The Oakland Raiders head into the 2016 season full of intrigue, promise, and uncertainty. They are a possible sleeper that could make waves in the AFC, maybe even ending their 13 year playoff drought. The moves made by Raiders management this offseason were widely praised by the media but positive press isn’t worth anything in the win/loss column and the team, while still improved, still has weak spots. Let’s take a look at the three biggest gambles and safest moves made by the Raiders this year.
The starting secondary has a payroll of almost $120 million in contracts. The Raiders went out to the free agent market and grabbed Sean Smith (four years at $40 million) and Reggie Nelson (two years at $8.5 million) to anchor the secondary. They also came out of the draft with first round pick safety Karl Joseph before signing him to a four year $38 million deal and recently extended David Amerson with a $33 million contract. With that amount of money, any under-performance will have fingers pointed at management and coaching staff.
Heading into the season, there are concerns at the running back position: mostly its depth. Almost every team seems to have concerns about depth at this position and the Raiders are no exception. Latavius Murray was a workhorse in 2015, shouldering over 70% of the carries. Murray’s backups were so unproductive, quarterback Derek Carr was the second leading ball carrier on the team! To help, the Raiders drafted DeAndre Washington in the fifth round this year but it remains unclear how productive the diminutive back will be when there is live tackling. The depth chart has yet to fully shake itself out and if injuries occur the team may also have to dip into the waiver wire, which is always full of uncertainty.
Another gamble heading into training camp is how the leadership on defense develops. Both Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck retired in 2015, leaving behind a leadership vacuum. Their most talented player, Khalil Mack, is only 25 years old and in his third year with the Raiders. Mack is a great player and is taking steps to be a better leader but is not a “rah-rah” guy by nature and is still growing into a vocal role. The Raiders may need to rely on newcomers Bruce Irvin and first round draft pick Karl Joseph to step up and provide much needed leadership.
While there are some concerns and gambles taken by the Raiders, there are also some sure things that they can count on for 2016, barring any serious injury. The offensive line of the Raiders is a position of depth that projects to be strong in both run blocking and pass protection. The Raiders locked up left tackle Donald Penn to a healthy contract extension and splurged on run blocking talent Kelechi Osmele to clear the way for Oakland’s running backs. Defensive units will be put to the test this year with the skill of Oakland’s offensive front line.
The development of Amari Cooper and Derek Carr continues and their connection continues to grow this offseason. Despite the storied history of the team, there are many in the football community who believe this connection has the potential to wind up as the best QB/WR tandem in Raider’s history. Carr found Cooper 72 times in 2015 and eclipsed over 1,000 yards receiving, the first time a Raiders WR eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark since Randy Moss accomplished the feat in 2005. In a passing league, the past 10 years have not been good for Raider receivers. With a better understanding of what each other’s preferences, strengths and weaknesses, expectations for the duo are up and will likely continue to rise for years to come.
While leadership is a concern for the defense, the pass rush is in great shape. Khalil Mack will lead a powerful rush again for 2016 and with another year and a better supporting cast, he is primed to improve on his 15.0 sack total last year. The Raiders secured the service of free agent linebacker Bruce Irvin from the Seattle Seahawks, which will add to the pass rush along with the return of second round draft pick Mario Edwards Jr. who will solidify the rush from the defensive end position.
The 2016 Raiders team has a lot of talent coming into the year but with the infusion of talent and all of the positive press come a lot of expectations that the Raiders may or may not be able to meet. The team is definitely without their dominant leadership voices from past years and will need Khalil Mack and others to step up to fill the void so that they can take the next step.
We will begin to see if the team’s retooling and positive vibes are going anywhere when they take the field in less than a week. Their first preseason game, against a good, deep team in the Arizona Cardinals, is fast approaching on Friday, August 12th starting at 7PM Pacific.