2014 Preview: Oakland Raiders
This is it. This is the season that has been off in the distance for Raider fans — the one where the turnaround begins. The roster has been flipped and hand-picked replacements have been brought on board to get everything headed in the right direction. This is the foundation that all future greatness for the Oakland franchise will be built upon.
That’s the plan at least, and we’re barely into August, so hope still rules the day.
The truth of it all is the Raiders are at a key point for members of the front office and coaching staff who are tied to the back-to-back 4-12 seasons since the ‘new regime’ was put in place. There needs to be some sign of the ship being righted or the team could be in for yet another change at the top.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Competent QB Play
A season-to-season changes go, the quarterback situation in Oakland is about as night-and-day different from this time last year as it could be. With hopes pinned to a string of long shots and failed experiments in 2013 (Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor, Tyler Wilson, Matt McGloin), the team’s QB play predictably crashed down around the decision-makers who had assembled the bunch. Though both Pryor and McGloin flashed positives early in their respective shifts, neither proved themselves more than a placeholder as they each landed among the league’s worst passers as measured by their Accuracy Percentage (Pryor 34th, 68.3; McGloin 41st, 66.5).
For 2014, though, the front office managed to bring in not only an experienced vet who has had success in the league (Matt Schaub), but also committed a second-round pick to one of the most promising arms in the draft (Derek Carr). A reasonable answer at the QB spot can go a long way toward stabilizing a franchise that has been adrift for longer than fans care to remember – and nothing is promised from the current duo given Schaub’s decline and Carr’s rookie status – but the sense of getting on track at the position is a good place to start.
2. Young Blood
With limited returns coming from the past two drafts, Oakland had to make this one count. With Khalil Mack taken No. 5 overall as a consensus instant-impact type of pass rusher and Carr widely expected to prove a capable hand at the helm sooner than later, this may in fact be the draft that hit the mark. Add in Gabe Jackson who could slide in as a starter at left guard and defensive tackle Justin Ellis’ role in the D-line rotation, and the sprinkling of youth across the roster begins to come into focus.
Seventh-round cornerback T.J. Carrie, whose strong first impression has been particularly timely given D.J. Hayden’s continued battle to make the field, could also find himself thrust into meaningful duty. Hayden’s 2013 classmate, linebacker Sio Moore is switching sides to make room for Mack and will have to hold off 2012’s Miles Burris to keep grasp of the weakside while second-round offensive tackle Menelik Watson has sights set on the right tackle job. Tight end Mychal Rivera and running back Latavius Murray are others from the 2013 class who stand to have some say in their respective position groups and Shelby Harris, another from the current crop, could surprise.
3. Vet Infusion
Standard talk for rebuilding franchises includes mentions of “culture change” and “winning experience” and “foundation pieces” and the 2014 Raiders are eyeball-deep in that conversation at this point in their re-make. After the house cleaning that consumed most of the past three years, the resulting cap space allowed for an influx of free agent talent this offseason – talent targeted as much for on-field play as it was for a history of contributing to successful teams.
Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley highlight the defensive additions while James Jones is an example from the offensive side and all can show off Super Bowl rings in team meetings. Joining them among are another seven veteran newcomers who are expected to step in and start. A decent job done in collecting them, their impact on the field — and on the youth just mentioned — will be the final word.
4. Pass Rush
Choosing to bring extra rushers out of luxury is one thing, but needing to do it to generate pressure hampers a defense’s ability in other areas. It’s fun to watch the crazy blitz schemes coordinators dream up, but sending just four and getting home with it is something they’d all prefer. Oakland had to rely on the creative last season, but should have the pieces now to devote more attention to coverage while the primary rushers do their thing.
The Mack and Woodley threats off the edge paired with the combination of Tuck and Antonio Smith inside, if Tuck does slide down in passing situations, might be enough firepower to get it done. Woodley (+11.8, eighth) and Smith (+21.3, fifth) graded in the Top 10 pass rushers at their respective positions last season and Tuck had something of a bounce-back, finishing as our seventh-highest graded 4-3 DE overall. The three combined for 151 total pressures .
5. Unique Backfield
With Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield group, it’s easy to get caught up in talk of them and their expected roles, but the most important point on the subject is the notion that the Raiders are determined to use Marcel Reece to a proper extent in the upcoming season. For defenses, dealing with Reece is a nightmare due to his hybrid nature.
Listed as a fullback, he doesn’t have a true position — his versatility leads to him lining up everywhere (34% as a FB in 2013, 31% at HB, 27% split wide or in slot, 8% as a TE). But getting him into a spot is one thing, making use of the mismatches it creates is another and dedication to that finally appears to be a prominent feature in the team’s plans. Going to Reece more often, making use of MJD’s strengths (only two drops on 53 targets in 2013 and no pressures allowed in 110 pass-blocking snaps) and cycling McFadden in a limited role — perhaps that’s the season-long answer.
In any event, on a roster lacking true standout talent, not pushing the action toward the most dangerous piece you have is a mistake and one Oakland has to avoid.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. O-line Stability?
Oakland’s O-line was impossible to get to know in 2013. Fielding more starting-five combinations than any other team over the course of the year as necessitated by injuries and ineffective play, there were points where it was almost wholly made up of spare parts. So, the group received some much-needed attention in the offseason after a rough start to the free agency period.
Promising left tackle Jared Veldheer left to sign with Arizona and the quick move to replace him with Roger Saffold proved too quick, so Oakland went to Donald Penn and Austin Howard, drafted Jackson, and Watson, who saw little action as a rookie, is expected to finally plug in full time. They should all have spots around the lone returner, Stefan Wisniewski at center, but with four new starters who are a stretch from being considered a set of All-Pros, starting over again means another unit that feels pieced together. What are the odds they click from the get-go?
3. Hot seat
Patience was requested and granted for the past two years, but feet will be held to the fire this season. That might not mean playoffs or bust, it might not even mean 8-8 is a must, but if the road appears headed toward another 4-12, can anyone imagine someone so close to Al Davis in that family tree hesitating to make a move. There is urgency in the building; knowing that all coaches get fired is understood from Day 1, but seeing the possibility on the horizon is a completely different deal.
How it affects game day decisions in the early going we won’t know, but it’s not hard to lose a team that doesn’t have a strong foundation and the Raiders, right now, don’t. If the losing continues through the season’s first month, we’ll see more rumored links of Jon Gruden, we’ll hear Tony Sparano’s name come up as an interim option, and the snowball will be rolling.
3. The Schedule
If the win-now pressure wasn’t enough, a peek at the team’s 2014 schedule surely was cause for some sleepless nights this summer. Judging this season’s schedule by last season’s winning percentage isn’t a sound methodology, but considering what the Raiders did with what was advertised as the fourth-easiest schedule in 2013, carrying the league’s toughest schedule into 2014 surely wasn’t where they wanted to be. Notoriously bad when traveling to the East Coast, Oakland opens in New York, returns home for a week then heads to New England before going directly on to London. With the AFC West housing three 2013 playoff teams and the inter-division matchup being with the NFC West this season, there will be nine games against postseason-worthy opponents, not to mention the Cardinals who won 10 but missed out. Divining the path to the eight-win neighborhood is tough.
4. Jelling Again
As the coaches have come and gone and roster turnover became an annual thing, continuity has been stomped to dust around Raider camp. While the staff remains nearly intact now for the third straight year, the question of coming together reaches beyond the offensive line.
There should be at least six new starters on each side of the ball when the regular season opens. When more than half of each starting unit has only training camp to settle in together, asking them to form something cohesive is a lot, no matter their individual experience or talent levels. Playing as a unit and not just a bunch of guys wearing the same color comes in time and time is one thing that may not be in long supply.
Another year, another set of new cornerbacks. This season’s pair, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, come from across the bay to join Charles Woodson and Tyvon Branch in the Oakland secondary. The depth chart paints a top-heavy picture as the starters are not well supported and even that top layer is looking thin. We saw what happened when Tyvon Branch missed most of last season and Brandian Ross was asked to fill in (-23.2, 85th of 86 safeties) and the Raiders could be reaching down the chart from the outset as D.J. Hayden’s absence lingers (Hayden played only 353 snaps as a rookie and is missing camp with another injury now).
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