In 2015, VAVEL cited the building up of Rome as an analogue for the modern era Oakland Raiders model of rebuilding. It has been 13 seasons since the Raiders last made the playoffs and Oakland hasn’t tasted the tournament since their Super Bowl appearance in 2002. In 2016, the Oakland Raiders will for the first time in over a decade feel the pressure of expectation.
Back in black
If household names are indicative of a team’s success, then the Raiders are in good graces. Third-year quarterback Derek Carr, second-year receiver Amari Cooper, and third-year running back Latavius Murray headline an offense run behind one of the most formidable offensive lines in the league. Defensively, the team returns All-Pro talent Khalil Mack at edge defender, while free agent signees Bruce Irvin and Sean Smith rehabilitate a defense on the rise.
In 2015, the Raiders played with house money and broke even on expectations. Playing a highly competitive division in the AFC West while also facing strong cross-conference foes in the NFC North wasn’t the best formula for a young team with an outside chance at a playoff berth. Still, the seeds planted via the draft and free agency began to germinate throughout the year.
Derek Carr was the biggest harvest of the 2015 season. His hot start left the team 4-3 at the midway point before normalizing toward 9-7. Even though Carr regressed as the season went on, his late-season play was still leaps and bounds better than even his best outings as a rookie. A big part of his ascension came with the drafting of Amari Cooper in the 2015 draft. Along with Cooper, the free agent signing of Michael Crabtree made the Raiders' receiving corps exponentially better and became the team’s best group statistically since the early 2000s.
Even with a vastly improved receiving corps, the team left plenty of yards on the field in 2015. Both Cooper and Crabtree were among the league leaders in drops. Third receiver Seth Roberts was also on the wrong end of the spectrum when it came to drop rate. Considering the group’s youth outside of Crabtree, the trio’s arrow is decidedly pointing up.
On the ground, Latavius Murray proved he could cash in on an impressive finish to the 2014 and extend it toward a full year of production. Despite running for over 1,000 yards, Murray eclipsed the century mark in only two games in 2016. Even with his pedestrian numbers on the season, Murray’s ability to stay relatively healthy and prove to be a reliable protector in the passing game made him a valuable contributor to the offense. By season’s end, the Raiders ranked 17th in points scored a game at 22.4.
Defensively, the Raiders showed both incredible resolve and ineptitude in 2015.
Defensively, the Raiders showed both incredible resolve and ineptitude in 2015. While tight ends often feasted the team’s lack of coverage linebackers - a unit starting four different players at both middle linebacker spots - the interior defensive line and edge rushers proved to be among the league’s best by season’s end. No player saw his saw rise more abruptly than edge defender Khalil Mack. Even with Aldon Smith being lost for the season by suspension, Mack’s production only increased each week. In a tour de force, Mack’s five-sack performance against the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Denver Broncos, put him second in total sacks in 2015 with 15.
Mack wasn’t the only player on the Raiders defense to enjoy a sharp rise into stardom. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. quickly became a dominant force as both an interior and edge pass rusher and run defense before succumbing to a season ending neck injury. No player proved to be a bigger surprise than cornerback David Amerson, who wasn’t even on the team until week three. The former Redskins cornerback was waived by Washington after the second week of 2015. By season’s end, Amerson became the team’s best corner and played up to the level of one of the league’s best man coverage players.
The 2016 offseason was good to the Oakland Raiders. With a war chest bursting at its seams, the Raiders front office opened up the coffers and landed some of the best free agents at their positions. The biggest fish was undoubtedly Kelechi Osemele, universally seen as free agencies best offensive lineman and one of the best guards in the league. While the biggest signing came on offense, defense saw a higher frequency of incoming talent. Sean Smith, Bruce Irvin, and Reggie Nelson all start immediately for the Raiders in week one.
With so much to spend, the Raiders were also shrewd in keeping their own. Bargain free agent signee from 2014, Donald Penn, returns to the team in 2016 and waiver wire addition turned impact starter, David Amerson, signed a long term deal.
The only departure of note for the Raiders this offseason came with the retirement of Charles Woodson.
The only departure of note for the Raiders this offseason came with the retirement of Charles Woodson. Despite being the team’s best defensive back in 2015, the team has addressed the free safety position with the aforementioned Reggie Nelson.
In the draft, the Raiders made sure to aggressively target defensive holes. Both hard-hitting safety Karl Joseph and imposing interior defensive lineman Jihad Ward will both start for the Raiders week one. Michigan State products Shilique Calhoun and Connor Cook offer rotational value and assurance at the quarterback position, respectively. The most notable addition for the offense via the draft didn’t come until the fifth round, where the Raiders took former Texas Tech runningback DeAndre Washington, who looks to fill the role of backfield pass catcher in 2016.
While the Raiders stayed relatively healthy throughout training camp and the preseason, the team will be without Mario Edwards Jr. for approximately six weeks after a preseason week one injury where he was carted off the field.
If the 2016 Raiders are going to be successful, it will come behind the arm of Derek Carr. Carr’s late season production decline in 2015 is often cited as a reason for caution when projecting the Raiders success in 2016. While the observation is legitimate, the concern is not. It was not only Carr’s second year, but his first year in Musgrave’s offense and his first year throwing to a rookie primary receiver, Amari Cooper.
While Carr steers the offense, it will be fueled by an offensive line with little to no glaring weakness. While a 33-year-old Donald Penn starts at left tackle, he’s still well above replacement level at the position. The interior offensive line, described by Osemele, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson, feature three players at guard and center in their primes.
The running game may ultimately be the biggest beneficiary from the Raiders matured offensive line. Even if Murray’s role is dispersed among other players on the roster, the team will have a better way to supplement the passing game.
If there are any persisting question marks on offense, it returns to the reliability of the aforementioned left tackle, Donald Penn. If Penn either faces a stark regression or succumbs to injury, the Raiders have few reliable options to undertake the responsibility at left tackle.
Also, if the preseason offers any truth, the team hasn’t been able to show how the offensive line performs at full churn. Murray hasn’t run particularly well this preseason and has been outshined by not only his peers at runningback, but at fullback as well.
Observations taken from the preseason can often be misleading, but they haven’t been kind to the Raiders defense. Despite ranking in the top half in the league against the run in 2015, the Raiders have failed to win defensively up front against the Cardinals, Packers, or Titans. With run pluggers like Dan Williams and Justin Ellis on the roster, the hope is the team gives more effort once the snaps start to count.
Apart from the defensive front woes, the Raiders defense still looks a bit haphazard against the pass, as well. Sean Smith and David Amerson are definite upgrades to what the Raiders had leaving training camp in 2015, but both players will have their work cut out for them if the front seven fails to generate consistent pressure - as it hasn’t so far in the preseason.
Time to shine
It’s no secret the Raiders are poised to make the playoffs in 2016. It won’t be an easy start for the team with three out of the first four games being not only away, but on the east coast. The best part of the front loaded away schedule is a mid-season home stretch, but three of the team’s last four games are away against divisional opponents.
Considering the perilous start and end to the season, a strong beginning to year will be essential to the team’s playoff aspirations. Week one and two feature NFC South opponents with capable offenses in the Saints and Falcons, and will offer a stout test for the Raiders rebuilt defense.
In the end, it all comes down to the team’s ability to beat divisional opponents. The Broncos, Chargers, and Chiefs have regressed little since last season and all have realistic sights on the playoffs. With the first three divisional matchups being at home, the Raiders will need to cash in on those home matchups to get where they want to go.
Record Prediction: 9-7