Optimism abounds for the 2015 version of the Oakland Raiders

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Oakland Raiders

It has been a long time since the Raiders were competitive, it has been 13 seasons since they have finished above .500. During that time, the Raiders head coaching job has been a turnstile with eight HC’s having been at the helm.

RaidersFormer Jacksonville Jags head coach Jack Del Rio is taking over the reigns this season and has a lot of work to do after Oakland went 3-13 last season. Del Rio coached the Jags from 2003-2011, compiling a 68-71 record and five seasons of .500 or better. They made the playoffs just twice but he didn’t have the best talent to work with. He was with Denver from 2012-2014, serving as their DC and interim head coach in 2013.

“I’m really not spending a whole lot of time worrying about what was,” Del Rio said at the NFL Scouting Combine about the Raiders becoming a force again in the NFL. “I’m really focused on what needs to be going forward. We’re going to have a very competitive mentality throughout our organization in everything we’re doing.”

Derek CarrDerek Carr is back for his second season after a very promising rookie campaign where the completed 58.1% of his passes for 204.4 yards per game, 5.5 yards per attempt, 21 touchdown to just 12 interceptions. His relatively pedestrian QB Rating of 76.6 and his ypa were due to not having enough weapons on offense. However, he’s going to have to learn a new offense under new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave in his second season but they needed a change. Greg Olson did a good job with Carr in his rookie season but overall the offense was too predictable and Oakland was dead last in yards per game (282), rushing yards per game, and 26th in passing yards per game (205).

The running game was especially pathetic under Olson’s guidance but a lot of that had to do with a poor run blocking offensive line. However, once the Raiders made it into the red zone, they scored more often than anybody else in football. They scored 5.69 points per red zone trip and scored a touchdown on 72.4 percent of those sojourns, both the best rates in football. That’s where Carr showed a high football IQ and got high marks.

Musgrave has hinted he’s going to run certain aspects of Chip Kelly’s offense and it shouldn’t surprise anybody since he spent last season as the quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. And it won’t be a bad thing since the offense is tailor made to Carr’s strengths, his quick release and decision making.

Amari CooperJames Jones led the team in receptions with 73 (six went for TD’s), but he averaged just 9.1 yards per catch and was released in the offseason. Jones led the WR’s with a pathetic 227 yards after the catch, showing just how bad they were in that area, hurting Carr’s ypa. They upgraded the WR corps with the selection of Amari Cooper in the draft and he figures to see a lot of balls thrown his way from Carr as they grow together as a young QB-WR tandem. Michael Crabtree was signed during free agency and he will start opposite Cooper. Crabtree has struggled the last couple seasons but he’s still just 27 and should be able to bounce back. If not, the team is deep at WR and there are players just waiting for a chance. Which brings us to Seth Roberts.

Roberts will be Crabtree’s backup after having an amazing pre-season. He wasn’t selected in the 2014 NFL draft and was a free agent signing, ultimately spending a lot of time on the practice squad last season and now makes his dream complete as he makes the active roster. Andre Holmes (47 receptions, 14.7 ypc, nine plays of at least 20 yards, and four TD’s) and Rod Streater (nine catches, 9.1 ypc) are two big and physical WR’s, and Brice Butler is a fast receiver who needs to stay healthy. Holmes has shown flashes during his tenure with the team and could very well supplant Crabtree in the starting lineup if he doesn’t return to his form from three seasons ago when he caught 85 passes. Streater missed most of last season and if he’s healthy that alone strengthens the WR’s. Holmes and Streater will be battling to get playing time behind Cooper. Butler (21 receptions, 13.3ypc) also needs to stay healthy if he wants to see action. All three will be in the mix for playing time, but it’s a little disappointing they didn’t target an elite free agent to start at WR next to Cooper.

The starting tight end will be Mychal Rivera and rookie Clive Walford may make some noise before the season is over. Rivera had a strong second season (58 receptions, 29 1st downs, six plays of at least 20 yards, and four TD’s) when David Ausberry got hurt again. Rivera should only get better with more opportunies to get his timing down with Carr. Lee Smith was signed to be a blocking specialist and will open the season as the backup but he should get challenged at some point by Walford, who battled injuries in the pre-season. Rookie Gabe Holmes made the team after being undrafted out of Purdue and could see some action as well, definitely on special teams.

Latavius Murray is expected to be the opening day starter at running back after showing flashes of potential last season (424 yards, 5.2 yards per carry), despite making just three starts. Murray rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries against the Chiefs on Thursday night football. Taiwain Jones has flip flopped between RB and CB during his time with the Raiders but won the backup job.

The team added Roy Helu and Trent Richardson in free agency. Helu had a solid season in Washington (5.4 yards per carry and 42 catches, 11.4 yards per catch) and should provide solid change of pace RB. Richardson was released after having a horrible pre-season (15 carries for 42 yards, less than 3 yards per rush). He missed several wide open holes the offensive line created for him.

The strength of the offensive line is the pass blocking, the run blocking is another story altogether. Mike Tice was added to the coaching staff as the new OL guru in order to work some magic there. As previously stated, they were dead last in rushing yards, part of that was due to Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew being huge disappointments and part of it was due to bad run blocking for the RB’s.

Tice is going to be in charge of changing that and it will determine if Murray can be the next breakout runner. However, Tice will have more talent to work with this season than last years team did. The left side of the line looks very promising with 32 year old veteran Donald Penn at left tackle and second year man Gabe Jackson at left guard. Penn played really well after coming over from Tampa Bay and helped solidify the OL. The new center will be free agent signee Rodney Hudson and he is an upgrade over Stefen Wisniewski, who was never 100%. Carr should have more time to throw and not have to run out of fear with Hudson as the QB of the OL. Tony Bergstrom will be Hudson’s primary backup. Khalif Barnes has struggled during his tenure (to say the least) with Oakland and will provide depth behind Penn.

On the right side, it looks like the guard will be J’Marcus Webb and the tackle will be Austin Howard. Webb has been a tackle during his career but won the starting guard position with a strong pre-season. Howard signed as a free agent last year and was a bit of a disappointment, year two is crucial for Howard sincen he’s making 5 million per season. The team could decide to go in a different direction if he fails to deliver again. Rookie Jon Feliciano will backup Webb.

Can't Wait!

Oakland’s defense was awful last season and the Raiders addressed that in free agency when they tried to woo some of the best defensive tackle’s in the entire NFL and ended up settling for Dan Williams, the third best DT available, according to Pro Football Talk. Williams’ work ethic has been questioned but nobody can question his talent. Justin Ellis will be the other starter next to Williams and he provides a solid run stopper but not much as far as a pass rush. Justin Tuck and Khalil Mack will be the starting defensive end’s. Tuck is a veteran at the end of a good career but he can still play in spurts, he had five sacks last season. Mack was a homerun selection in last May’s NFL draft as he showed the ability to be a superstar and he led a talented group of linebackers but they decided to switch him to DE full-time this pre-season. Mack had a stellar rookie season (75 tackles, four sacks) and the team is hoping he is the next great pass rush specialist. Mario Edwards Jr. was their second round pick in the draft and will backup Tuck now that Mack has been delegated a full time DE. Edwards will get a lot of action as a backup and replace Tuck when he retires.

Curtis LoftonCurtis Lofton was brought in to be the leader of the unit as the middle linebacker and is coming off a down season (despite 145 tackles, he had no sacks and just 1 pass defended), thus his reason for signing with the rebuilding Raiders. New Orlean’s defense regressed a lot and Lofton took some of the blame for that. Lofton has a lot to prove and at just 28 he should have something left in his gas tank. Rookie Ben Heeney was selected in the fifth round and will back him up and may be the future starter.

Sio Moore was traded to the Indianapolis Colts as the team trimmed the roster down to the final 53 players. He was a nice surprise as a rookie out of UConn in 2013, but struggled in coverage last season when he was asked to do more.Malcolm Smith will replace him at one outside linebacker spot after a strong playoff showing and being signed away from the Seahawks. Smith is an active player with a high motor and gets after the ball. He has a lot of upside and should be an upgrade over Moore’s disappointing production.

On Friday, the Raiders made a a surprising move to sign Aldon Smith to a one year deal. Smith, 25, will be trying to salvage his career after being arrested on hit-and-run and driving under the influence and vandalism charges. The San Francisco 49ers wasted no time in releasing him. Smith can easily help their pass rush if he is in shape and it was announced he’ll be eligible to play but he is facing a suspension at some point this season. Oakland had just 22 sacks last season and if Smith’s head is screwed on right he could help them improve that number. Smith and Mack could give them an excellent pass rush to build around. He had a career-high 19.5 sacks in 2012 (his second season) but has had just 10.5 the last two seasons combined.

Ray-Ray Armstrong will start at the other outside linebacker position. Armstrong is entering his third season and was expected to get a chance to start after the Moore trade. He started three games last season after coming over from the Rams and registered 18 tackles in 11 games. His strength is playing in pass coverage.

Charles Woodson‘s best days are clearly in the rear view mirror at 39 but he can still play and bring the pain as the starting free safety for the secondary. Woodson recorded a team-high 112 tackles and he registered four more interceptions, giving him 60 in his career, 11th most all-time. He needs five more to break into the top 5 all-time list. Let’s hope he gets it. Larry Asante will backup Woodson and provides some decent depth. He recorded 24 tackles in six games (two starts) last season with the Silver and Black.

Strong safety Tyvon Branch left as a free agent, leaving a hole for Oakland to fill. The Raiders brought in former Philadelphia Eagle Nate Allen to try and replace him. Allen played well at times in the pre-season and may be ready to re-emerge as a top safety. Or at least better than what the Raiders have had when Branch was hurt. Rookie Keenan Lambert backs up Allen.

sebastian janikowskiSebastian Janikowski is among the best kicker’s in the game. He made 86.4% (tied for 10th) of his field goals (19 of 22), including 12 from 40 yards or longer. He kicked a 57 yarder (2nd longest of the season) against the 49ers, his leg is still as strong as ever entering his 16th season.

Marquette King returns as the punter and needs to rebound strong to keep his job. His 40.5 net average was middle of the pack (19th) among punter’s but he managed 31 punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. However, his prodigious hang time led to 33 fair catches.

Jones will be the primary kickoff returner and Carrie will be the punt returner.

Final Outlook

2015 Raiders SchedThe Raiders made some nice moves in free agency and the draft to make this a deeper and more talented team. It’s up to the players to have a successful season in what is surely McKenzie’s make or break season as the GM, the pressure is on since they replaced Dennis Allen after he compiled an 8-28 record in a little over two seasons.

The schedule makers at the league office did them no favors. Oakland squares off against the always brutal AFC North and the NFC North, that’s eight tough games right there. The defense can’t help but be better and Carr has more talent on offense so the offensive unit should be better.

Are they a playoff team? No, not unless other teams in the AFC suffer mass casualties but they should be a lot more competitive. Eight of their 13 losses last season were by at least 10 points. The Raiders should be in just about every game they play due to a vastly improved defense and the talent Carr has on offense. I think they will finish anywhere from 6-10 to 8-8, with the latter being a distinct possibility. And that’s a positive sign of progress for a team that won just three games last season.

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Big time sports fan of the Lakers, Raiders, Angels and Dodgers. From 1990-1995, I worked at the Glendale News-Press and I had a blast. I covered mainly high school sporting events and Glendale Community College athletic events, but also attended Dodgers, Raiders, and Rams games. I also write for Joel Huerto (former co-writer and editor at the GNP) at onemanfastbreak.net. I watch a lot of sports on TV (basketball, football, usually just postseason MLB) and UFC.

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