The Raiders finished above .500 and returned to the playoffs last year for the first time since 2002, but their season ended on a sour note — and their offseason set the stage for a second messy divorce with Oakland and a planned move to Las Vegas in 2020.
Quarterback Derek Carr broke his right leg on Dec. 24 during a 33-25 win against the Colts. Without Carr, the Raiders lost 24-6 to Denver in their regular-season finale to finish 12-4. Then they lost 27-14 in an AFC wild card playoff game to Houston, teaching coach Jack Del Rio an important lesson about the postseason. “Don’t lose your quarterback,” Del Rio deadpanned at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Carr is expected to make a complete recovery, but Del Rio and the lame-duck Raiders will face plenty of uncertainty in the first of what will likely be two more seasons and possibly three at the Oakland Coliseum while their stadium in Las Vegas is built. The Raiders have enjoyed one of the NFL’s best home-field advantages, but it’s unknown how fans in Oakland will respond now that they’ve been jilted again.
“There is that element where a certain number [are] disappointed to the point they won’t support us anymore,” Del Rio said at the NFL Owners Meetings in Phoenix. “That’s understandable. We’ll have to see what that number is. If it’s a lot, we’ll adjust that line of thinking. But I would be surprised if that’s the case.”
The Raiders had one of the NFL’s top offenses last season, and it could be even better this year with the addition of former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. The powerful Lynch ended his one-year retirement and signed a two-year deal with his hometown team after being traded to Oakland. Lynch has rushed for 9,112 yards and 74 TDs in nine seasons. He retired after an injury-plagued 2015 season, but if he stays healthy and recaptures his Beast Mode form, Lynch will be an upgrade from Latavius Murray, who signed as a free agent with Minnesota. The combination of Lynch and scatbacks DeAndré Washington and Jalen Richard gives Oakland three dangerous weapons in the backfield. Make that four counting Jamize Olawale, a battering-ram fullback with some running skills.
Carr was putting up MVP-like numbers before his season-ending injury. He threw for 3,937 yards with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Carr’s passer rating has gone from 76.6 as a rookie to 91.1 in 2015 to 96.7 last season, showing his steady improvement. Carr signed a five-year contract extension in June to make him the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, for now at least. The deal could be worth as much as $125 million in total with Carr guaranteed to receive at least $70 million.
Carr’s top two receivers — Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree — each had over 1,000 receiving yards and combined for 172 catches last year. The trio of Carr, Cooper and Crabtree should only get better in their third straight season together. The Raiders gave Carr another inviting target when they signed free agent Cordarrelle Patterson. The 6'2", 220-pound Patterson caught 52 passes for 453 yards — both career highs — last season for Minnesota, which drafted him in the first round in 2013. The Raiders’ tight end corps should be better this year, too, with the addition of former Packer Jared Cook and the return of starter Lee Smith from a season-ending broken leg he suffered Oct. 2 against Baltimore. Smith gives Oakland a powerful blocker, while Cook has 303 career catches for 3,880 yards and 17 touchdowns in eight NFL seasons. They join returning starter Clive Walford, who had an up-and-down 2016 season and could see his playing time reduced.
The Raiders’ massive offensive line, which was one of the team’s strengths last season, returns intact. Left tackle Donald Penn, left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Rodney Hudson made the Pro Bowl last year, and right guard Gabe Jackson was named an alternate. The biggest question mark is at right tackle, where Austin Howard returns after starting 10 games in 2016. The Raiders lost powerful but injury-plagued offensive tackle Menelik Watson to Denver as a free agent but added former Giant Marshall Newhouse, who could push Howard for playing time. They also drafted 6'6", 343-pound offensive tackle David Sharpe out of Florida.
After ranking sixth in total offense last season, the Raiders made a change at offensive coordinator, replacing Bill Musgrave, whose contract expired, with quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. Downing received high marks for tutoring Carr the past two seasons, but he has never been an offensive coordinator at any level and has never called plays. Downing has stressed the importance of having a balanced offense, so you can expect the Raiders to run the ball more often this season.
The Raiders ranked 26th in total defense last season and allowed an NFL-worst 6.1 yards per play. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. kept his job but, apparently, not all of his power. Del Rio hired former Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano to be his assistant head coach/defense. The Raiders can certainly use Pagano’s experience, but time will tell how this move works out and how Norton responds to the pressure.
Defensive end Khalil Mack, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, returns for his fourth season. Mack had 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and a pick-six last year. Despite Mack’s remarkable season, the Raiders finished last in the NFL in sacks with just 25. Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin had seven sacks, and no other Raider had more than 2.5. The Raiders desperately need promising defensive end Mario Edwards to stay healthy after two injury-hampered seasons. They also need more inside push, but defensive tackle Justin Ellis has zero career sacks in three seasons. Rookie tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, a third-round pick from UCLA, could add some push in the middle.
Outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins, a free-agent pickup, missed nine games last year for Miami, but in his previous two seasons he had a combined 27 starts, 181 tackles and 3.5 sacks. The job at middle linebacker appears to be wide open. Ben Heeney started the first two games last year but lost that job and then suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 4. Rookie Marquel Lee, a fifth-round pick from Wake Forest, could have a chance to start. But there’s also a chance that the Raiders could re-sign Perry Riley Jr., a free agent who started 11 games for them last year at middle linebacker. Cory James, who made five starts as a rookie last season, is another option.
The Raiders ranked 24th against the pass last season, but their veteran secondary gives them some reason for optimism. Free safety Reggie Nelson had a team-high five interceptions and made the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Raiders. Strong safety Karl Joseph had a solid rookie season with 60 tackles and one interception. Starting cornerbacks Sean Smith and David Amerson return, but the Raiders drafted Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley in the first round, and he could push for a starting job. Safety Obi Melifonwu, a second-round pick from Connecticut, could see time in the nickel defense, using his size to cover tight ends.
The Raiders added an explosive weapon to their kickoff return game when they signed Patterson. He led the NFL in kickoff return average in 2013 (32.4), ’15 (31.8) and ’16 (31.7) and has been named first-team All-Pro twice. Marquette King averaged 48.6 yards per punt last season, second highest in the NFL, and he’ll help the Raiders flip field position again this year with his booming punts. Sebastian Janikowski returns for his 18th season and still boasts one of the NFL’s strongest kicking legs. Last year he made 29-of-35 attempts and was 26-of-27 from under 50 yards.
The Raiders should ride their explosive offense into the playoffs again, assuming Carr stays healthy, but they’ll need to improve defensively to make a Super Bowl run. The Raiders, who have the NFL’s fourth-toughest schedule, will be tested early with three of their first four games on the road. They’ll find out whether their lame-duck status affects their home-field advantage when they host the Jets in Week 2.