The 2016 Raiders were a rare example of fulfilled optimism for a franchise wading in obscurity and irrelevance for over a decade. Before last season, it had been 13 years since the Raiders made it to the playoffs. The team was a corpse by the time the wildcard round kicked off as Derek Carr broke his leg in the 11th hour against the Indianapolis Colts, but the mystery surrounding what could have been still lingers with the team before the kickoff of the 2017-18 campaign.
The addition of former Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills running back and Oakland native, Marshawn Lynch, only adds to the mystique already surrounding a team who will say a year (or longer) long goodbye the city it has called home for 33 years of its 45 years of existence. The narrative isn’t just lip service.
This years’ Raiders roster is the best it has been since 2002. Further, the team returns a trio of talent in Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and Khalil Mack - the latter of is considered among the top two or three best defensive players in the league. So are the 2017 Raiders a team of destiny, or will the Cormac McCarthy-style dirty realism of the NFL hit before their storybook begins?
Offensive Double Down
For many Raiders fans, it would of have enough for the team to maintain the status quo and hit the ground running in 2017 with a healthy Derek Carr. Given the mercurial nature of the NFL landscape, standing still simply isn’t an option for even the most proven NFL rosters. Both favorites of their respective conferences - the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots - have made splash moves this offseason to best position themselves for Super Bowl runs.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie regularly stretches owner Mark Davis’ dollar without committing too much long-term. The signings of receiver and special teams ace Cordarrelle Patterson, athletic tight end Jared Cook, and swing tackle Marshall Newhouse all fit the bill as low-cost but potentially high-value free agents. All three have been regular contributors to the offense during the Raiders’ preseason and all but Patterson project to start week 1.
The offense wasn’t a primary problem for the Raiders' imperfect roster as the team finished 6th in yards and 8th in points. Even with the departure of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, former team quarterbacks coach Todd Downing seems more than capable of advancing the scoring aspirations of the team. Based mostly on preseason anecdotes, the offense appears more varied and rhythmic in its execution. Given the team’s investment on offense and the cohesion created by continuity, the Raiders should see an uptick in down-to-down effectiveness.
In Defense of the Defense
Defensively, the personnel changes felt more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than going with a more sturdy ship. The most significant change may come at the top with the addition of assistant head coach John Pagano, formerly of the San Diego (Los Angeles) Chargers, who may help defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. call plays to stop tight ends - a persistent bugaboo for the Raiders defense for at least two seasons. The only other defensive addition of note in free agency came in linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who will spend the season on IR.
The Raiders’ defensive plan leans heavily on productive rookies and player development. Second-year players Karl Joseph and Jihad Ward factor big into the defensive equation this year while up to four rookies may start by season’s end. Both first and second round picks Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, corner and safety respectively, have seen very limited practice and game action this preseason - the former playing exactly zero minutes in the preseason. Fourth and fifth round picks Eddie Vanderdoes; defensive tackle, and Marquel Lee; linebacker, have been consistent in their position groups, but (as fourth and fifth round picks generally are) seem limited as players overall.
Quietly lurking as a narrative on defense is the departure of Stacy McGee; a free agent signee of the Redskins, and Dan Williams; an offseason cut, who were two of the best defensive lineman the Raiders had from a season ago. The ramifications of players like Ward and Vanderdoes, and even a now healthy starter like Mario Edwards, developing looms large against the backdrop of who is not on the roster.
Ultimately, the Raiders may be playing a game of attrition against their opponents in 2017. Similar to the 2009-10 New Orleans Saints, who leveraged an explosive offense into defensive turnovers, the Raiders are poised to bludgeon teams with prolific scoring. Given the team’s healthy stable of skill players and vaunted offensive line, an imbalanced stratagem may prove sound by season's end.
As is usually the case for teams in strong divisions, the Raiders will face the league’s 4th toughest schedule based on regular season win percentage in 2016. Besides the obvious 8 games against the Broncos, Chargers, and Chiefs, the Raiders will face the AFC East and NFC East - ensuring local broadcast for east coast Raiders fans:
Week 1 - at Tennessee Titans
Week 2 - vs. New York Jets
Week 3 - at Washington Redskins
Week 4 - at Denver Broncos
Week 5 - vs. Baltimore Ravens
Week 6 - vs. Los Angeles Chargers
Week 7 - vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Week 8 - at Buffalo Bills
Week 9 - at Miami Dolphins
Week 10 - vs. New England Patriots
Week 11 - vs. Denver Broncos
Week 12 - vs. New York Giants
Week 14 - at Kansas City Chiefs
Week 15 - vs. Dallas Cowboys
Week 16 - at Philadelphia Eagles
Week 17 - at Los Angeles Chargers
That’s a tough road any way you slice it. The season will start and end with 3 out of 4 games being on the road. If the Raiders would like another taste of that sweet playoff nectar, they’ll have to at least break even during those stretches and take advantage of the home stays during weeks 5-7 and 10-12. If the Raiders do break even in the season’s bookends, a 10-6 finish shouldn’t be out of the question.
Record Prediction: 10-6