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Oakland Raiders top list of five franchises on the rise

When Charles Woodson rejoined the hapless Raiders in 2013, his goal was to help Oakland get out of the football darkness, bridging the gap to the next successful era.

He announced his retirement in December, confident that general manager Reggie McKenzie had fulfilled owner Mark Davis' mandate to reconstruct the roster after deconstructing it en route to just 11 wins in his first three seasons as general manager.

"You look at what's happening in free agency right now, guys wanting to come here and play," Woodson said Saturday night. "You've got to feel good about the direction."

McKenzie recently joked that it's a relief to field calls from interested free agents after years of begging players to call the "Black Hole" home.

The Raiders succeeded in luring three of Around The NFL's top 15 free agents to play in the only NFL stadium still saddled with a dirt infield.

McKenzie suddenly finds himself capable of enticing respected veterans into accepting Davis' money because he built a solid foundation with the past two draft classes.

The difference between the Raiders and an organization such as the dormant Browns is that McKenzie can point to a young franchise quarterback (Derek Carr), a legitimate No. 1 receiver (Amari Cooper) and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Khalil Mack) as the cornerstones of a competitive roster.

After one week of free agency, the Raiders are one of a handful of formerly downtrodden franchises on the rise. Let's take a look at four more:

»*Jacksonville Jaguars:* Similar to McKenzie's draft success, Jaguars general manager David Caldwell hit home runs with quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receiver Allen Robinson -- his first two picks in 2014. After landing Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas last offseason, Caldwell signed four of this year's top 40 free agents in defensive tackle Malik Jackson, cornerback Prince Amukamara, safety Tashaun Gipson and running back Chris Ivory. Not to be forgotten, 2015 first-round edge rusher Dante Fowler will make his Jacksonville debut after missing the entirety of his rookie season with a torn ACL.

Erecting the structure of a high-octane offense with just one rookie class afforded Caldwell the opportunity to throw his ample resources at the other side of the ball this time around.

»*Tennessee Titans:* The top three teams listed have one thing in common: promising young quarterbacks. Convinced that Marcus Mariota is bound for greatness as the face of the franchise, the Titans are committed to protecting him with a strong offensive line and ground attack. To that end, they swapped fourth-round draft slots with the Eagles for workhorse back DeMarco Murray and signed center Ben Jones away from the Texans. If they draft left tackle Laremy Tunsil at No. 1, Taylor Lewan will slide over to right tackle, with 2015 third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi kicking inside to guard -- giving Tennessee a chance to field the league's most improved offensive line.

Last year's skill-position talent featured a distinct lack of explosive plays, with Antonio Andrews, Harry Douglas and Anthony Fasano in featured roles. That trio should fade into the background this season, as Murray, second-year receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and underrated free-agent acquisition Rishard Matthews provide marked upgrades in speed and playmaking ability.

»*Houston Texans:* Championships aren't won in March. The four most active teams in last year's free agency -- Jets, Eagles, Dolphins and Jaguars -- went a combined 28-36 without a postseason contestant among them. If there's one franchise with a chance to leap from afterthought to contender this March, though, it might just be Houston.

Although the Texans ranked first in every major defensive category from Week 8 through the end of the regular season, the coaching staff resorted to a smoke-and-mirrors offense -- relying on gadget plays, a patchwork backfield and DeAndre Hopkins' ability to turn Brian Hoyer into a passable quarterback. They splurged on $72 million quarterback Brock Osweiler because they believe he "checks all boxes" as a gifted athlete with prototypical NFL size, traits that were lacking in Hoyer and 2014 starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. They imported Lamar Miller because they desperately needed a speed element at running back. If those two moves hit the jackpot, the Texans have a shot at the deepest playoff run in franchise history.

»*Chicago Bears:* In just two offseasons, general manager Ryan Pace has done a commendable job of overhauling the defense to suit Vic Fangio's 3-4 scheme after years in a 4-3 alignment. After importing edge rusher Pernell McPhee last year, Pace signed inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman last week -- giving Chicago one of the league's strongest linebacking corps.

While Fowler's return will help the Jaguars' defense, the Bears' offense gets a similar boon from last year's first-round pick -- explosive wide receiver Kevin White, who missed his rookie season with a shin injury. If Pace can lock up franchise player Alshon Jeffery with a long-term deal, Chicago has the potential to showcase one of the league's most dynamic wide receiver duos.

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