Since losing the Super Bowl in 2002, the Raiders have been the worst team in the NFL record wise. Over the past 13 seasons, the Raiders are 63-145 with no winning seasons. However, things are finally looking up. They only went 7-9 last season, but the team took a huge step forward and it was mostly cheap, young players on rookie deals leading the way. Armed with a top of cap space, the Raiders did a great job building around their cheap, talented young players this off-season.
One of those cheap, young players was Derek Carr, their 2014 2nd round pick. Carr struggled mightily as a rookie in 2014, finishing 38th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and averaging just 5.46 yards per attempt, worst in the NFL; he was the only quarterback in the last decade to average so few yards per attempt and still make all 16 starts. However, he turned it around in a big way in 2015, completing 61.1% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, moving all the way up to 10th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. We’ll see if he can keep that up, but there’s a very good chance he can and that he can also keep getting better, only going into his age 25 season.
One part of Carr’s statistics that is misleading is his 32 touchdowns. Yes, he did throw 32 touchdowns, but the Raiders as a team only rushed for 7 touchdowns. When you take that into account, the narrative goes from one of a quarterback who frequently led touchdown drives to one of a quarterback who simply often threw around the goal line. It’s still impressive, but not as impressive as it seems out of context. In fact, the Raiders actually finished last season 23rd in rate of moving the chains, suggesting they had a slightly below average offense.
One of the big issues was their running game, as they rushed for 1457 yards on 370 carries, an average of 3.94 YPC that was 22nd in the NFL last season. That’s not horrendous, but the situation gets worse when you look at how inconsistent lead back Latavius Murray was last season. Murray rushed for 1066 yards and 6 touchdowns on 266 carries (one of just 7 running backs in the NFL last season to rush for 1000+ yards), an average of 4.01 YPC, but averaged 3.0 yards per carry or fewer in 5 games. The Raiders predictably struggled offensively in those 5 games, scoring just 69 total points.
Murray, a 2013 6th round pick, flashed in limited action in 2014, rushing for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns on 82 carries, but couldn’t carry that over to a full season as a starter. Even his 2014 numbers look a lot worse if you take out one single 90-yard carry. He’s overall an inconsistent player and one who was overstretched as a feature back last season. He largely played that role out of desperation, as the Raiders didn’t have a single other capable running back on the roster. Carr actually finished 2nd on the team in carries with 33, with the likes of Jamize Olawale, Roy Helu, and Taiwan Jones coming in 3rd, 4th, and 5th with 24, 17, and 16 carries respectively. None of those three players are real candidates for significant carries.
The Raiders spoke multiple times this off-season about adding talent at the running back position, but ultimately ended up just drafting DeAndre Washington in the 5th round. Washington is undersized at 5-8 204 and, like the rest of Oakland’s running backs, he’s not a real candidate for significant carries as a rookie, though he could enter the season as the #2 back out of desperation. One area he will help is as a pass catcher out of the backfield in obvious passing situations. Murray particularly struggled as a pass catcher last season, catching 41 passes, but on 53 targets and turning them into just 232 yards, an average of just 4.38 yards per target. The Raiders still have problems at the position.
Another one of the talented, young, cheap players that led the way for the Raiders last season is wide receiver Amari Cooper, the 4th overall pick in last year’s draft. Cooper caught 72 passes for 1030 yards and 6 touchdowns as a rookie, though he’s not quite as good as those numbers suggest, as needed 130 targets to achieve them, 18th in the NFL. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked wide receiver, not bad, but not quite as good as his raw numbers suggested.
The good news is he’s still really young with a ton of upside. Even just having 1000+ yards as a rookie is a significant accomplishment, as only 11 receivers have done that in the last 20 years. Cooper is in pretty good company: Odell Beckham, Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen, AJ Green, Marques Colston, Michael Clayton (the obvious exception), Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss, and Terry Glenn. Still not even 22 years old until June, Cooper could have a sophomore leap in 2016 and total around 1200+ receiving yards on the season.
Michael Crabtree will continue to start opposite him. Crabtree isn’t that young, but he was a steal on the one-year prove it deal (worth 3 million) that the Raiders signed him to last off-season, following 2 straight down seasons in San Francisco. Crabtree finally regained the explosiveness that looked permanently gone in 2013 and 2014, after a torn achilles suffered in May of 2013. Crabtree caught 85 passes for 922 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2015.
Like Cooper, he benefitted from a ton of targets, 146 to be exact, but Crabtree still graded out above average overall, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked wide receiver. Excluding those 2 seasons following the injury, Crabtree has graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL and has missed just 1 game with injury. The Raiders retained him long-term, giving him a 4-year, 34 million dollar extension before the end of last season. That’s a pretty reasonable value for him, especially for a team like Oakland that wasn’t hurting for cap space.
The reason why Cooper and Crabtree got so many targets last season is because the Raiders really lacked a 3rd option in the passing game. Like running back, that’s a position of need that the Raiders did not address this off-season. Instead, they’ll be hoping for a 2nd year leap from their 2015 3rd round pick, tight end Clive Walford. Walford flashed as a rookie, grading out 14th among tight ends on 447 snaps, so that’s certainly a possibility. Lee Smith actually led all Raider tight ends in snaps played last season with 516, but he’s never been a real threat in the passing game, with just 32 career catches in 71 games, including 12 last season. He’s a valuable blocking tight end in two-tight end sets though, finishing 10th among tight ends in pure run blocking grade last season and 33th overall.
The Raiders definitely lack a capable 3rd receiver behind Cooper and Crabtree though. Seth Roberts filled that role last season (playing 565 snaps) and could again this season, though he’ll face competition from Andre Holmes, who was the Raiders 4th wide receiver last season (playing 346 snaps). Both of them were horrendous last season, finishing 102nd and 103rd respectively out of 121 eligible wide receivers. Neither of them have been any better in the past either, as Roberts was an undrafted rookie last season, while Holmes graded out 91st among 110 eligible wide receivers in 2014, after flashing on 393 snaps in 2013. It’s a major position of weakness in an overall solid receiving corps.
One big need that the Raiders definitely filled this off-season is right guard, as the Raiders signed Kelechi Osemele to a 5-year, 58.5 million dollar deal. Osemele will actually slot in at left guard, moving Gabe Jackson to the other side, but, however you look at it, it’s an obvious upgrade for the Raiders upfront; Osemele was arguably the top available free agent offensive linemen this off-season. Osemele was a 2nd round pick by the Ravens in 2012 and started all 16 games at right tackle that season, grading out around average, before moving inside to guard for their Super Bowl run and excelling at the position. His 2013 season was largely lost due to injury, but he’s been one of the best guards in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, finishing 6th at the position in 2014 on Pro Football Focus and 13th in 2015. Last year he also played some left tackle, where he filled in admirably for the injured Eugene Monroe.
The Raiders originally signed Osemele to play left tackle, but then were able to re-sign incumbent left tackle Donald Penn at a reasonable price, so Osemele will go back to left guard. Penn appeared to be on the decline after the 2013 season, leading the Buccaneers to cut him, but he excelled during the past 2 years in Oakland on a 2-year, 9.2 million dollar deal, grading out 7th and 11th respectively among offensive tackles in those 2 seasons. This off-season, the Raiders were able to keep him for 14 million over 2 years. His age is a concern as he goes into his age 33 season and it’s very likely that Osemele ends up at left tackle at some point, but Penn has graded out above average in 6 straight seasons and should have a couple more strong seasons left in the tank. He was an important re-signing.
I mentioned Derek Carr and Amari Cooper as two young, cheap, talented building blocks that the Raiders have. Another one of those players is Gabe Jackson, who moves from left guard to right guard with the addition of Osemele. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Jackson has made 28 starts in 2 years in the league, including all 16 last season, and has played very well, grading out above average in both seasons, including 13th in 2015. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he’s one of the best young interior linemen in the NFL.
Veterans Rodney Hudson and Austin Howard round out the rest of this offensive line at center and right tackle respectively. Hudson, a 2011 2nd round pick, signed with Oakland on a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal last off-season. Hudson first became a starter in 2012, but missed most of that season with injury. However, he’s graded out 17th, 3rd, and 8th among centers over the last 3 seasons respectively, missing just 3 total games with injury over that time period. He’s one of the better centers in the league and should have another strong season in 2016.
Howard also played well last season, finishing the year as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked offensive tackle, but he’s a little bit less of a sure thing in 2016 because of his inconsistent history. He struggled mightily at right guard in 2014 (grading out 59th out of 78 eligible guards) in the first year of a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal and, even though he played better at right tackle in 2012 and 2013 with the Jets (32nd and 46th respectively), he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the type of dominant offensive lineman he was last season. We could see a sort of regression to the mean from him this season. However, it’s still an offensive line with no holes, following the Osemele signing, and arguably the best one in the NFL outside of Dallas.
While Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and Gabe Jackson are talented, young, cheap building blocks on the Raiders’ offense, easily the most valuable one on the roster is Khalil Mack, who is already one of the top defensive players in the NFL after just 2 seasons in the NFL. Mack, the 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, had just 4 sacks as a rookie, but still was very productive as a pass rusher in terms of hits and hurries, and was also dominant against the run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker.
In 2015, he moved to defensive end full-time, after playing 4-3 outside linebacker in base packages and 4-3 defensive end in sub packages as a rookie. He continued to play the run well and the sacks came too, as he finished the season with 15, 2nd to only JJ Watt. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked edge defender, even ahead of Von Miller, who was ultimately the Super Bowl MVP. Mack is the reason why this defense finished 15th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season, despite minimal talent around him on defense. Still only going into his age 25 season, Mack is one of my early favorites for Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.
The Raiders made an effort to surround Mack with more talent this off-season, signing several free agents to significant contracts. One of those players is Bruce Irvin, who will play the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role he played in Seattle over the past 4 years, lining up as a 3rd linebacker in base packages and then moving down to the defensive line to rush the passer off the edge in sub packages, when a 5th defensive back comes in. Irvin wasn’t their best signing, as they overpaid him on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal, but he’ll help this defense. Irvin has finished 10th, 11th, and 13th among 4-3 outside linebackers in the last 3 seasons respectively, but it’s worth noting that he’s actually graded out below average as a pass rusher in the last 2 seasons. He’ll be most valuable to the Raiders as an early down run stopper and he has the versatility to drop into coverage if needed as well.
Mario Edwards, their 2015 2nd round pick, is penciled in as the other starting defensive end in base packages, though his status for the start of the season is in doubt after suffering a hip injury in a pre-season game. When healthy, he will play defensive end base packages and also could see snaps inside in sub packages, as the 6-3 280 pounder is a bit of a tweener. Him being healthy is important for the Raiders after his impressive rookie year, in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked edge defender on 605 snaps. Getting him and Amari Cooper out of the 2015 draft and Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, and Gabe Jackson out of the 2014 draft have been huge for this team. Recent strong drafting has really turned this franchise around.
The Raiders also re-signed Aldon Smith this off-season, on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal. That’s despite the fact that Smith is currently suspended indefinitely for repeated violations of the NFL’s code of conduct. He’ll be eligible to apply for reinstatement in November, a year after he was initially suspended. He’s no lock to play at all this season and he’s probably one strike away from being permanently kicked out of the league, but his talent was too much for the Raiders to pass on.
Smith was the 7th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers and at one point had a future that looked as bright as Khalil Mack’s does now, before he started getting into trouble off-the-field. He graded out 2nd and 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers in his first 2 seasons in the league, 2011 and 2012 respectively, and did not miss a game over that time period. However, he was limited to just 18 games over the next 2 seasons because of off-the-field issues and ultimately was cut by the 49ers after another DUI last off-season, the one that ultimately got him suspended indefinitely.
Smith still played well when on the field in 2013 and 2014 though, finishing the 2013 season 5th among 3-4 outside linebackers, despite missing 5 games, and then grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker through the final 7 games of the 2014 season, after missing the first 9 with a suspension. That was enough for the Raiders to take a shot on him after the 49ers let him go last off-season, even though they knew he’d get suspended at some point, and enough for them to keep him long-term despite that. His 2015 season might have actually been the worst of his career, as he finished 33rd among edge defenders on 530 snaps.
The fact that 2015 was the worst year of his year in terms of what he did on the field just shows how valuable he is when he’s actually on the field, but, like I said, the Raiders can’t count on that this season. With both Smith a long-term question mark, the Raiders used their 3rd round pick on defensive end Shilique Calhoun out of Michigan State as insurance, a very good value at that point in the draft. With so much depth at defensive end, it’s possible that Irvin ends up seeing fewer snaps at defensive end in the future, if Calhoun comes into his own and Smith can ever stay out of trouble. Even without Smith, Calhoun is unlikely to see serious snaps as a rookie on a deep defensive line, as Mack and Edwards will play base packages and Mack and Irvin will play sub packages.
Along with using their 3rd round pick on the defensive line, the Raiders also used a 2nd round pick on the unit, though I didn’t like that value as much. The Raiders took Jihad Ward, a defensive tackle out of Illinois, #44 overall. It wasn’t just that Ward wasn’t worth a 2nd round pick (Pro Football Focus had a 5th round grade on him), but this was also a loaded defensive tackle class, so the Raiders passed on some guys that I thought had borderline first round talent to take Ward there, including A’Shawn Robinson (who went #46 to Detroit), Jarran Reed (who went #49 to Seattle), and Jonathan Bullard (who went #72 to Chicago).
Ward will compete with the likes of Justin Ellis, Denico Autry, and Stacy McGee for snaps as a rookie. Ellis and Autry played pretty well last season, both grading out above average, but the former is only a base package run stopper at 6-2 335 and the latter is only a sub package pass rusher at 6-5 274. Both are also one-year wonders. McGee, meanwhile, was horrible, finishing the year as Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked interior defender out of 123 eligible on 408 snaps. The 2013 6th round pick has always been horrible whenever he’s played in his career and should not be considered a lock for the final roster with Ward coming in.
Dan Williams is locked into the same role he played last season, in the first year of a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal. Williams, a first round pick in 2010 by the Cardinals, never played more than 428 snaps in any of his 5 years in Arizona, but graded out above average in 4 of those 5 years, including 14th among defensive tackles in 2014 on 427 snaps. The Raiders gave him more playing time in his first year in Oakland and were rewarded for it, as he finished 15th among interior defenders on 568 snaps, after signing for 25 million over 4 years this off-season. He’s primarily a base package player at 6-2 330, but he does have some pass rush ability. Mario Edwards could come in for him in a lot of sub packages, to give him a rest and allow him to focus on stuffing the run on early downs, but he’s proven he’s capable of playing significant snaps. He’s part of an overall very deep defensive line, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack.
These are unfortunately not nearly as good in the linebacking corps. I’ve already gone into detail about Bruce Irvin, but the rest of the group is a mess. Curtis Lofton was cut this off-season, one-year and 9 million dollars into a “3-year, 18 million dollar deal” and that’s addition by subtraction, as he finished last season 94th among 97 eligible linebackers. However, Ben Heeney, who will replace him at middle linebacker, is very inexperienced, though he did flash on 315 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2015.
Still, he’s an obvious projection to an every down role. Making matters worse, Malcolm Smith, the every down outside linebacker, isn’t any good either. Smith is arguably the most random Super Bowl MVP in NFL history (winning in 2013 with the Seahawks), but, aside from that one game, hasn’t really done much else in his career. Smith didn’t even play half of the snaps in that game (34 of 71); he just made a few splash plays that we remember (that were caused by tremendous pressure upfront by the Seattle defensive line). Smith played well in limited action in 2013, but has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL, since being drafted in the 7th round in 2011, including 36th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on 286 snaps in 2014 and 57th out of 97 eligible linebackers on 1141 snaps in 2015, his first full season as an every down starter. Going into his 2nd year as a starter, he should continue to struggle.
As I mentioned in the defensive line section, if Aldon Smith can get it together off-the-field and Shilique Calhoun comes into his own, Bruce Irvin may see fewer snaps as a defensive end in the future. Another benefit of doing that is it allows him to play more as a traditional linebacker. His pass rush ability is okay, but he’s the Raiders’ best run stopping linebacker and arguably their best coverage linebacker. For now, Heeney and Smith will have to play every down roles, as the only linebacker the Raiders added this off-season was 6th round pick Cory James. It’s still a position of weakness.
While the Raiders did not do much of anything to upgrade their linebacking corps, they clearly made upgrading their secondary a big priority this off-season and for good reason. After adding veterans Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson in free agency and Karl Joseph with the 14th overall pick in the draft, this is easily the Raiders’ most improved unit. Once a poor secondary, the Raiders’ secondary is now a strength. Joseph (a safety out of West Virginia) was a surprise pick at #14 overall. It’s not that he didn’t have the talent to go that high, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL that cost him most of the 2015 season, so many expected him to go late in the first round, if he went in the first round at all. The Raiders clearly have no concerns about his knee though. He returned for training camp, though missing the earlier parts of the off-season program could hurt his development, and there’s no guarantee he’s the same player as he was before the injury. He should start week 1, but it was a risky pick.
Reggie Nelson, who will start at the other safety spot, is in the latter stages of his career, going into his age 33 season, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked safety last season, so he could have a couple more solid seasons left in the tank. That’s far from a given, but he’s graded out above average in each of the past 6 seasons, maxing out at 7th in 2012, and he was a tremendous value on a 2-year, 8.5 million dollar deal for a team that desperately needed safety help, following the retirement of incumbent starter Charles Woodson.
Sean Smith is a younger free agent signing, coming over from Kansas CIty on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal. He’ll immediately be the Raiders #1 cornerback and he’s still in the prime of his career, going into his age 29 season. He’s had some up and downs in his career and the 2009 2nd round pick is already going into his 8th year in the league and his 3rd contract (spending the first 4 years of his career in Miami, then the last 3 in Kansas CIty), but he’s graded out above average in 5 of those 7 seasons, including 5th among cornerbacks in 2014 and 12th among cornerbacks in 2015.
David Amerson will remain the starter on the other side. He was arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL last season. A 2nd round pick by the Redskins in 2013, Amerson looked lost in 2 seasons in Washington, finishing 84th out of 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013, and dead last among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014, leading to the Redskins waiving him in mid-September. However, he shockingly put it all together last season in Oakland, after the Raiders claimed him on waivers, finishing 14th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. His 25 pass deflections were 2nd most in the NFL, despite the fact that he made just 12 starts.
Amerson has always had tremendous upside and has size and length that makes secondary coaches salivate at 6-1 205 (which allows him to deflect so many passes), but he looked like a lost cause 2 years into his career, so his 2015 season was shocking. Only going into his age 25 season, Amerson could continue to develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, though he’s still a one-year wonder at this point. The Raiders do not seem concerned, giving him a 4-year, 33 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal this off-season. If he can continue to play at a high level going forward, it’s a steal, but it’s a risky deal.
The only job up for grabs in the Raiders secondary is the 3rd cornerback job; DJ Hayden and TJ Carrie will compete for snaps. Carrie and Hayden made a combined 27 starts last season, but that won’t be necessary this year, with Smith coming in and Amerson coming into his own. Both struggled, finishing 87th and 105th respectively among 111 eligible cornerbacks, but Carrie was at least better as 7th round rookie in 2014, grading out above average on 568 snaps. Hayden, meanwhile, has been a massive bust since the Raiders took him in the first round in 2013. He missed 14 games with injury in the first 2 seasons of his career and then last season, when he finally played all 16 games, he was horrible. Carrie is likely the favorite for the job, in an overall much improved secondary.
The Raiders arguably added more talent any team in the league this off-season, bringing in Kelechi Osemele, Bruce Irvin, Reggie Nelson, and Sean Smith in free agency and not losing anyone of note. They also have a core of young players that could be even better in 2016. In a weak AFC where New England and Pittsburgh are both missing key players due to injury and suspension, while Denver and Cincinnati suffered significant off-season losses, the Raiders are sneaky one of the best teams in the conference. Almost every season one team goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye. Oakland should be considered the favorite to do so this season.
Prediction: 10-6 1st in AFC West