The Oakland Raiders made a lot of buzz during the NFL offseason after spending aggressively in free agency. The team signed both cornerback Sean Smith and linebacker Bruce Irvin to four-year contracts, while also adding offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele and safety Reggie Nelson.
So optimism is pretty high in Oakland for the first time since 2002, the last year the Raiders made the playoffs. And while Oakland may be the trendy pick to win the AFC West, there are still plenty of questions this team needs to answer. Here are the top storylines to keep an eye on during training camp and the preseason.
1. Can Derek Carr stay consistent all season long?
Carr’s 2015 season was a tale of two different narratives. In the Raiders’ first eight games, Carr’s stats were among the best in the NFL. But for most of the second half, the 2014 second-round pick played like a mediocre quarterback.
From Weeks 1-9 (eight games), Carr threw for 2,094 yards, 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions. From Week 10 to the end of the season, he produced 1,893 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and tossed nine picks.
The additions along the offensive line should give Carr even more time to get the ball out of his hands. Carr needs to make better decisions when he does throw, as there were times last season when he would throw the ball into coverage. With the playmakers around him, Carr has to realize he doesn’t need to always look for a big play when his receivers aren’t open.
Carr is a potential star in the making and the best quarterback the Raiders have had since Rich Gannon. But his play needs to be more consistent if he’s going to help his team take that next step and reach the postseason.
2. How much better will Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree be in their second year together?
Cooper and Crabtree were one of the most productive wide receiver duos in the league last season. So what can fans expect in 2016?
Cooper, the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, was one of the most exciting rookies to watch. The former Alabama All-American caught 72 passes for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns. A late-season foot injury limited him down the stretch, so expect Cooper’s numbers to increase as he and Carr build on their chemistry.
After playing his first six seasons in San Francisco, Crabtree signed a one-year, $3.2 million contract with Oakland in April 2015 after receiving little interest from other teams during free agency. The gamble certainly paid off for Oakland, as Crabtree led the team with 85 receptions, which went for 922 yards and nine touchdowns.
Don’t be surprised if Cooper and Crabtree post even better numbers as a duo in 2016.
3. Will the Raiders have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines?
Protecting Carr was a bit of an issue for the Raiders so the team made the offensive line a priority during the offseason. Besides signing prized free agent guard Kelechi Osemele to a five-year, $58.5 million contract, the team also re-signed left tackle Donald Penn.
Those two paired with center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Austin Howard should give Oakland one of the league’s best offensive lines. Not only will this help Carr, it also should provide a boost to a running game that ranked 28th in the league last season.
Assuming this quintet can stay healthy, the Raiders’ offense could put up a lot of points this season.
4. How much better can Khalil Mack get?
Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller had an impressive run during the playoffs for Denver last season. But Mack was the better player during the regular season.
The first player in NFL history to be named to the Associated Press’ All-Pro Team at two different positions (defensive end and outside linebacker), Mack finished the 2015 season with 77 tackles, 15 sacks and 82 pressures. Not only is Mack an excellent pass rusher, but he also is a great run stopper. His 23 tackles for a loss last season were second only to NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
What is missing from Mack’s career is to perform at a high level in front of the bright lights of a national audience. That will change this season with Oakland set to host Denver for the Sunday night game in Week 9, followed by a visit from Houston for “Monday Night Football” to finish out Week 11. Add in a Week 14 Thursday night date on the road against Kansas City and Mack will have more than one opportunity to show casual fans why he is regarded as one of the league’s best.
5. Is the Raiders’ new-look secondary an upgrade?
Oakland will have three new starters in its secondary in 2016. Former Kansas City Chief Sean Smith was one of the prized free agent signees and he will take over as the top cornerback, offering a valuable combination of size (6-3) and speed.
Fellow free agent acquisition Reggie Nelson has the difficult task of replacing future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson at safety. Nelson, a 2007 first-round pick by Jacksonville who was in Cincinnati the past six seasons, recorded 77 tackles and eight interceptions for the Bengals in 2015.
The other safety spot will likely be manned by this year’s first-round pick, Karl Joseph from West Virginia. The former Mountaineer had a reputation for being one of the hardest hitting safeties in college football. Joseph’s makeup and physical style may remind longtime fan of Raider safeties from the past.
Despite the new faces in the secondary, Oakland’s pass defense should show improvement sooner rather than later. If anything, the pass-rushing presence of Mack and the aforementioned Irvin should produce plenty of opportunities for interceptions.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.