediately improved an offensive line that could use him at guard or left tackle. Linebacker Bruce Irvinagreed to a deal that gives Oakland another pass rusher to bookend with Pro Bowl defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack. General manager Reggie McKenzie added another defensive part Thursday morning after agreeing to terms with cornerback Sean Smith. That's yet another huge piece to a puzzle that makes this team a legitimate AFC West contender.

It's been years since the Raiders have looked this impressive at this time of year. They haven't enjoyed a winning season since 2002 and they've also spawned plenty of silver-and-black jokes during that stretch. Now it feels like a new day in Oakland, one that is dawning at a most opportune time. They have two advantages that beleaguered franchises love to have -- young talent and money to burn ($51 million in available cap space) -- and they have exactly the right mindset on how to handle them.

That isn't to say that the Raiders are going to win the Super Bowl this season. They still have plenty of work to do before such talk can ever be taken seriously. It is fair, however, to expect this team to make huge strides this coming fall after finishing 7-9 last season. That's largely because the foundation that McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio are erecting is starting to feel sturdier than ever.

The first thing to know is that Oakland is a more promising team these days because of quarterback Derek Carr. He went from being an impressive rookie to being a Pro Bowl player in his second year, one who threw for 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions. Carr is actually the first legitimate franchise signal caller this team has had since Rich Gannon led the Raiders more than a decade ago. Carr's rapid maturation suggests he'll be a star in this league for years to come.

That stability at quarterback means plenty, because it's allowed McKenzie to execute a sensible plan for building around Carr. The draft has been good to the Raiders in recent years -- including the selections of Mack, stud wide receiver Amari Cooper and talented running back Latavius Murray -- but this offseason has produced major rewards in free agency. In previous years, McKenzie seemed to be signing aging talents like Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck to provide critical leadership. This year, it feels like the Raiders are attacking free agency with the belief that it's time for this bunch to go to the next level.

The acquisition of Osemele is big because it's a smart play. Since Carr already is locked in as a long-term starter, the prudent move is to do everything possible to keep him safe. Osemele was the best available offensive lineman on the open market, a player some deemed one of the five best available free agents in the game. His versatility (he played left guard, left tackle and right tackle in Baltimore) gives the Raiders plenty of options as they try to stabilize the protection for Carr.

Irvin is an interesting player because the Seahawks didn't really utilize him to his fullest potential. He's a gifted pass rusher, but Seattle often dropped him into pass coverage in their defense. Now that he's reunited with Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. -- who was the Seahawks' linebackers coach when Irvin arrived as a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft -- expect a different player in the Oakland scheme. It's very likely that Norton will unleash Irvin in the same relentless fashion he allowed Mack to attack quarterbacks last season (when Mack finished with 15 sacks).

The arrival of Smith also gives the Raiders a veteran defender in their secondary. This is a team that ranked 26th in the NFL in pass defense last season and also just lost Pro Bowl safety Charles Woodson to retirement. At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Smith brings size and savvy to a position that was easily this team's biggest need. If he can avoid the off-field issues that plagued him last year (he was suspended three games after pleading guilty to a DUI), he should vastly improve Oakland's defensive backfield.

What's quite apparent about McKenzie's plan is that the Raiders are intent on adding difference makers. It didn't take long to see the impact created by Carr, Cooper and Murray last season. Now, Oakland has added three more players with playoff experience, two of whom already have championship rings. Osemele was a starter on the Baltimore Ravens team that won Super Bowl XLVII, while Irvin helped the Seahawks dominate the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Speaking of Denver, it's important to note here that Oakland is becoming more dangerous at a time when the AFC West is going to be up for grabs. It shouldn't be lost on anybody that the Broncos have taken some huge offseason hits just a few weeks after winning Super Bowl 50. Along with losing key starters (including linebacker Danny Trevathan, defensive end Malik Jackson and offensive guard Louis Vasquez), Denver also watched quarterback Peyton Manning retire and backup Brock Osweilersign a free-agent deal with Houston. For the first time in four years, the Broncos have serious concerns about the most critical position on any football team.

The optimists will tell you that Broncos general manager John Elway will resolve this problem because he's already produced a stellar track record when it comes to running a football team. The realists will tell you something else -- that a huge door just swung open for the Raiders. Keep in mind, Oakland beat the Broncos in Denver late last season, partly because Mack racked up five sacks in that 15-12 win. There is no reason for the Raiders to be intimidated about the prospects of facing a team that just won a championship.

If anything, everybody should be paying attention to what's happening in Oakland. This is a team that has been irrelevant for years, one that has hired and fired plenty of coaches for more than a decade. Those days now feel like they're becoming part of a much distant past, all because the first day of free agency just told us that the Raiders really are heading in the right direction.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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