Coach Jack Del Rio took over a Raiders team last year that was coming off a 3–13 season and more than doubled that win total, finishing 7–9. The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs or finished above .500 since 2002 when they reached Super Bowl XXXVII and lost to Tampa Bay. But expectations are soaring in Oakland this year, and a return to the postseason and double-digit wins appear to be reasonable goals instead of pipe dreams.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who took the job in 2012, had a slow start but has hit his stride, adding elite talent through the draft and free agency. In 2014, he used the fifth overall pick for Khalil Mack, who had 15 sacks last year and earned All-Pro honors at defensive end and outside linebacker. McKenzie found a franchise quarterback in the second round that year, taking Derek Carr. He added wide receiver Amari Cooper last year with the fourth overall pick. Carr and Cooper joined Mack, running back Latavius Murray, fullback Marcel Reece and safety Charles Woodson, who has since retired, at the Pro Bowl.
McKenzie had a strong free-agent haul this year, adding offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith, outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson.
“On paper it looks great,” Carr said when the Raiders began their offseason workouts in Alameda. “We don’t want to be paper champs. We’ve got some good guys, but none of that matters unless we put the work in. Everything can look good in theory and in practice it all falls apart. As a leader of this team, I’m going to concentrate on pushing to get better every day.”
The Raiders made big strides on offense last season and should be even better this year in Carr’s third NFL campaign and second under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Raiders went from last in total offense to 24th, from 31st in scoring to 17th, from 26th in passing to 16th and from last in rushing to 28th. Carr took full advantage of an upgraded receiving corps, passing for 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions.
Cooper became Oakland’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Randy Moss in 2005, grabbing 72 passes for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns. Michael Crabtree had 85 catches for 922 yards and nine touchdowns after signing as a free agent. Tight end Clive Walford, a third-round pick from Miami in 2015, was slowed by injuries early in the season but came on strong and appears ready for a bigger role. He reportedly suffered a gash to a knee in an ATV accident during the offseason but is expected to be ready for training camp. The Raiders have depth at the position with Lee Smith, who’s primarily a blocker, and Mychal Rivera, a skilled receiver.
The Raiders enter 2016 with what appears to be one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a big, powerful group that McKenzie has put together through the draft and free agency. The Raiders re-signed left tackle Donald Penn and added Osemele, a former Raven. Guard Gabe Jackson, a third-round pick in 2014, has been a starter since Game 1 of his rookie season. McKenzie signed former Chiefs center Rodney Hudson as a free agent last season. Penn, Osemele, Jackson and Hudson are locks to start. Austin Howard, a free-agent pickup in 2014, and Menelik Watson, a second-round pick in 2013, will compete for the starting job at right tackle.
Murray rushed for 1,066 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 4.0 yards per carry in his first season as a full-time starter. He made strides, but the Raiders averaged only 91.1 rushing yards per game, and Murray had too many games in which he all but disappeared. DeAndre Washington, a fifth-round pick from Texas Tech, could give Oakland an explosive option on third downs.
Khalil Mack is already a superstar. He became the first player in NFL history last year to be named All-Pro at two positions — outside linebacker and defensive end. After having four sacks as a rookie, Mack racked up 15 last year, finishing second in the NFL behind Houston’s J.J. Watt (17.5). He’s been an extraordinary run stuffer since his rookie year, but Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. gave him more time as an edge rusher last season, and he took his game to another level.
Mack needs help, so McKenzie signed Irvin, Nelson and Sean Smith. He also re-signed outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Smith has 44 career sacks, but he is serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse and won’t be eligible to be reinstated until mid-November. Irvin gives the Raiders another dangerous edge pass rusher to pair with Mack.
The Raiders boast a pair of big, physical tackles in Justin Ellis and Dan Williams, who came to the Raiders last season from Arizona as a free agent. They appeared to be set at right end with Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round draft pick last year, but his rookie season was cut short by a neck injury, and it’s not known whether he’ll be able to play this year.
Weak-side linebacker Malcolm Smith, a free-agent pickup last year, had a solid season, and second-year pro Ben Heeney likely will start at middle linebacker after taking veteran Curtis Lofton’s starting job midway through last season. Lofton was released in March.
The Raiders likely will have three new starters in the secondary, which lost Woodson, the heart and soul of the defense the past three seasons. McKenzie signed Nelson and Sean Smith as free agents and used a first-round pick on hard-hitting West Virginia safety Karl Joseph. All three likely will start along with cornerback David Amerson, the lone holdover. Nelson tied for the league lead in interceptions last season with eight and made the Pro Bowl for the first time. Smith gives the Raiders an upgrade at one corner spot. Amerson started 12 games after the Raiders claimed him off waivers on Sept. 22 from Washington, which drafted him in the second round in 2013. Former Eagles safety Nate Allen, who missed 11 games last season with a knee injury, could compete for a starting job if he’s healthy. TJ Carrie, who spent time at safety and cornerback last season, adds versatility and depth.
Punter Marquette King has become a valuable weapon for the Raiders since replacing Shane Lechler in 2013, and the team rewarded him with a five-year, $16.5 million contract. Last season he averaged 44.5 yards per punt with a franchise-record 40 downed inside the opponent’s 20. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski made 80.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (21-of-26), down from 86.4 percent (19-of-22) in 2014. But Janikowski, who turned 38 on March 2, still has a big leg. The Raiders didn’t return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown, but Taiwan Jones averaged 26.7 yards on 31 kickoff returns with a long of 70.
The Raiders won’t sneak up on anyone this year. If they can handle life in the spotlight, they have enough talent to end their 14-year playoff drought. They play three of their first four games on the road, including trips to New Orleans and Baltimore, and it will be crucial for them to get through that stretch without too much damage.