Oakland Raiders 2015 Preview

(Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

The past three days I previewed the Buccaneers, Titans, and Jaguars and today I’m going to be breaking down the Oakland Raiders. Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen entered year three in Oakland after undertaking one of the biggest rebuilds the NFL has seen in the past decade. Unfortunately for Raider fans and Dennis Allen, who was fired during the season, Oakland is still one of the worst teams in the NFL. Oakland surprisingly named rookie second round pick Derek Carr their opening day starter instead of veteran Matt Schaub, and Carr struggled a lot but showed enough to excite some. Interim head coach Tony Sparano buried a football, but he struggled early and couldn’t stop the Raiders from starting 0–10 and bringing their losing streak to 16 games. However the Raiders won three of their last six games to end the season. Raiders owner Mark Davis retained McKenzie after the season and brought in former Jaguars head coach and Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to be Oakland’s new head coach.


Offense

Del Rio hired Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to as the Raiders new offensive coordinator. Musgarve will likely bring some of Chip Kelly’s offensive philosophy to the Raiders offense next season. Kelly’s offense features a fast-paced, no-huddle attack that has a big focus on the run game. Musgrave recently said that the Raiders offense still has a long ways to go. Derek Carr enters his second season at quarterback and should benefit from the addition of Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.

Quarterbacks

Derek Carr put up an impressive 21 touchdowns as a rookie and threw only 12 interceptions, but Carr’s inability to attack defenses vertically severely limited Oakland’s offense. Carr averaged only 5.5 yards per attempt and often played much more conservative than the down and distance and situation asked for. Andy Benoit of the MMQB thinks that a stronger running game and additions at wide receivers can help make up for Carr’s inconsistent fundamentals. Carr benefitted from the Raiders offensive line allowing the six fewest sacks in the NFL last year, but he should also be credited for showing a lot of poise in the pocket and showing veteran awareness. Carr has a lot of the same characteristics as Alex Smith, who also struggles throwing the deep ball, has decent athleticism and has pretty good accuracy. Backup quarterback Christian Ponder played under new Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave in Minnesota. I once considered Ponder a rising young quarterback, but he struggled a lot following a promising 2012 season. Ponder blamed his poor play last year on the limited practice reps he received behind Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater. I think Ponder has the tools to be a solid starter in the event that Carr goes out with injury. Third quarterback Matt McGloin is competing with Ponder for the backup job, but it would be very unlikely that McGloin will be able to beat out Ponder. McGloin has shown a lot when he was given a shot as a rookie in 2013 and in relief last season, but he doesn’t have the tools to be a starter in the NFL. The Raiders may consider dealing McGloin because a team may be interested in developing him and he’d likely never see the field with the Raiders. Undrafted rookie Cody Fajardo is a strong athlete and many thought he’d be drafted. Fajardo could make the roster or the practice squad if McGloin gets dealt.

Running Backs

The Oakland Raiders had one of the worst rushing attacks in NFL history last year when they featured should-have-been-retired Maurice Jones-Drew and yearly disappointment Darren McFadden. The Raiders were last in the NFL in percent of offensive plays with broken tackles. Latavius Murray exploded onto the scene last year in the Raiders first win of the season against the Chiefs, rushing four times for 112 yards and two touchdowns. After the game the Raiders gave Murray the bulk of carries for the final four games, but Murray did not take full advantage of the opportunity and averaged only 3.79 yards per rush in that span. Murray has great size and speed, but he’s only shown flashes and it’s extremely concerning that he didn’t take advantage of having a full load at the end of last season. Murray has big play ability, but it’s concerning that most of Murray’s yards came on a few big plays. Trent Richardson is expected to compete with Murray, but I don’t expect Richardson to see that much action. Richardson was the worst running back who consistently got carries over the past two seasons. Richardson, an ex-Colt, was benched late last season in favor of Zurlon Tipton. In Indianapolis the Colts fired their cannons and dropped confetti from the ceiling of the Lucas Oil Stadium when Richardson ran for over five yards. Richardson’s not an explosive player and he reportedly has had some weight issues and some personal issues he’s had to deal with. The Raiders added free agent Roy Helu to play a change of pace role. Helu’s been very productive as a runner and receiver in the limited action he’s seen with the Redskins. As a rookie in 2011 Helu held a full-time role at running back for four weeks towards the end of the year and rushed for over 100 yards in three straight weeks. Helu became the forgotten man in Washington after the arrival of Alfred Morris. I expect Helu to play a major role next year and he’ll be a great sleeper candidate for fantasy owners. Taiwan Jones was moved back to running back after being converted to cornerback earlier in his career. Jones shouldn’t factor at running back, but he has good speed and is a good special teams player. George Atkinson will have to make the roster as a kick returner. Marcel Reece is a unique fullback because he’s an offensive weapon as a receiver and is a decent runner. Reece, a converted college receiver, may see action in an H-back role, similar to the one played by Charles Clay or James Casey. Jamize Olawale is also a converted college wide receiver, and he could back up Reece in his H-back role. With a new coaching staff in place, Olawale could have trouble making the Raiders roster. The Raiders running back situation is better than it was last year with the addition of Helu and coaches who are willing to give Murray a chance, but it’s still a very below average unit.

Receivers

Amari Cooper will be an instant upgrade at wide receiver over James Jones, who wasn’t explosive enough last season. Cooper was incredibly productive at Alabama and has a great mix of size, but doesn’t have elite size or speed. Cooper is expected to contribute immediately and has a good chance to put up impressive numbers. Cooper will be joined by former 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, who had a few disappointing years after it looked like he was developing into one of the better receivers in the NFL. Crabtree hasn’t been the same since his 2013 Achilles tear and even before that Crabtree wasn’t very productive in 2013. Despite his productivity in college and his big name, Crabtree has only caught over 900 yards once in his career. Crabtree shouldn’t make a huge impact and he’ll likely share snaps with some other receivers. Rod Streater is a good option as the Raiders third receiver, if he can stay healthy. Streater played in only three games in 2014 after dealing with a foot injury that required surgery. In 14 starts in 2013, Streater caught 60 passes for 888 yards. Streater has good size and speed and it would not surprise me at all if Streater outperformed Crabtree next year. Andre Holmes saw a lot of action last season, but never took full advantage of the time he saw. Holmes received the lowest possible RFA tender, which shows that the Raiders aren’t as high on Holmes as many would think. Holmes has great size and adds some depth. I’m a big fan of Brice Butler, who really shined during the preseason last year. Butler reportedly didn’t see a lot of time last season because of mental errors. Kenbrell Thompkins will compete with Butler for the fifth receiver job and probably the Raiders final receiver roster spot. Thompkins saw significant action with the Patriots as an undrafted rookie in 2013, but lost his job midway through last season and was picked up by the Raiders. Veteran Kris Durham has bounced around a lot and he saw some major action in 2013 with the Lions, but he didn’t impress when given an opportunity and he likely won’t make the roster. Oakland picked up rookie tight end Clive Walford in the third round and Walford is expected to take over as the Raiders top tight end right away. Walford is a good blocker and receiver and received high praise from NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, who called Walford the most explosive tight end in the draft. The Raiders spent good money to bring in blocking tight end Lee Smith from the Bills this offseason. Smith should see a lot of action as the Raiders try to fix their horrible running game. Mychal Rivera saw a lot of action as the Raiders’ top tight end last year, but he’s now strictly depth after a disappointing year. 2014 undrafted rookie Brian Leonhardt is a solid blocker, but he’ll have to fight for a roster spot after the additions of Walford and Smith.

Offensive Line

Oakland has an underrated offensive line, led by left tackle Donald Penn, an elite pass blocker who is one of the main reasons the Raiders were very effective pass blocking last year. 2014 third round pick Gabe Jackson solidified the left guard spot and is also a good pass blocker. The Raiders lost starting center Stefen Wisniewski in free agency, but they added an upgrade in Chiefs blocker Rodney Hudson, a solid all-around center. The Raiders are moving right guard Austin Howard to right tackle. Howard struggled in the first half of the season, but his improvement in the second half of the year had a role in Oakland’s strong finish. Howard has experience playing right tackle with his time with the Jets. Khalif Barnes and Menelik Watson saw time at right tackle for the Raiders last year and both struggled a lot. Barnes moved to guard this offseason and he’s the favorite to start at right guard but he’s facing competition from Matt McCants and rookie Jon Feliciano. Watson is competing with Howard for the right tackle job, but it’s unlikely that he’ll win that battle. McCants has been a reserve at tackle for the past two years and the Raiders are giving him a shot to get a starting job at guard, but he’s clearly the underdog. Feliciano, a rookie fourth round pick, will be the top backup at center if he doesn’t take over at right guard. Seventh round tackle Anthony Morris, journeyman Anthony Morris, and guards Tony Bergstrom and Lamar Mady will compete to make the roster as reserves. Oakland has an underrated line, especially on the left side and they’ll benefit from the addition of Hudson, but questions remain at right guard and right tackle.

Defense

Jack Del Rio brought in Seahawks assistant Ken Norton Jr. to help guide Oakland’s defense. Norton says he wants the Raiders defense to be fast, mean and tough, and the Raiders already have some talented players, old and young. Oakland was dead last in the league in sacks last year and they hope some fresh faces on the defensive line can help get after the quarterback better. Norton’s a players’ coach and the Raiders could benefit from having some new energy in the building.

Defensive Line

Justin Tuck is an effective all-around defensive lineman, but he’s not an elite pass rusher and only recorded five sacks last year. Oakland is looking for Tuck to return to his 2013 self that racked up 11 sacks. C.J. Wilson is solid against the run and has versatility to play both end and tackle, but the Raiders hope that second round pick Mario Edwards Jr. can come in and provide some pass rushing ability opposite Tuck. Edwards’ scouting report doesn’t really fit the mold of what the Raiders need or are looking for at defensive end, but Oakland hopes he will provide a push. Former Seahawk Benson Mayowa saw some action last year and was also effective against the run but lacking as a pass rusher. Rookie Max Valles has potential to eventually develop into a decent pass rusher, but is far from a finished project. Shelby Harris and Denico Autry add depth, but they aren’t guaranteed roster spots. I could see the Raiders attempting to bring in a free agent pass rusher like Dwight Freeney in training camp or maybe even after the season starts. Dan Williams is a massive run stuffer who will play a role similar to Terrance Knighton in Denver. Second year player Justin Ellis emerged as a solid run stopper last season and he’ll start next to Williams. Oakland doesn’t have great depth behind Ellis and Knighton. Stacy McGee and Ricky Lumpkin don’t add much value as depth. C.J. Wilson would likely see a lot of action at defensive tackle were Ellis or Williams to go down with an injury. Oakland has a decent group of run stoppers, but they lack a pure pass rusher. I wouldn’t be shocked if Oakland upgraded their depth at defensive tackle and looked at adding a pass rusher before the season started.

Linebackers

Khalil Mack was a devastating force last season and Jack Del Rio plans on using Mack in a role similar to Von Miller’s role in Denver. Mack was effective as a pass rusher last year, but he didn’t turn all of his opportunities into sacks. Mack’s also a dominant run-stopper and pretty good in coverage. Curtis Lofton adds a strong veteran presence at middle linebacker, but he’s a below average starter at this point in his career. Second year player Sio Moore is a strong and explosive, but he’s a liability in pass coverage. Ken Norton Jr., formerly the Seahawks’ linebackers coach will work to maximize what Mack, Lofton, and Moore bring to the table. Norton brought Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith with him from Seattle and Smith is a very solid reserve who can back up all three positions. Smith had a disappointing year in 2014, but he was limited by injury. The Raiders used fifth round picks on Ben Heeney and Neiron Bell, who won’t play defense right away, but will help out on special teams. Horace Miller, Spencer Hadley, and Ray-Ray Armstrong will likely compete for a roster spot based on what they can provide on special teams.

Defensive Backs

Rookie seventh round pick T.J. Carrie turned out to be the secondary’s most consistent player last season. Carrie moved around from the outside and the slot, but now he’s entering the season entrenched as Oakland’s top cornerback. Opposite Carrie the Raiders are letting Keith McGill and former first round pick D.J. Hayden fight it out. McGill, a fourth round pick from 2014, showed a lot of promise in limited playing time last season. Hayden missed the first half of the 2014 season and then struggled when he returned from injury. Carrie would likely head to the slot with Hayden and McGill manning the outside roles in three cornerback sets. Hayden, McGill, and Carrie are young and unproven, which means Oakland might have a lot of talent at cornerback, but it also means it could be lunch time for opposing quarterbacks. Depth behind the top three cornerbacks isn’t that great. The Raiders have former Panthers cornerback James Dockery, who can play outside or in the slot. They also drafted Dexter McDonald, a size/speed prospect that fits the mold of what the Raiders are looking for in their cornerbacks. They also have veterans Chimdi Chekwa and Neiko Thorpe, who haven’t seem much playing time and will be fighting for jobs as reserves and on special teams. Oakland is taking a big gamble in the play of their unproven cornerbacks. At safety, Charles Woodson returns for another season after contemplating retirement. Woodson was surprisingly effective last year, but he wasn’t a star by any means. Oakland signed former Eagles safety Nate Allen to man the job opposite Woodson. Allen had a decent year last season and he can play well stopping the run and playing center field. Brandian Ross saw a lot of action last season and he adds some nice depth. Larry Asante, Jonathan Dowling, and Ras I-Dowling will compete for one or maybe two roster spots as depth at safety.

Special Teams

The Raiders have long been considered one of the better kicking teams in the NFL and they’ll benefit from well-regarded special teams coach Brad Seely’s guidance. Sebastian Janikowski is still the Polish Cannon and he still has a monster leg, but his accuracy has never been that great. Punter Marquette King has a monster leg and should continue the Raiders tradition of solid kickers for years to come. Jon Condo will fill a roster spot as Oakland’s long-snapper. With T.J. Carrie and Latavius Murray taking bigger roles on defense and offense, respectively, Oakland will need a new kick returner. Trindon Holliday has elite speed, but has struggled handling the ball and he also doesn’t add much on offense. George Atkinson and Taiwan Jones are also options at kick returner. Holliday or Carrie could also handle punts.

Conclusion

The Raiders didn’t do enough to convince me that they won’t be a bad team again next year, but they have the potential to be better, especially if Derek Carr and their running game can show signs of life. I’m not sold Derek Carr can be anything more than a game manager in the mold of Alex Smith and I have some major concerns with their running game and their ability to get after the pass rusher. Oakland has some pieces, but I would be pretty surprised if they weren’t the worst team in the AFC West for yet another season.

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