After the sad passing of Al Davis and a tumultuous decade in Oakland, 2012 marks the start of a new era in Oakland. A new General Manager, Reggie McKenzie, a new head coach, Dennis Allen, and a rejuvenated coaching staff are all charged with bringing the glory days back to this once proud franchise.
It cannot be understated how big a change the Raiders could be on course for in the next few seasons in a philosophical sense. New systems on offense, new systems on defense and, arguably most importantly, new systems and thought processes in the front office as well.
What Raiders fans will be expecting, though (and what Raiders players must not allow to happen) is this season being labeled a write-off. There may be growing pains ahead in the short term, but in a division that lacks a truly dominant team, the Raiders cannot allow themselves to become whipping boys, there is talent enough on this roster to be competitive in the short term while building for the long term.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Promise with Palmer
The pressure is now firmly on Carson Palmer to perform after the Raiders paid a king’s ransom to bring the former USC star back to California. It’s quite clear that 2012 needs to be more consistent than what we saw in his fractured 2011 season. Considering he joined up with the Raiders halfway through the regular season, his overall grade of +2.8 and a pass grade of higher than +2.0 in four of his nine starts is credit worthy. Unfortunately for Palmer and the Raiders, those starts were split by some terrible football that reminded everyone of the perils of paying such a high price for a quarterback.
Palmer was productive downfield and made full use of some dangerous weapons (more on those guys later) and, if he can regain his best form from his time in Cincinnati, the Raiders will be well placed to remain competitive in the AFC West. The area he must improve on is his short passing; he threw seven interceptions on passes aimed within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage. Extrapolating that number across 16 starts would not be pleasant reading for Raider fans and certainly wouldn’t be pleasant viewing this coming season.
2) Stifling Defensive Line
Were it not for penalties last season the Oakland Raiders might have had the highest-graded defensive line in the entire NFL. That is without accounting for the effect that Kamerion Wimbley had as a situational pass rusher. The good news for Raider fans is that dominant defensive line returns everyone but John Henderson who has called time on his 10-year tenure in the NFL. More good news for Raider fans is that they get back impressive 2009 third-round pick Matt Shaughnessy.
The Raiders have plenty in terms of pass rushers, with Tommy Kelly one of the best interior pass rushers in the league, plenty in terms of run defense both on the edge (Lamarr Houston) and inside (Richard Seymour). If the likes of Seymour, Kelly, and Houston can cut down on the penalties (they combined for 30 last term) there really aren’t many offensive lines in the entire league that can cope with this group across the board.
3) Breakout and Breakaway Potential Out Wide
The Raiders long drafted for speed, it was seemingly a rare year that the fastest player at the NFL Combine wasn’t wearing a Raider jersey in September. That may have led to some inconsistent performances but the benefit for this current Raider offense is an explosive set of wide receivers. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford all showed flashes for stretches of last season that they could lead this receiving corps, though all are currently dealing with camp injuries.
Former Maryland Terrapin Heyward-Bey finally left his dropsies behind him (going nearly two months without a drop last season) and Moore put in three 100-yard games, two of them after Palmer took over at quarterback. Undrafted newcomer Rod Streater has turned heads in the preseason (like last season’s camp star, Moore) and could factor in, especially if the recent rash of injuries has lingering effects.
The question mark in this group is: who provides the steady baseline of production if the others continue to fluctuate? If one or more of them brings consistency with the explosiveness, the Oakland passing game could be devastating in 2012.
4) More to Come From Veldheer
Finding a franchise left tackle isn’t an easy thing and after they first deployed him at center the Raiders may have stumbled across one in the shape of Jared Veldheer; one of last season’s breakout performers on the offensive line. Penalties are a real concern for Veldheer (would he be a Raider if they weren’t?) as he was flagged 11 times last season, eight of them called for offensive holding (six on passing plays, two on running plays). If Veldheer can clean up this area of his game, he should develop into one of the better offensive tackles in the league. There were glimpses in a handful of games that he can be a run blocker of real quality while rarely showing struggles that lasted beyond isolated plays.
His pass protection, meanwhile, was more inconsistent–either seeming to give up a pressure or less in a game or a comparable glut–but he showed his potential in allowing only one pressure to Jared Allen and the Vikings in their Week 11 encounter. Can he develop the consistency to put in such performances more consistently this season?
5) Branch Casting a Shadow Over Tight Ends
We’ve mentioned it a few times this offseason, but Tyvon Branch really is a unique weapon when it comes to covering the new breed of freak athletes masquerading as tight ends. While there seems to be a fresh crop of athletes cropping up every year to give defenses nightmares, the arms race hasn’t quite caught up on the other side of the ball. Branch is pretty much the only player in the league who is seemingly capable of matching up one-on-one with the likes of Gronkowski, Davis, and Graham. He has the size and strength to match them physically that most other defensive backs don’t have while also having the requisite speed and short area quickness to stay with them athletically, something many linebackers don’t bring to the table. Branch’s two matchups with Tony Moeaki, if he’s healthy, should be fascinating to watch unfold.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Cornerback Conundrum
After a penalty strewn season and with an impending salary of astronomical proportions, the Raiders have said goodbye to Stanford Routt, just a year after saying adios to Nnamdi Asomugha. In their place are more questions than answers and with a depleted pass rush, that isn’t a good thing for an Oakland team that must face three potentially explosive passing games in the AFC West. Ron Bartell is likely to start at one corner opposite Shawntae Spencer, both of whom have had solid seasons in the past (way in the past) and the supposed quality of young players behind like DeMarcus Van Dyke is not shining through to unseat the veteran free agents. Unless Bartell can re-discover his coverage form from 2010 (+4.5 coverage, 52.1% completion percentage allowed) and Spencer his 2009 form (+5.3 coverage, eight passes defensed) the Raiders will be in dire straits on the perimeter.
2) Replacing Wimbley
While the full card of the Raiders’ defensive line is a strength, there can be no doubt that their nickel defensive line has taken a hit with the loss of Kamerion Wimbley. The like for like change is Dave Tollefson, though considering his entirely underwhelming 2011 regular season in New York (16 total pressures on 306 pass rushes) the Raiders would be well served to try and keep their base defensive line on the field in nickel situations. Tollefson took nickel snaps at left defensive end in the first two preseason games, but even if the full base group is kept in, they will struggle to replicate the sheer volume of pressure that Wimbley created; 62 total pressures on 478 pass rushes last season. The silver lining for the Silver and Black is that one third of Wimbley’s total pressure came from two games, remove his games in Denver and San Diego and suddenly the task to replace him isn’t quite so daunting.
3) Fragile Backfield
There is talent in the Raiders’ offensive backfield, but can the ball carriers stay healthy? Michael Bush did last season but he was allowed to walk as a free agent leaving the ever-fragile Darren McFadden backed up by fumble-prone Mike Goodson with versatile Marcel Reese manning the fullback spot. There is no doubting McFadden’s talent and Goodson has flashed but was strangled in a deep backfield in Carolina. How many carries will the Raiders need to find this season from players who are not currently on the roster? The depth chart is set up to place the load onto McFadden and he hasn’t shown able to stay strong under such a strain. If he does keep to the field this year, this turns from a weakness to a strength, but the Raiders are taking a big risk that McFadden will find his health.
4) Growing Pains on the Offensive Line
The Raiders are moving back to a zone blocking scheme under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and they have already had to deal with some issues in the preseason around their short yardage blocking. The coaches have immediately come out, correctly, and said that they will not be wavering from their approach. However, that does suggest that things will not go smoothly for the Raiders up front this season. Inconsistency in a new scheme combined with a group of players who put forth inconsistent performances last season is not a recipe for success. In Houston, Mike Brisiel made more than his share of positive blocks but made as many poor run blocks that led to defensive stops conceded. Meanwhile, new starting center Stefen Wisniewski was on course for a solid rookie season before trailing off at the end, especially against San Diego. The coaching staff is already preaching patience with the new system, the fan’s patience may be tested to the full.
5) Coverage Concerns at Linebacker
The Raiders’ linebackers could certainly stop the run last season, as could new acquisition Philip Wheeler, but defending the pass in coverage was a completely different matter. The two linebackers currently slated to play three-down roles for the Raiders are Wheeler and Rolando McClain. Their combined coverage grade last season was -8.9, with McClain, in particular, struggling against play action passes–culpable for a hatful of big plays by opposing passing games. Factor into this equation that Wheeler is entering a new role as a three-down player (he was the Colts’ two-down linebacker last season) and you have some real cause for concern, despite him being a camp star so far this year. There is also the possibility that McClain could be suspended which, combined with Aaron Curry’s knee issues, could leave the Raiders perilously thin.
What to Expect
After consecutive 8-8 seasons with different head coaches and still searching for their first winning season in a decade, Raider faithful should be satisfied enough with another 8-8. With the exception of being able to retain that head coach and allowing the front office to fulfill a long-term vision. In a tumultuous division you can’t rule out any AFC West team from emerging as a playoff threat, but the Raiders have more questions to answer than most. The long game has been symptomatic of the Raiders’ passing game in previous years, it now needs to be their approach to returning to those glory days.
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