Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Oakland Raiders check in at No. 23.
The Raiders’ 2011 season will be remembered most for the Oct. 8 death of iconic team owner Al Davis, which rocked the franchise and set off a series of aftershocks that continue to reshape the organization.
Shortly after the season ended, new owner Mark Davis (Al’s son) hired long-time Packers personnel man Reggie McKenzie as general manager. The no-nonsense McKenzie quickly fired coach Hue Jackson and replaced him with Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, a 39-year-old, demanding coach who had helped turn around the Broncos’ defense and vowed to transform the Raiders into a smart and disciplined team. McKenzie then went to work getting the Raiders’ fiscal house in order and ridding the team of some contracts he called “out of whack.” Cornerbacks Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, tight end Kevin Boss and outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley were released.
From the day he was hired, McKenzie has worked to remake and modernize a Raiders franchise that had been ruled by Al Davis for over four decades. The question now is whether all those changes will help the Raiders make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
When McKenzie fired Jackson, the Raiders lost their offensive architect and play-caller. New offensive coordinator Greg Knapp will fill those roles in his second stint running Oakland’s attack. Knapp spent the past two seasons as Houston’s quarterbacks coach, working under Gary Kubiak. Knapp will install a version of the West Coast offense and use the zone blocking scheme that helped the Texans’ running attack rank No. 2 in the NFL last season.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, a classic drop-back passer, faces the challenges of learning a new system and adapting to a scheme that requires him to roll out and throw on the run more than he ever has in his career. That’s nothing compared to what he went through last year. He basically went from his couch to the huddle after an Oct. 18 trade between the Raiders and Bengals that came two days after starting quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a broken collarbone. Palmer passed for 2,753 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 10 games, but he was intercepted 16 times and needs to cut down on those killer turnovers.
Running back Darren McFadden remains the key to Oakland’s offense, but the question is whether he can avoid the type of toe, foot and knee injuries that have hampered his career. McFadden rushed for 614 yards in just seven games last year before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury to his right foot. Valuable backup Michael Bush signed with Chicago as a free agent. Mike Goodson, acquired from Carolina in a trade, and speedster Taiwan Jones will battle for playing time behind McFadden. Fullback Marcel Reece, a converted wide receiver, gives the Raiders a matchup nightmare out of the backfield.
The Raiders’ receiving corps boasts a wealth of speed and potential but little experience. Darrius Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, is coming off a career year, but the Raiders’ most skilled receiver is Denarius Moore. He averaged 18.7 yards per catch last season as a rookie. Jacoby Ford, who missed six of the final seven games last year with a sprained foot, is another game-breaker with good hands.
Tight end is a big question mark after the Raiders cut Boss. Brandon Myers, a fourth-year pro, has never caught more than 16 passes in a season. As rookies last year, Richard Gordon and David Ausberry combined for three catches.
Last year, the Raiders’ offensive line allowed just 25 sacks and opened enough holes for Oakland to rank seventh in the NFL in rushing. Four of the five starters return — tackles Jared Veldheer and Khalif Barnes and guards Stefen Wisniewski and Cooper Carlisle. Center Samson Satele left as a free agent, but Wisniewski will move to center, and former Texans guard Mike Brisiel, a key free agent pickup, will join the starting five. Barnes could face a challenge from Joe Barksdale, a third-round pick in 2011.
Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver are installing an aggressive 21st century defense, complete with multiple fronts, coverages, schemes and blitzes. Gone are the days when the Raiders relied on simple man-to-man coverage and a four-man pass rush.
The strength of Oakland’s defense remains its line, particularly tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. The return of end Matt Shaughnessy from a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3 should provide a huge boost to this unit. End Lamarr Houston, like Shaughnessy, is a high-energy lineman with a mean streak. Desmond Bryant and former New York Giant Dave Tollefson add quality depth inside and outside.
Strong safety Tyvon Branch, free safety Michael Huff and backups Mike Mitchell and Matt Giordano give Oakland an experienced quartet of safeties. Huff has also proven to be a quality nickel corner. McKenzie signed a pair of experienced corners in free agency, ex-Ram Ron Bartell and former 49er Shawntae Spencer. They’ve combined for 137 NFL starts. DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa, a pair of 2011 draft picks, and free agent pickup Pat Lee will battle for time in the nickel.
Third-year middle linebacker Rolando McClain, the eighth overall pick in the 2010 draft, has yet to live up to that billing. What’s more, he faces potential jail time and a possible NFL suspension stemming from an altercation last November in Alabama. Outside linebacker Aaron Curry, acquired from Seattle in an October trade, was the fourth overall pick in 2009 but has struggled in the NFL and could get pushed by rookie Miles Burris, a fourth-round pick. Outside linebacker Philip Wheeler, a free agent addition, is coming off a career year at Indianapolis and is slated to replace Wimbley.
Punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski are entering their 13th seasons, but neither one has showed any signs of slowing down. If anything, they’re getting better. Lechler is coming off his seventh Pro Bowl season, and Janikowski his first. Ford has returned a franchise-record four kickoffs for touchdowns. If he’s back to full speed, Ford will give Oakland one of the NFL’s most dangerous return men. Moore handled most of the punt return duties last season, but that job could be up for grabs if he starts at wide receiver.
Final Analysis: 3rd in the AFC West
The Raiders have gone 8–8 in back-to-back seasons, but they could be hard-pressed to match that record this year after so many changes. Not a single team in the AFC West finished above .500 last year, but the competition should be tougher this year with quarterback Peyton Manning in Denver and both Kansas City and San Diego poised for bounce-back seasons. McKenzie is building a solid foundation, but his job has only begun.
Related: 2012 Oakland Raiders Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
When outside linebacker Aaron Curry was traded to the Raiders from Seattle in October, he relished the chance to play for the team that drafted his older brother, former NFL linebacker Eric Barton, in 1999. Barton played five seasons for Oakland. It wasn’t until 2010 that Curry and Barton, who had been put up for adoption as an infant, learned they were brothers and met each other.
The shoe that Sebastian Janikowski used to kick an NFL record-tying 63-yard field goal in the 2011 season-opener at Denver is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Janikowski tied Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam with his 63-yarder. “I’d prefer to break the record, but being with Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam, that’s a big honor for me,” Janikowski says.
Former Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman played six seasons with the Raiders before retiring after the 2000 campaign to pursue a career in the ministry. Kaufman rejoined the Raiders this year as the team’s chaplain. He has served as the pastor of the Well Christian Community in Livermore, a Bay Area city. Kaufman rushed for a Raiders single-game record 227 yards against Denver on Oct. 19, 1997.
Circle The Date
Rookie guard Tony Bergstrom, a third-round pick from Utah, wasted no time before looking up the Raiders’ 2012 schedule after being drafted to see if his new team would face Baltimore. Bergstrom’s brother-in-law, Paul Kruger, is a fourth-year defensive end for the Ravens. Sure enough, Oakland is set to face the Ravens on Nov. 11 in Baltimore.
New GM Reggie McKenzie, a former Raiders linebacker, can thank ex-Raiders personnel chief Ron Wolf for launching his NFL front office career in 1994. McKenzie was coaching at the University of Tennessee when Wolf, then the Packers’ general manager, offered him a scouting job with Green Bay. After 18 seasons with the Packers, McKenzie returned to the Raiders this year as their general manager. Wolf played a big role again. Wolf gave McKenzie a strong recommendation to new Raiders owner Mark Davis. McKenzie was the only candidate Davis interviewed.
The Raiders set NFL single-season records for total penalties (163) and penalty yards (1,358) last season. They broke the old marks of 158 and 1,304 set by the 1998 Kansas City Chiefs.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Thur., Aug. 2
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