For most teams, a 3-12 record resulting in the 12th straight year out of the postseason would be considered a disaster. But not for the Oakland Raiders, who saw major improvement and encouraging signs from rookie quarterback Derek Carr and rookie linebacker Khalil Mack.
Each not only give the Raiders leaders on both sides of the ball, but they could even steal some votes in this year’s races for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Carr had arguably the best season of any rookie quarterback in 2014. With the league’s worst running game gaining less than 80 yards per game, Carr connected on 58.6 percent of his passes for 3,112 yards and 20 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
While he had a much better offensive line protecting him than the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blake Bortles, Carr tossed 121 more passes than Bortles. One might think the higher number of pass attempts would translate to more interceptions or a lower completion percentage, but Carr threw six fewer picks than Bortles, and his 77.7 passer rating was seven points better as well.
Carr also put together some solid games against some of the best secondaries in the NFL. He tossed four touchdowns against the San Diego Chargers five games into the season, and in the three subsequent weeks looked very sharp against the talented defensive backs of the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks.
Carr’s best game of the season came against the playoff-hungry San Francisco 49ers. He posted a season-high 140.2 passer rating, completing 22 of 28 passes for three touchdowns with no interceptions against a 49ers secondary ranked No. 5 in the league.
In order to gain traction in the ROY race, Carr will have to fend off a bevy of rookie receivers in Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin, Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. Benjamin’s role as the top receiver for a team that could make the postseason likely gives him the majority of votes, but Carr can certainly steal some votes in the very tight race.
Like Carr, Mack started in all 15 of the Raiders games so far this season and he’s been equally impressive. The No. 5 overall pick is tied for the team lead with 4.0 sacks and he’s fourth on the team with 73 combined tackles.
His best game also came against the 49ers, when he took down elusive and speedy quarterback Colin Kaepernick twice. Mack’s pass rushing skills came on later in the season, and all four of his sacks have come in Oakland's last six games.
Mack’s also the main reason why the Raiders are ranked No. 21 in the league against the run, and not No. 32. He’s compiled 13 stuffs at the line of scrimmage, while holding some of the best rushing teams in the league, like the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, to some of their lowest rushing outputs of the season.
Mack has a much stronger chance than Carr in winning Rookie of the Year, but he’s also likely to fall just short. The Baltimore Ravens' C.J. Mosley is expected to garner the most votes, helping out more against the pass this season with two interceptions and compiling 84 total tackles for a team that is contending for a playoff berth.
While neither Carr nor Mack are expected to bring home any hardware, they’ve posted rookie seasons that should at least reset the foundation of the Raiders future for seasons to come.