The Oakland Raiders are coming off a third straight sub-.500 season and while the chances of snapping their 12-year postseason drought appear slim, they stand to make significant strides in 2015 after an active offseason.
Under the guidance of new head coach Jack Del Rio, along with some interesting acquisitions in free agency and in the draft, there’s a buzz in Raider Nation unlike anything in the last 10 years. Quarterback Derek Carr is coming off his rookie season, and the young defensive line just might have the right blend of youth and experience. This group should see substantial improvement on last year's 3-13 mark, though an 8-8 season might be a stretch.
Here’s a breakdown at every position on Oakland’s depth chart, with grades for each and an overall conclusion for how 2015 will play out.
Last year’s poor record really doesn’t fall on Carr. His first-year numbers of 21 touchdowns to 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 76.0 actually fall in line with Andrew Luck’s first season. Carr is not expected to reach Luck's level, but he made strides last season, most notably staging big wins over tough San Francisco and Kansas City defenses. He also played under two head coaches, but starts fresh with an entirely new look this season under Del Rio and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Raiders provided only serviceable depth behind Carr, with former Vikings flameout Christian Ponder next up on the chart, and Matt McGloin returning.
Oakland opted to give Carr an explosive weapon by taking receiver Amari Cooper with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, and the former Alabama playmaker has already impressed during OTAs with his speed and quickness out of the breaks. How quickly Cooper and Carr develop a rapport will determine whether or not the Raiders can see a major improvement from last season. The Raiders also brought in receiver Michael Crabtree, who has seen a dropoff from his stellar 2012 season, but now provides Oakland with a reliable No. 2 option. With James Jones now gone, Andrew Holmes, Rod Streater and Kenbrell Thompkins will battle for No. 3 targets.
Tight end Mychal Rivera stands to build off his best pro season to act as Carr’s security blanket on check-downs.
The Raiders have moved on from Darren McFadden, with Oakland turning to third-year back Latavius Murray, and Trent Richardson, who is now playing for his third team at the age of 25. Oakland posted the worst rushing attack in the league last season with 77.5 yards per game, 3.7 yards per carry and only four touchdowns. But Murray showed flashes of greatness once he took over as the starter in the final quarter of the season, Richardson enters the season a little slimmer and faster, and the new additions to the offensive line should help. Meanwhile, former Washington Redskins all-purpose back Roy Helu will provide Carr with a quality throwing target, and can probably expect at least three carries a game.
Though the running game proved disastrous, Oakland’s line did an excellent job protecting Carr last season. The Raiders allowed only 28 sacks, tied for sixth best in the league, which should be a credit to Carr for his steadiness in the pocket and the line’s ability to stop the vaunted pass rushes of division rivals like Denver and Kansas City. The Raiders also padded their pass protection and perhaps opened lanes for Murray and Richardson by signing center Rodney Hudson away from the Chiefs. Austin Howard also returns as a steady presence on the line. Some new contributors like fourth-round draft choice Jon Feliciano and undrafted free agent Mitchell Bell are two guys to watch during camp.
With the interesting blend of youth and veteran leadership, the Raiders defensive line and linebacker corps could click this year. To be fair, Oakland has nowhere to go but up after posting only 22 sacks, the second-worst mark last year, and allowing more than 119 rushing yards a game. But Oakland made significant waves during free agency, the most notable being the additions of former Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams, former Seahawks Super Bowl MVP and linebacker Malcolm Smith, and linebacker Curtis Lofton. That’s a sturdy foundation to complement the budding stars like Khalil Mack, second-round draft choice and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., and linebacker Sio Moore.
Oakland padded its linebacker depth with three straight picks in the draft, with rookies Ben Heeney, Neiron Ball, and Max Valles, all of whom could be important contributors in their first seasons.
Despite the shortcomings of the front seven, the Raiders secondary, led once again by former All-Pro and last year’s leading tackler Charles Woodson, managed to rank No. 16 in the NFL with 238 yards allowed per game. Veteran safety Nate Allen should help Woodson, along with corners D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie, to force far more than only nine turnovers from 2014. This group should also benefit from the improvement of the front line, but the lack of depth with three undrafted free agents and seventh-round choice Dexter McDonald waiting in the wings, could be an issue down the line. Starting cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are gone, but the new infusion of talent should compensate just fine. Keith McGill, a fourth-round pick in 2014, showed potential in his rookie season.
What has historically been a highly effective unit for the Raiders is now plagued with question marks for special teams coordinator Brad Seely. Sebastian Janikowski looked far better last season after poor play in 2013, and can probably have another strong season. Marquette King is a solid punter, who improved on his punts inside the 20. The return game needs work, with Carrie and Josh Harper expected to battle for punt returning duties. Trindon Holliday is expected to return kicks, unless Seely decides to go with Murray.
Some new faces provide optimism in Oakland. Del Rio returns to the top of the mountain after three years as Denver’s defensive coordinator, and the former USC Trojan seems like the perfect fit to mold the Raiders young front seven and even the secondary. Many in Jacksonville felt Del Rio overachieved with a team short on talent when he served as head coach from 2003-2011. There is also hope that Musgrave will turn the offense around. He spent 2011 to 2013 in Minnesota, and while he benefited from Adrian Peterson’s presence, Musgrave lifted the Vikings rushing attack to the best in the league. Last year, Musgrave worked with Philadelphia’s quarterbacks, and essentially rejuvenated Mark Sanchez’s career. Del Rio and Musgrave, who worked together in the Jaguars' staff in 2003 and 2004, will have something to prove in their debut seasons, and help a loyal fan base forget the struggles under Dennis Allen.
Based off their work in free agency and the draft, Oakland could easily improve by three or four games this season. The passing game has improved with the arrivals of Cooper and Crabtree. The defensive frontline may emerge as one of the most feared in the league should Mack and Edwards develop, but the Raiders will need the secondary to force more turnovers. The playoffs may seem like a pipe dream this year, but down the line the foundation is there for Oakland.