Are the pieces starting to come together for the Raiders?
It’s been 13 seasons since the Raiders made the playoffs and that long since they finished above .500. Bill Callahan led them to an 11–5 regular-season record in 2002 and to Super Bowl XXXVII, where they were crushed by Tampa Bay and former Oakland coach Jon Gruden. The next year the Raiders went 4–12 and Callahan was fired. Since then, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen and Tony Sparano have tried but failed to resurrect a once-dominant franchise that has won three Super Bowls overall but none in the past 31 seasons. Enter former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a Bay Area native who will try to lead the team back to respectability and, ultimately, prominence in the NFL.
“I’m really not spending a whole lot of time worrying about what was,” Del Rio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “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.”
Del Rio spent the past three seasons as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, who won the AFC West last season, finishing nine games ahead of the Raiders. That’s a huge gap to close, and the Raiders had hoped to gain ground after entering free agency with more than $60 million in salary cap space. Owner Mark Davis said he was ready to back up the Brinks truck and spend big money to land big-name free agents, but the Ndamukong Suhs and DeMarco Murrays of the free-agent world went elsewhere. So Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spread the money out among a group of solid, less expensive players, including center Rodney Hudson, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Dan Williams.
The Raiders ranked last in total offense, last in rushing, 26th in passing and 31st in scoring. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave faces a huge challenge, but at least McKenzie got him a true No. 1 receiver, taking Alabama’s Amari Cooper with the fourth overall choice in the draft. Former 49er Michael Crabtree will likely start alongside Cooper, giving second-year quarterback Derek Carr two sure-handed targets who know how to get open. Shortly after the draft, Oakland released wide receiver James Jones, who led the team with 73 catches last season. Rod Streater and Andre Holmes, a pair of big, young receivers, should compete for playing time. Tight end Mychal Rivera is coming off a 58-catch second season, but Clive Walford, a third-round pick from Miami, could wind up starting because he’s a solid receiver who can also block, which is not Rivera’s strong suit.
Musgrave, who spent last season as quarterbacks coach for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, plans to use some of Kelly’s warp-speed spread attack. That should help Carr, who thrived in an up-tempo offense at Fresno State. Carr started all 16 games as a rookie. He passed for 21 TDs with 12 interceptions, and was sacked only 24 times. But Carr averaged just 5.5 yards per pass, lower than any other quarterback with a top-40 passer rating. That number should improve now that he has a year’s experience in the NFL and more weapons on the field.
Running back Latavius Murray appears ready to become the Raiders’ No. 1 running back after Darren McFadden left as a free agent and Maurice Jones-Drew retired. The 6'3", 225-pound Murray rushed for 424 yards and two TDs on 82 carries for the season and started the final three games. Roy Helu Jr. will give Oakland a change of pace out of the backfield, and Trent Richardson will try to ignite his NFL career in what could be his last chance. Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece will likely be used in a variety of roles in Musgrave’s scheme to take better advantage of his receiving and running skills.
The Raiders’ offensive line gave Carr decent protection but opened too few holes for running backs last season. The addition of Hudson and the further development of second-year left guard Gabe Jackson could help Oakland’s power running game. Left tackle Donald Penn had a strong season last year after signing with Oakland as a free agent. Austin Howard, a former Jet, started at right guard last year in his first season as a Raider, but he’ll move to right tackle, his best position, and battle Menelik Watson for the job. The starting job at right guard could come down to a battle between veteran Khalif Barnes and rookie Jon Feliciano.
The Raiders ranked 21st in total defense last season and gave up 28.2 points per game, more than any other team in the NFL. New defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and Del Rio have plenty of work to do just to make the defense respectable, let alone dominant. They have a nice building block in outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who had a superb rookie season after being taken with the fifth-overall pick in the draft. Mack was a monster against the run, and the Raiders believe he can become a game-changing pass rusher, too. He had only four sacks as a rookie. The Raiders should have a stronger and deeper linebacker corps after adding Lofton, who will start between Mack and Sio Moore or and ex-Seahawks outside linebacker Malcolm Smith. Miles Burris was released just days after the Raiders drafted a pair of linebackers.
Free safety Charles Woodson, who turns 39 in October, led the Raiders in tackles (110) and interceptions (four) and will play his 18th NFL season, giving Oakland’s defense an unquestioned leader. Nate Allen, a free-agent pickup from Philadelphia, should start alongside Woodson at strong safety. The question is whether the Raiders will have enough quality cornerbacks. They are counting heavily on D.J. Hayden having a breakthrough campaign after two injury-plagued seasons. Hayden, a first-round pick in 2013, could be paired with T.J. Carrie, who had a strong rookie season last year after being drafted in the seventh round.
The Raiders had just 22 sacks last season, and defensive end Justin Tuck led the team with five. They desperately need to generate more pass-rush pressure, but McKenzie did little in free agency or the draft to boost Oakland’s pass rush. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round pick from Florida State, had only eight career sacks. So it will be largely up to Mack and Tuck to get to the quarterback.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski, 37, didn’t get much work last season, but he made 19-of-22 attempts, including a 57-yarder, after going 21-of-30 in 2013. The Raiders would like to reduce punter Marquette King’s workload. He punted 109 times last season, averaging 45.2 yards with a net average of 40.0 in his second year since replacing Shane Lechler. Carrie handled most of the punt return duties last year, averaging 7.5 yards with no touchdowns. Taiwan Jones, a speedster who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener last year, could give the Raiders a dangerous kickoff return man if he’s healthy. The team also signed Trindon Holliday, who has returned a total of six punts and kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, in early June.
After back-to-back solid drafts, the Raiders have raised their talent level and added some solid building blocks, particularly Mack, Cooper and Carr. They won three of their final six games last season, and a .500 season this year is not out of the question. That will depend on how quickly the team adapts to yet another coaching change.