Breakout or Bust 2016: Oakland Raiders

With the NBA Playoffs in the rearview mirror, the American sports conscious turns its gaze to the NFL (no disrespect to the MLB June/July doldrums). With many teams already hitting their minicamp stride, the 2016 Oakland Raiders see themselves as a trendy pick to not only make the playoffs but perhaps win their division.

Like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oakland Raiders made a number of conscientious moves in the offseason. With nearly $80 million to spend in free agency, the Raiders capitalized on bolstering their roster with peaking veteran signees, including Bruce Irvin and Sean Smith. Headlining the Raiders’ offseason haul is the impregnable Kelechi Osemele previously of the Baltimore Ravens, who set a new standard for offensive guard contracts. With the addition of Osemele, the Raiders built on an already formidable offensive line, which also brings back the nine-year veteran, Donald Penn. All told, the hype surrounding this year’s Raiders is not unfounded, but the real question is where or not the team can put pen and paper to grass and turf.

Why They Will

Central to the narrative pushing the Raiders into the playoffs in 2016 is not a secret. Third-year quarterback Derek Carr made a significant leap in 2015, which had the Raiders in playoff contention until the last third of the year. Perhaps the biggest contributor to Carr’s development centered around his overhauled 2015 supporting cast, namely the addition of receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The duo of Cooper and Crabtree accounted for 15 of Carr’s 32 touchdowns and about half of his nearly 4,000 yards passing. Along with second-year tight end Clive Walford, the Raiders receiving corps looks to improve on the promising foundation laid during last season.

Amari Cooper (left) and Michael Crabtree (right) contributed heavily to the Raiders offense in 2015 | Getty Images
Amari Cooper (left) and Michael Crabtree (right) contributed heavily to the Raiders offense in 2015 |Ezra Shaw - Getty Images

In order for the Raiders to ensure a spot in the pivotal top 10 offenses in 2016 (based on points scored), the team must see an increase from tertiary contributors, namely from the backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, third-year running back Latavius Murray will be running behind arguably the league’s best offensive line in 2016. Unsurprisingly, every time Murray rushed for over 100 yards in 2015, the Raiders won. The ominous part of that statistic is that Murray only breached the century mark twice last season. Still, when the offense is run behind the pads of Murray and the offensive line, it makes things much easier for Carr and the passing game to flourish. A player to watch in the Raiders backfield will be rookie tailback DeAndre Washington, who - despite being 5’8” and barely over 200 lbs. - showed leading man traits at Texas Tech.

While the offense surged from 2014 to 2015, the defense appeared to take a more modest approach last season. Despite the emergence of Khalil Mack and the promising play of rookie Mario Edwards Jr. (who will return in 2016 after neck surgery), the Raiders’ defense finished a pedestrian 11th worst in points allowed per game (24.9). Heading into this season, Heading into this season, expectations are sure to be raised for a team who added over $33 million in defensive spending in 2016.

. . . expectations are sure to be raised for a team who added over $33 million in defensive spending in 2016.

Newcomers Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, and Reggie Nelson will play pivotal roles against the pass, an aspect where the Raiders ranked 7th worst in yards allowed per game (258.8). Along with a strong free agency class, the Raiders went into the draft with a mission to fortify defensive depth by using their top three selections on defensive players, including using the 14th overall pick on hard-hitting former West Virginia safety, Karl Joseph.

Why They Won’t

For any team attempting to crest the hill of playoff stardom, righting the wrongs of years past and winning close games tend to be the biggest obstacles to reaching their goals. Concerning the latter, in games decided by six or less in 2015, the Raiders finished 4-9. While the team would much rather find ways of winning comfortably, the reality of the NFL is that points are hard to come by, and wins even harder.

Conspicuously standing out as the Raiders biggest crutch throughout the 2015 season was the team’s ineptitude in the secondary outside of Charles Woodson (retired) and David Amerson, the latter being acquired from the Washington Redskins off waivers during week three. While the additions of veterans Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson will certainly project to help one of the league’s worst pass defenses, they may not address the most glaring area of concern plaguing the Raiders defense in 2015.

Against tight ends, the Raiders ranked 3rd worst in the league by allowing 910 yards and 11 touchdowns to the position on the year.

Against tight ends, the Raiders ranked 3rd worst in the league by allowing 910 yards and 11 touchdowns to the position during the year. The defensive mindshare of head coach Jack Del Rio and coordinator Ken Norton Jr. relegate much of the responsibility of defending tight ends to his linebackers, where the Raiders have not added any new starters during this offseason. Instead, the team hopes to see furthered development of projected starters; veteran, Malcolm Smith, and second-year player, Ben Heeney. In a division with a still capable Antonio Gates, an emerging Travis Kelce, and a Denver Broncos offense which prominently features the tight end through scheming, the Raiders may have a rude re-awakening when defending the position in 2016.

Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr. (not pictured) will have more to work with on defense in 2015 | Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr. (not pictured) will have more to work with on defense in 2015 | Thearon W. Henderson - Getty Images

Lastly, the Raiders need to see the expected improvement on offense for this season’s campaign to end in a playoff berth. While Derek Carr and company exceeded expectations last season, the offense still left a lot on the table in terms of production. The Raiders ranked second to only the Philadelphia Eagles in dropped passes (31) and drop rate (5.2). That number led to unconverted third downs and touchdowns that led to field goals. Ultimately, the onus falls of Derek Carr, who despite a strong September through November (a stretch where he threw 24 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions for a passer rating of 101.4), faltered in the pivotal months of December and January, throwing for 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions culminating in a 73.5 passer rating.

Final Tally

Even after dissecting all the possible scenarios the 2016 Oakland Raiders may endure in the upcoming season, the rationale for optimism is clearly cemented. The roster is strewn with promising and proven young talent and on both sides of the ball. And the timing couldn’t be any more right for this iteration of the Raiders because the former division stalwarts - namely the Denver Broncos - are presumably on the decline.

Still, the AFC West remains a strong division with all teams very equally qualified to both win the division and remain in contention for the AFC’s Wild Card spot. Speaking of divisional strength, the Raiders drew the short straw a year ago by facing the formidable NFC North as cross-conference opponents (and going 0-4 against them). In 2016, the team will face an emerging, but perpetually mercurial NFC South.

While there was an air of disappointment following the Raiders’ 7-9 2015 season, it may act as a necessary step toward a brighter future moving forward. The team may finally have all the pieces in place at general manager, coach, and quarterback for the team to supplant conference mainstays in the postseason.

Projected Record: 9-7, Wild Card berth

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