Oakland Raiders 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Since losing the Super Bowl in 2002, the Raiders have been the worst team in the NFL, record wise. Over the past 12 seasons, the Raiders are 56-136 with no winning seasons and just two seasons of more than 5 wins. It’s easy to point to the quarterback position as the reason why. They’ve certainly had other problems, but it’s very hard to win games when your quarterbacks play as badly as the Raiders’ have over the past dozen years. They’ve completed just 56.3% of their passes for an average of 6.47 YPA, 191 touchdowns, and 203 interceptions over that time period. Their best quarterbacked season in terms of quarterback rating over that time period (among quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes in a season), was by Carson Palmer, who completed 61.1% of his passes for an average of 7.11 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 2012.

So it’s safe to say the Raiders and their fans are the NFL equivalent of a really drunk guy in the bar at 3 am who will go home with anything, as far as the quarterback position is concerned. And he sees her, a 3.5, and he’s overjoyed. That’s Derek Carr. There are a lot of reasons to like Carr. He was their first quarterback to start all 16 games in 12 years last season, as a 2nd round rookie. He’s young, only going into his 2nd season in the league, an age 24 season. The organization seems to like him as he’s gone through 2 coaching changes in his short career thus far (Dennis Allen to Tony Sparano to Jack Del Rio) and there hasn’t been any doubt about him keeping his job since he first got it, even after he started last season 0-10. His 21 touchdowns last season were the 2nd most in a season by a Raider quarterback since 2003 (behind 2012 Palmer).

However, he really didn’t play well. He graded out 38th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks last season on Pro Football Focus and led an offense that ranked dead last in rate of moving the chains differential, both regular and schedule adjusted. His 21 touchdowns were nice, but the offense itself only scored 26 touchdowns so Carr was more of a touchdown hog than someone who was consistently quarterbacking long touchdown drives. He kept interceptions down to 12, which is nice, but his completion percentage and YPA average, which tell more about what happens on every pass, were really bad. His 58.1 completion percentage was 6th worst among eligible quarterbacks, and his 5.46 YPA average was dead last in the NFL. No other eligible quarterback was even under 6 YPA.

Over the past 10 years, quarterbacks who average less than 6 YPA have a combined 112-323-1 record. Among quarterbacks who have averaged 5.5 YPA or fewer in a season over the past decade, Carr is the only one who managed to do that and still start all 16 games and one of 6 quarterbacks to start 10+ games. The other 5 combined to make 26 starts the following season. A quarterback struggling as much as Carr did last season and not getting any competition for his job is virtually unprecedented in the modern era of passing offenses and a testament to Oakland’s utter desperation at the quarterback position over the past 12 seasons.

Carr is still young, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. However, he’d have to improve significantly to get above that 6 YPA mark. That’s a difference of 324 yards over 599 pass attempts. On top of that, there’s no guarantee Carr really ever turns it around, given the history of quarterbacks drafted outside of the 1st round of the draft. Recent successes of Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, and Russell Wilson as quarterbacks drafted outside of the first round are the exception to the rule.

Of the 29 quarterbacks drafted in the 2nd-3rd round from 2000-2011, only three of them have ever made a Pro-Bowl. After Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, and Matt Schaub, the next best quarterbacks in terms of career QB rating include the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Tarvaris Jackson, Josh McCown, Kevin Kolb, and Chad Henne. For every Wilson, Dalton, or Kaepernick, there are at least three Andrew Walters, David Greenes, Jimmy Clausens, and Drew Stantons. Quarterbacks are so valuable in the NFL that if you have the baseline abilities to be a starter, you almost never fall out of the 1st round. If you fall out of the first round, there’s usually a good reason for it.

If Carr continues to struggle, the Raiders don’t really have another option they could turn to even if they wanted to (which they likely won’t, even if Carr doesn’t improve). Christian Ponder was signed this off-season to be and, unlike Matt Schaub last season, who was paid well and who was at least at one point seen as a starting option for the Raiders, Ponder is a true backup. Ponder will make just 2.25 million this season and has played in just 11 games in 2 seasons since a disastrous 2012 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked quarterback out of 38 eligible (the fact that the 2012 Vikings made the playoffs with Ponder at quarterback is insane and a testament to Adrian Peterson’s incredible year). The 2011 1st round pick has completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.30 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in his career.

Grade: D

Receiving Corps

If the Raiders’ offense improves significantly this season, it’ll be because the Raiders upgraded Carr’s supporting cast. Armed with a fair amount of cap space and the 4th overall pick in the draft, the Raiders’ biggest signing and their top pick were both on the offensive side of the ball. Amari Cooper, one of the top wide receiver prospects of the past few years, was the selection 4th overall, after the Raiders struck out on both Randall Cobb and Jeremy Maclin in free agency. Cooper instantly becomes the top receiver in a receiving corps that had just one wide receiver or tight end grade out above average on Pro Football Focus last season.

However, anyone expecting him to have a huge statistical year based on what guys like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin did last year is short sighted. Sure, it’s easier to pass the football than it’s ever been in the NFL, but last year’s rookie receiver class was arguably the best ever and historically it’s not realistic to expect a receiver to come into the NFL and put up 1000+ yards as a rookie. Only 11 rookie wideouts have done so in the last 20 years and three of those were last season.

Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Now, Cooper isn’t the average first round rookie wideout, but he’s far from a lock for 1000+ yards as a rookie or even 800+ yards, as he’ll also be limited by poor quarterback play. He’ll definitely help this offense right away, but the Raiders won’t suddenly become a significantly more effective offense just because Cooper is in town.

After Cooper on the depth chart, things are unclear and talent is limited. Michael Crabtree was signed in free agency. Given his 3 million dollar salary and his history of being a starter in San Francisco (since he entered the league in 2009), he seems like the most likely one to start opposite Cooper. The problem is he isn’t as good as he used to be, thanks to a May 2013 torn Achilles that seems to have derailed his career. There’s a reason he drew such limited interest on the open market, settling for a 1-year deal after expecting multi-year deals in the range of what Torrey Smith, who replaced him in San Francisco, ended up getting (5 years, 40 million).

Crabtree was great in 2012, finally living up to expectations as the 10th overall pick in 2009. He caught 85 passes for 1105 yards and 9 touchdowns on 118 targets (72.0%) and 433 routes run (an average of 2.55 yards per route run) that season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver. He was even better down the stretch that season, catching 61 passes for 880 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final 10 games, including playoffs. That’s 98 catches for 1408 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games.

Then came that torn Achilles. He caught just 19 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown in 5 games in 2013 (34 catches for 487 yards and a touchdown in 8 games if you count playoffs) and then was even worse on a per game basis in 2014. He played all 16 games, but caught just 68 passes for 698 yards and 4 touchdowns on 102 targets (66.7%) and 474 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). His per game yardage numbers in 2014 were the worst of his career and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 95th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. 2012 remains his only 1000+ yard season and he’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 6 seasons, including each of the last 2 seasons. There’s some bounce back potential, but he looks like a marginal starter right now, especially after largely drawing crickets in free agency, as teams generally felt his explosiveness was permanently gone.

The Raiders do have solid depth at the position as Brice Butler, Andre Holmes, and Rod Streater will compete for the #3 job. None of those players are great, but you could do a lot worse than those as your #3, #4, and #5 guys (in some order). Holmes was actually leading their leading receiver last year with 47 catches for 693 yards and 4 touchdowns and he seems like the obvious favorite for the #3 role for that reason. Holmes, a 2011 undrafted free agent, flashed in his first career action in 2013, grading out above average on 393 snaps and catching 22 passes for 366 yards and 1 touchdown in his final 5 games. However, he couldn’t translate that to a full season in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. Just a situational deep threat, Holmes caught 51.6% of targets in 2014.

Streater is a little bit more proven. Also a former undrafted free agent (2012), Streater caught 60 passes for 888 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2013, grading out above average, after grading out below average as a rookie. Unfortunately, he broke his foot in 2014 and was limited to just 9 catches in 3 games. If he’s healthy, he should be able to push Holmes for that #3 job. It’s also possible that the Raiders trade one of them for a late round pick, as both are heading into contract years. Brice Butler is also in the mix. The 2013 7th round pick graded out below average as a rookie, but flashed last season and actually was the only Raider wide receiver or tight end to grade out above average last season, albeit on just 278 snaps. He’ll probably get a bigger role in 2016 and beyond with Holmes, Streater, and Crabtree all scheduled for free agency next off-season.

Things aren’t good at tight end either. Mychal Rivera, a 2013 6th round pick, was completely overmatched as the starting tight end last season, both as a run blocker and a pass catcher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. He was better as a rookie, but in more limited action and he was only a 6th round pick so it’s very possible that he’ll never develop into anything more than a depth player. He could easily be pushed for the starting job by 3rd round rookie Clive Walford, which should say a lot about how much Rivera struggled last season.

Lee Smith will be in the mix for snaps as well, after he was brought in during free agency. The 6-6 269 pounder is a powerful run blocker, but has just 20 catches for 144 yards and 3 touchdowns in 4 seasons in the league since getting drafted in the 5th round in 2011. The Raiders gave him a 3-year, 9.1 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests they really value his skill set, but he’s not the type of guy who will be in the mix for a significant role or a starting job because of how limited of a player he is. It’s an improved receiving corps overall from last season, but they won’t provide Carr a ton of help.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

While the Raiders struck out on Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb this off-season, they were able to land a big-time free agent on their offensive line, signing Rodney Hudson to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal that was at the time the richest deal ever for a center in NFL history. He doesn’t quite deserve it, but he’s a very good player and the Raiders had both the cap space and the need to overpay him. He’ll replace Stefen Wisniewski, an average starting center who signed a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal in Jacksonville this off-season. Wisniewski was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked center out of 41st eligible last season as he dealt with a bad shoulder.

Hudson will be a significant upgrade on him. A 2011 2nd round pick, he flashed on 136 snaps in various positions as a 2nd round rookie in 2011, before moving to center full-time in 2012. However, Hudson played just 3 games that year before going down for the season, though he showed well when healthy. Since then, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, grading out 17th among centers in 2013 and 3rd in 2014. He’s a solid player and one of the better centers in the game, though still someone I would rank behind the likes of Nick Mangold, Jason Kelce, Alex Mack, and possibly Ryan Kalil and Max Unger.

Austin Howard was the Raiders’ big off-season signing on the offensive line last off-season, as they brought him over from the Jets on a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal. Howard was a solid starter in New York in 2012 and 2013, making all 32 starts and grading out 32nd and 47th respectively among offensive tackles in 2013 and 2014. However, the Raiders made the asinine decision to move him inside to guard even though he’s not a natural fit for the interior at 6-7 333 and it really didn’t pay off, as he graded out 59th out of 78 eligible guards.

He’s expected to move back to right tackle this season, in an effort to get his career turned back around. Right tackle is another spot where the Raiders had a lot of issues last season. Splitting time, Khalif Barnes and Menelik Watson graded out 58th and 71st respectively out of 84 eligible offensive tackles last season. Howard should be an upgrade. The issue is the Raiders didn’t really find an upgrade at the right guard spot, so the veteran Barnes is currently penciled in as the starter there. Barnes has graded out below average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, including 62nd out of 81 eligible guards in 2013. Going into his age 33 season, Barnes is not a starting caliber player, but the Raiders don’t really have much of another option. 4th round rookie Jon Feliciano is more of an option in 2016 and beyond.

Things are better on the left side of the line than the right. While the Raiders are hoping they struck gold in the middle rounds with Feliciano on the right side, they actually did strike gold in the middle rounds last year on the left side with Gabe Jackson, a 2014 3rd round pick who made 12 starts and graded out above average as a rookie. A better pass protector than run blocker, Jackson is one of the few young building blocks the Raiders have right now. He’s obviously only a one year wonder, but he should continue being a solid starter in 2015 and beyond.

The Raiders also got strong play at left tackle as veteran Donald Penn had a vintage year, grading out 7th among offensive tackles. Penn has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but appeared to be on the decline in 2013, which is why the Buccaneers cut him and replaced him with the younger Anthony Collins, who flopped mightily in his first and only season in Tampa Bay and got cut this off-season. The Buccaneers’ loss was the Raiders’ gain. Penn is going into his age 32 season and has a history of weight problems so I don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did last season, which was arguably the best season of his career, but he should once again be a strong blindside protector. With Penn, Jackson, and Hudson, the Raiders have a solid offensive line, but their issues on the right side can’t be ignored.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One player the Raiders are really hoping can give their offense a boost this season is running back Latavius Murray. It’s easy to see why. The Raiders averaged 3.68 yards per carry last season, 27th in the NFL, but Murray averaged 5.17 yards per carry on his 84 carries. The 2013 6th round pick had incredible measurables, running a 4.38 at his Pro Day (he wasn’t invited to the combine) at 6-2 223. However, upon further examination, Murray was not as good as that average suggested.

Murray’s signature moment last season was a 90 yard carry against Kansas City, but that’s just what happened on one snap. Excluding that run, Murray averaged just 4.12 yards per carry. I’m not trying to discount that impressive run, but it is an outlier. You can’t expect him to have one carry of 90+ yards every 84 carries. Murray had that carry in his first NFL start against Kansas City, but ended up leaving that game with a concussion and missing the next game, so he finished that game with 112 yards on 4 carries, which is obviously impressive.

However, when he regained his starting job upon his return, Murray struggled as an every down back. He rushed for just 258 yards on 68 carries (an average of 3.79 YPC) and added 11 catches for 108 yards, while grading out below average on the season. The Raiders also didn’t exactly see a boost in offensive performance in the final 4 games of the season. While they went 2-2 in those 4 games, their offense only moved the chains at a 61.21% rate, which is actually worse than their overall rate on the season.

There are a number of factors at play obviously and he certainly shouldn’t be blamed for their offense being slightly worse in the final 4 games, but it’s important to note. I still expect him to be better than the likes of Darren McFadden (3.45 YPC) and Maurice Jones-Drew (2.23 YPC) were last season, especially since the Raiders figure to be a better run blocking team this season, but it’s really important to temper expectations with this kid and remember that he’s a former 6th round pick with an injury history (he missed all of 2013 with injury) who is unproven beyond one carry and struggled as the feature back down the stretch last season. Anyone expecting him to carry this offense out of the cellar isn’t looking at the bigger picture.

The Raiders didn’t do a whole lot this off-season in the way of adding competition for him. While they were loosely linked to the likes of DeMarco Murray and Adrian Peterson this off-season, they ended up settling for guys like Roy Helu and Trent Richardson. The Helu signing I liked, as I thought he was a great value at 4 million over 2 years. Roy Helu only has 255 carries in 4 seasons since the Redskins drafted him in the 4th round in 2011, but he’s averaged 4.44 yards per carry and where he really provides value is as a 3rd down back. In 48 career games, Helu has 129 catches for 1152 yards and 3 touchdowns and he’s been a top-5 pass blocking running back in 2 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, extremely valuable in today’s NFL. He’ll complement the young Murray well as a passing down back and I hope that, if Murray struggles as the feature back to start the season, Helu is given more early down chances.

The Trent Richardson signing I’m less excited about, but the Raiders only guaranteed him a 600K signing bonus, so it wasn’t a bad signing, as the Raiders are taking a chance on a guy who was the 3rd overall pick in 2012. However, Richardson has been a disaster thus far in his career. He had what seemed like a promising rookie year in Cleveland in 2012, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus, catching 51 passes and scoring 11 touchdowns on a bad Browns team. He averaged just 3.56 yards per carry and 7.20 yards per catch, but he had 59 broken tackles on 318 touches and averaged 2.09 yards per carry after contact, giving him the #7 elusive rating among eligible running backs, so it was easy to blame his offensive line for his lack of efficiency.

Unfortunately, things never got better for Richardson. He was traded for a 1st round pick to the Colts early in 2013. Many thought the Browns were selling low and getting rid of a #3 overall pick too soon, but it turns out they were selling high on a guy whose stock was about to plummet. Trent Richardson’s tenure with the Colts went about as bad as it could have. After they acquired him mid-season in 2013 for what turned out to be the 26th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Richardson rushed for 977 yards and 6 touchdowns on 316 carries (3.09 YPC) in his 2 years with the Colts.

He also has had issues with the coaching staff, which got him suspended by the team for their playoff game against New England and the first week of next season (he’ll be eligible to play week 1 for the Raiders though because it was a team suspension not a league suspension). Even though his salary was guaranteed for 2015, the Colts still cut him, as they didn’t see him as being worth their 53 man roster. Richardson has still great strength and toughness and breaks a ton of tackles (162 on 727 touches), but he has a career 3.31 YPC average as a result of his absolute lack of burst and his embarrassingly poor ability to find holes. He can break tackles and run through contact, but his playing style is way too inviting to contact behind the line of scrimmage. Between that and his issues with coaches in Indianapolis, I don’t have a lot of hope for the Trent Richardson era in Oakland. I expect the Raiders to struggle to run the football and overall move the football once again this season.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Raiders’ offense was terrible last season, their defense wasn’t bad, as they ranked 16th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their offense was so bad that it was hard to tell they had a solid defense, as their defense was 6th in time on the field. Their offense was also the reason they went 3-13 and ranked dead last in rate of moving the chains differential, despite a solid defense. It was really one player on defense who elevated their level of play. Of 13 Oakland defenders to play more than 400 snaps this season, only two of them graded out positively, veteran Justin Tuck, who was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 4-3 defensive end, and Khalil Mack, the 5th overall pick in 2014 and someone I argued should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Mack was technically a 4-3 outside linebacker last season, ranking #1 at his position, but he did his most important work rushing the passer off the edge of the defensive line in sub packages, playing the Von Miller role. Interestingly enough, Miller ranked #1 among 4-3 outside linebackers, one spot ahead of Von Miller, who had his 3-year reign as the top 4-3 outside linebacker snapped by the rookie Mack last season, a reign that had dated back to Miller’s rookie year in 2011. If Mack keeps this up, the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role in a 4-3 might have to be renamed the Khalil Mack role, rather than the Von Miller role, especially with Miller switching to 3-4 outside linebacker in Denver’s new defense. Along with fellow rookie, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Mack was the first rookie to grade out #1 at his position on either side of the ball since Miller did so in 2011.

Mack only had 4 sacks on the season, but his pass rush numbers were better than his sack totals as he also managed 10 hits and 40 hurries. That still means his pass rush productivity was significantly worse than Miller’s, as Miller had 15 sacks, 11 hits, and 47 hurries, giving him a pass rush productivity of 11.8, while Mack was at 9.1. However, Miller had the luxury of playing with a lot of leads on a Peyton Manning quarterbacked team, giving him more easy pass rush situations. Mack also was significantly better than Miller as a run stopper.

Besides, any time you’re the best player on a competent defense despite your only good teammate being Justin Tuck, you’re doing something right. Mack should once again have a strong season in his 2nd season in the league, especially now that Jack Del Rio, Miller’s defensive coordinator in Denver from 2011-2013, is the head coach. He might not be quite as good, but it’s clear he’s one of the top few defensive players in the game. It’ll be up to the rest of the defense to improve around him.

In base situations, when Mack plays outside linebacker, veteran Justin Tuck and rookie Mario Edwards will be the starters at defensive end. Tuck and Edwards have similar frames (6-5 268 and 6-3 279 respectively), similar games (Tuck is obviously more proven), and will play similar roles this season. Both player are base 4-3 defensive ends who can rush the passer from the inside, which opens up room for Mack to rush the passer off the edge in sub packages. Tuck, as I mentioned, was the 2nd best player on this defense last season, grading out 17th among 4-3 defensive ends. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, but he’s going into his age 32 season so he’s hard to trust going forward. He should have one more solid year in the tank, good news for the Raiders as he’s going into his contract year, but there are no guarantees.

Both Tuck and Edwards will some sub packages outside, but the likes of Sio Moore and Ben Mayowa will also see a fair amount of sub package edge rush snaps. Mayowa, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has played 394 snaps in 2 seasons in the NFL, 370 of which were last season in a similar role. He had 235 pass rush snaps, but struggled overall, especially struggling as a pass rusher. Moore, meanwhile, played a similar role to Khalil Mack and Von Miller as a rookie in 2013, playing outside linebacker in base packages and defensive end in sub packages. He graded out 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookies, though he struggled as a pass rusher. In 2014, he graded out below average overall and only saw 73 pass rush snaps, but he should see more (in the 100 range) this season.

It’s a good thing that Tuck and Edwards can play defensive tackle in sub packages because the Raiders don’t have a lot of depth at that position. Antonio Smith and Pat Sims were 1st and 3rd among defensive tackles in snaps played last season, playing 791 and 429 respectively. Both graded out below average last season and now are gone. Justin Ellis, who played 635 snaps last season, remains. The 2014 4th round pick graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season, but the Raiders really like him long-term and there’s a chance he improves going forward.

Dan Williams was brought in to replace Sims. Dan Williams was a first round pick by the Cardinals in 2010 as a 6-2 327 pounder with rare movement and pass rush abilities for his size. Williams never quite lived up to his billing, maxing out at 428 snaps and primarily just playing in base packages, but he graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons and he had his best season in his contract year in 2014. He played all 16 games for the first time in his career and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle on just 427 snaps. On top of that, he actually graded out above average as a pass rusher, something he’s done in each of the last 2 seasons after grading out below average in that aspect in each of his first 3 seasons. It’s possible his best football is still ahead of him, going into his age 28 season.

They didn’t really bring in a replacement for Antonio Smith, so Stacy McGee will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season. McGee struggled mightily as a 6th round rookie in 2013, grading out 59th out of 69 eligible defensive tackles on just 354 snaps. He played just 120 snaps in 2014, but he still struggled mightily. He’s still young, but he’s only a former 6th round pick so there’s a good chance he never improves. He’s not someone who you want playing a significant role on your defensive line. However, the Raiders do have a strong defensive front overall, especially when Mack is rushing off the edge.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, in base packages Sio Moore and Khalil Mack will be the starters at outside linebacker. In sub packages, Mack will move to the defensive line. Moore might also play on the defensive end in sub packages, as he did as a rookie. That’s because the Raiders brought in Malcolm Smith as a free agent and he can play outside linebacker in sub packages. Malcolm Smith, the ex-Seahawk, follows his former linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. to Oakland, where he is now the defensive coordinator.

Malcolm Smith was Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl 48, one of the more anonymous Super Bowl MVP’s in NFL history. Smith played a good game, but there were more deserving candidates, as Smith didn’t even play half the snaps in that game (34 of 71). He just happened to make a few splash plays that we remember. Smith also wasn’t even a starter that season, playing just 490 snaps. He was still Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker that season, despite the limited action, with no one playing more snaps and grading out better. However, he’s still graded out above average in just 2 of 4 seasons and he’s only once played more than 286 snaps in a season. Last season, he graded out 36th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on just 286 snaps, with no one else playing fewer snaps and grading worse. A coverage athlete at 6-0 226, Smith will probably play outside in sub packages.

The only player who is expected to play all three downs at linebacker is Curtis Lofton, which isn’t good because he’s really struggled over the past few years. Lofton was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 in the final year of his rookie deal with the Falcons, which landed him a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal from the Saints the following off-season. However, he graded out below average in all 3 seasons with the Saints, with his worst year coming last year, as he graded out 57th out of 60 eligible.

That led to his release, a move that saved the Saints 7.25 million in cash. The Raiders massively overpaid him, giving him a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Curtis Lofton finished 4th in the NFL in tackles with 145 last season. Given the size of his new deal, I assume the Raiders didn’t actually watch Lofton play last season and just looked at the tackle stats. His 22 missed tackles led the NFL regardless of position and a lot of his tackles were him cleaning up broken plays after big gains on a New Orleans defense that was arguably the NFL’s worst in 2014. He should be better than Miles Burris, who graded out dead last among middle linebackers last season, but he’s a weak spot on an overall solid front 7.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While the Raiders finished 3-13 last season, they did have a strong draft last year, which is going to be helpful for the future. Even though Carr is overrated, the Raiders did find an absolute stud on defense in the first round in Khalil Mack, a starting left guard in the 3rd round in Gabe Jackson, and a decent contributor upfront on the defensive line in Justin Ellis. On top of that, they also found a promising young cornerback named TJ Carrie in the 7th round.

Carrie made 4 starts as a rookie, played 568 snaps, and graded out about average, which is most much than you can expect from a 7th round rookie. It’s possible that was a flash in the pan and it’s still important to remember that we’re a year removed from the whole league letting him drop to the 7th round, but he has promise, especially with Ken Norton Jr. coming over from Seattle, where they’ve had a ton of success with big cornerbacks. Carrie has ideal size at 6-0 204.

The Raiders tried more of a veteran approach last season, bringing in the likes of Donald Penn, Justin Tuck, James Jones, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, LaMarr Woodley, and Antonio Smith last off-season. Woodley, Smith, and Jones all got cut this off-season, while Brown and Rogers left as free agents. Tuck and Penn worked out, but the cost of the other 5 veterans who didn’t work out was they weren’t able to get young talent valuable playing time last season, which hurts this rebuilding project.

The Raiders are going with more of a youth based approach this season, particularly at cornerback. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers played 1000 and 477 snaps respectively last season, grading out below average. Carrie will move into a starting role with those two gone and another young player, DJ Hayden, will be the other starter. Hayden, in contrast to Carrie, was a 1st round pick, but he’s struggled mightily in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in 2013. He’s graded out below average in both seasons and he’s also missed 14 games in the two seasons combined. It’s too early to write him off as a bust and he’s a talented player who could turn it around in his 3rd year in the league, but step number 1 for him will be staying healthy, which is hardly a given. In two years in the league, he’s played just 956 snaps (10 starts) and maxed out at 10 games in a season.

The Raiders will need him to stay healthy because their depth is really suspect. Keith McGill and James Dockery will compete for the #3 job. McGill is a 2014 4th round pick who played 147 nondescript snaps as a rookie, while James Dockery is a 2011 undrafted free agent who has played 283 snaps in 4 seasons in the league. After those two on the depth chart, it’s a mix of special teamer Taiwan Jones, 7th round rookie Dexter McDonald, and a bunch of undrafted free agents. The Raiders are hoping that McGill can make a big 2nd year leap this off-season, but if he doesn’t, they might need to bring in a veteran. Brown and Rogers are both still available, but there’s a reason for that as both are 30+ and coming off of mediocre seasons. Getting even replacement level performance from either of those two should be considered a win.

Things are more established at safety. The Raiders gave veteran Nate Allen a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal. It’s an overpay, but Allen has progressed from being the laughing stock he once was in Philadelphia earlier in his career.  It’s certainly a risky move by the Raiders, but if Allen plays like he did last season, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked safety, he’ll be worth it (or like he did in 2011 when he was 18th at his position). His history can’t be ignored though.

Nate Allen has been a starter with the Eagles for 5 seasons since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010. Over that period of time, he’s played 74 of a possible 80 games, including 70 starts, but he has been up and down, grading out below average in 3 of 5 seasons and never having back-to-back above average seasons. His worst year came in 2012, when he graded out 84th out of 88 eligible safeties. That being said, his terrible 2012 is more than 2 years ago, he’s coming off a solid season, and he’s an experienced starter, so, all things considered, he should help this team this season.

The other starter is as veteran as it gets as 39-year-old Charles Woodson is entering his 18th season out of Michigan. Woodson is a veteran Hall-of-Famer who started his career in Oakland, went to Green Bay, and now is back in Oakland as a safety, after spending most of his career at cornerback. He’s shockingly made 32 of 32 starts for the Raiders over the past 2 seasons, the only player at any position who can say that, and the fact that he is still in the league is a testament to the kind of football player he is. However, it’s really tough to count on someone his age. Last season, he graded out 68th out of 87 eligible safeties and could see his abilities fall off a cliff this season.

If he struggles, the only one the Raiders have to turn to is Brandian Ross, who graded out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties in 2013 and 55th out of 87 eligible in 2014. He’s experienced, but he’s also the reason the Raiders brought in Nate Allen this off-season. It’s a weak secondary again for the Raiders overall, but the defense will be once again propped up by a solid front 7. The Raiders will need their offense to step it up though, if they’re going to climb out of the AFC West cellar.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Raiders are getting better, but there’s still not a ton of talent here. The defense should be decent again, but I don’t see the offense stepping it up significantly, even though Derek Carr, Latavius Murray, and Amari Cooper all have some hype around them. Carr struggled mightily as a rookie, Murray is unproven and wasn’t as good as his numbers suggested last year, while Cooper could take a year to breakout as a top level receiver. This team should once again be in the NFL’s cellar. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Raiders after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 3-13 4th in AFC West

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