Oakland Raiders 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Prior to last season, I predicted a breakout season for the Raiders in 2016, expecting them to not just make the post-season for the first time since 2002, but also for them to finish with one of the top-2 seeds in the conference and a first round bye in the playoffs. That didn’t quite happen, but that’s because they lost Derek Carr for the season with a broken leg week 16 and then lost the division on a tiebreaker to the 12-4 Chiefs when they lost to the Broncos without Carr the following week. Carr went 12-3 in his 15 starts, but without him the Raiders couldn’t win in Houston as the #5 seed and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Even though they had a strong record, the Raiders were not as good as I expected them to be in 2016 and likely would not have gone on a deep run in the post-season even with Carr. Eight of their 12 victories came by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less, and their point differential of +31 was just behind non-playoff teams in the Eagles and Ravens (both at +36). That’s despite the fact that they finished with a league best +16 turnover margin. Turnovers tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Raiders won’t be able to count on that again in 2017.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders finished just 19th and had just one more offensive touchdown than their opponents all season. They finished 15th in first down rate and 23rd in first down rate allowed, though their first down rate is a little misleading as they ranked 12th in first down rate through 15 games, before Carr was injured. Still, that’s not all that much better than 2015, when they finished 20th in first down rate, 16th in first down rate allowed, and 17th in first down rate differential. Even though they added several big free agents and won several more games, they weren’t really that improved from 2015 to 2016.

The good news is they have several players who could have bounce back seasons, they added more talent this off-season, without really losing anyone important, and they are still a relatively young team, despite all of their recent veteran free agent additions. They could easily be an improved team from 2016 to 2017, even if it doesn’t show up in the standings. The big concern with this team is how expensive they could become over the next couple of seasons.

They built themselves to where they are now by hitting on draft picks, which gave them cheap young talent, and then signing talented veterans to big money deals in free agency to pair with their young players. However, most of their young players will be up for big extensions in the next two off-seasons. In 2017, they have 8 players with cap hits of 6.4 million or higher. Those 8 take up a combined 66 million on the cap, or about 39.5% of the total cap for this season, and that’s without extensions for young players like Amari Cooper, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, and Khalil Mack, who will need expensive extensions in the next couple of off-seasons.

Quarterback Derek Carr was first in line for an extension, as the Raiders made him the highest paid quarterback in the league this off-season, giving him a 5-year, 125 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. He was set to make just 1.153 million before the extension. Carr isn’t the best quarterback in the league, but most of the top quarterbacks are underpaid compared to what their market value would be, so I don’t have a problem with the Raiders giving Carr as much money as they did. They didn’t really have another choice.

Carr struggled mightily as a 2nd round 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 and a half to average so few yards per attempt and still make all 16 starts. However, he’s completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.99 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in the two seasons since and has finished 10th and 8th respectively among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons. His best attribute is avoiding interceptions, but I would like to see him complete a higher percentage of his passes and average a higher YPA in the future. Still only going into his age 26 season, his best days could still be ahead of him.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why I want to see Carr average a higher YPA and complete a higher percentage of his passes is because he has a strong supporting cast and should be moving the ball downfield more easily. His offensive line is arguably the best in football. Kelechi Osemele was easily their best free agent acquisition from last off-season, as he made 15 starts at left guard and finished 5th among guards on Pro Football Focus in the first season of a 5-year, 58.5 million dollar deal. He is the 2nd highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, only behind Kevin Zeitler, who signed with the Browns on a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal this off-season. He’s finished in the top-13 among guards in each of the last 3 seasons and is still in his prime, going into his age 28 season, so he should have another strong season in 2017.

Osemele is not the only starting offensive lineman that they’ve added in free agency over the years, as left tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson, and right tackle Austin Howard all joined the Raiders as free agents. Donald Penn is arguably their 2nd best offensive lineman and he has been a bargain for them, first signing a 2-year, 9.2 million dollar deal before the 2014 season and then signing a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal last off-season. Going into his age 34 season, his age is a concern and the reason why they’ve been able to get him so inexpensively, but Penn has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons and, though he looked on the decline in Tampa Bay in 2013, his career has found a second life with the Raiders. He has finished 7th, 11th, and 10th among offensive tackles in 3 seasons in Oakland.

Carr’s absence for the playoff game last season obviously hurt them, but Penn being out with a leg injury didn’t help. Fortunately, he is back to full health now and has never missed a regular season game with injury in 10 full seasons in the league. The Raiders are hoping he has one last strong season in the tank, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Raiders may have to move on from him as a free agent next off-season to keep some of their younger players, so Kelechi Osemele could end up long-term at left tackle, where he has some experience.

Center Rodney Hudson is also a very good offensive lineman. The Raiders signed him to a then record 5-year, 44.5 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, after the 2011 2nd round pick had a breakout contract year in 2014, finishing 3rd among centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s lived up to that deal, finishing 8th and 4th respectively among centers in 2 seasons in Oakland. Now the 4th highest paid center in the league in terms of average annual salary, Hudson is a good value and a big part of this offensive line.

Their only weakness upfront is right tackle, where Austin Howard hasn’t quite lived up to the 5-year, 30 million dollar deal the Raiders gave him in free agency 3 off-seasons ago. Howard finished 19th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but has finished below average in his other 2 seasons in Oakland, including last season, when he finished 54th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles. He’s not a bad player and could have a solid season on the right side, but he’s also going into his age 30 season, so his best years could be behind him at this point. Owed a non-guaranteed 5.5 million in 2018, this could easily be his last season in Oakland. The Raiders used a 4th round pick on Florida offensive tackle David Sharpe as insurance.

The only starter on this offensive line that was actually drafted by the Raiders is right guard Gabe Jackson, a 3rd round pick in 2014 who is going into the final year of his rookie deal and will likely become one of the highest paid guards in the league in the next calendar year. A starter from the word go, Jackson has made 44 starts in 3 seasons in the league and has finished above average in all 3 of them, including 13th among guards in 2015 and 22nd among guards in 2016. The Raiders have decisions to make on him and Donald Penn next off-season, but, for now, still have one of the best offensive lines in football and return all 5 starters from 2016.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers

Derek Carr also has a pair of talented wide receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, who were one of four wide receiver duos to both top 1000 yards in 2016 (Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, Michael Thomas/Brandin Cooks, and DeSean Jackson/Pierre Garcon). Cooper, the 4th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, is one of the Raiders top young players and one of the best young wide receivers in the whole league.

Cooper caught 72 passes for 1070 yards and 6 touchdowns as a rookie, but struggled with drops and wasn’t that efficient on a per target basis (130 targets), so he finished around middle of the pack among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still, that was a very impressive rookie season, as he became one of just 11 rookie receivers to top 1000 receiving yards in the last 20 years, and then he took his game to another level in 2016. He again had a good amount of targets (132), but caught 83 passes for 1,153 yards and 5 touchdowns and finished 23rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only going into his age 23 season, Cooper’s best days are likely still ahead of him and he could have a huge statistical season in his 3rd season in the league. After finishing 8th in receiving yards last season, Cooper has a good shot at the top-5 in 2017.

If Cooper is more productive in 2017, it would likely be at the expense of Michael Crabtree, who has actually led the team in targets in each of the last 2 seasons, with 146 in 2015 and 145 in 2016. Crabtree looked done in 2013 and 2014, struggling to return to form after tearing his achilles after the 2012 season, but he has bounced back with back-to-back above average seasons in Oakland. A 2009 1st round pick, Crabtree has finished above average in 5 of 6 healthy seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 30 season, so he could have another solid season in 2016. Even if he has fewer targets, he could be more efficient on a per target basis if Cooper breaks out and this offense as a whole improves.

In addition to Cooper’s breakout potential, one reason why this offense could be better in 2016 is because they added an upgrade at tight end in free agency, signing ex-Packer Jared Cook to a 2-year, 10.6 million dollar deal. Cook missed 6 games with an ankle injury last season, but finished the season hot for Green Bay and continued that into the post-season. All in all, he finished last season 11th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, the highest rank of his career.

Cook struggled in 2015, but was a solid tight end before that, also finishing 15th among tight ends in 2014, so he’s a nice addition to this offense, still only going into his age 30 season. He might not post huge receiving numbers as the 3rd option in this passing game, but he’s a good overall tight end and a big upgrade over Clive Walford, who finished 57th out of 63 eligible tight ends in his first season as a starter in 2016, after flashing on 447 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015. Walford will compete with Lee Smith, a veteran blocking tight end, for snaps behind Cook.

The Raiders also upgraded the #3 receiver spot, signing Cordarrelle Patterson from the Vikings to compete with incumbent Seth Roberts, who has been one of the least effective wide receivers in the league over the past 2 seasons. Roberts finished 102th out of 121 eligible wide receivers in 2015 and 111th out of 115 eligible wide receivers in 2016. Patterson is most valuable as a return man and never developed into the wide receiver the Vikings envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2013, but had a 52/453/2 slash line as the 3rd receiver in Minnesota last season and would be an upgrade over Roberts. He also has a career 10.74 YPC average on 31 career carries, so he can provide value for them on end arounds as well. Patterson and Cook will eat into Crabtree’s targets, as could Amari Cooper if he has a breakout 3rd season in the league. This is a much deeper and more talented receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Raiders also upgraded the running back position this off-season by signing Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. Latavius Murray has been their lead back over the past 2 seasons and has overall put up good numbers, rushing for 1,854 yards and 18 touchdowns on 461 attempts in the two seasons combined, but his 4.02 YPC average is disappointing given the offense around him and the offensive line blocking for him and he didn’t add any value on passing downs. The Raiders didn’t try too hard to re-sign him this off-season and let him sign a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal with the Vikings.

How much of an upgrade Marshawn Lynch will be remains up in the air. At his best, Lynch was one of the best runners in the league, rushing for 4,153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 attempts from 2012-2014 and finishing in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in all 3 of those seasons. His 4.64 YPC average during those three seasons is even more impressive when you consider the Seahawks were not a good run blocking team.

However, he was limited to 3.76 yards per carry in an injury plagued 2015 season, didn’t play at all last season during his “retirement,” and now is entering his age 31 season, which is around when top running backs using break down. It’s possible he’s fresh after a year off, but it’s really tough to know if the Raiders are getting Beast Mode or not in 2017. At the very least, he’ll run behind the best run blocking offensive line he’s ever had and should be more effective than Murray.

Like Murray, Lynch is not very useful on passing downs, so 2nd year players DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard will continue to see action as change of pace and passing down backs. They played 241 and 237 snaps respectively as rookies in 2016 and both were very impressive in limited action. Washington, a 6th round pick, averaged 5.37 yards per carry on 87 carries and added a 17/115/0 slash line through the air, while Richard, an undrafted free agent, averaged 5.92 yards per carry on 83 carries and added a 29/194/2 slash line through the air. This is a deep running back group, but Marshawn Lynch is close to a complete mystery in his first season back from retirement.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As mentioned, the Raiders were actually a little bit worse defensively in 2016, as compared to 2015, despite adding three talented players in free agency, cornerback Sean Smith, safety Reggie Nelson, and defensive end/linebacker Bruce Irvin. Those three players actually all played pretty well. The issue was that, at the positions where the Raiders were bad in 2015, they were really bad in 2016, including defensive tackle.

Second round rookie Jihad Ward led all Raider defensive tackles in snaps played last season with 636, but he struggled mightily, finishing dead last at the defensive tackle position and really hurting this defense. Considered very raw coming out of the University of Illinois, Ward could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he received just a 5th round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft, so there’s no guarantee he ever develops into anything useful. His career is certainly off to about as bad of a start as possible. The Raiders may want him to play fewer snaps this season.

Denico Autry played 690 snaps last season, but he split snaps between defensive tackle and defensive end, playing outside in base packages at 6-5 270. Autry also struggled mightily, finishing 113rd out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t supposed to be in that role, but Mario Edwards missed all but two games with injury and was underwhelming when he did play.

A 2nd round pick in 2015, Edwards played well on 605 snaps as a rookie and, only going into his age 23 season, has obvious upside if he can stay healthy. Considering how badly Autry did in his absence, Edwards is the heavy favorite to get back his old role. The 6-3 280 pounder will play outside in base packages and then shift inside in sub packages, leaving Autry as a pure sub package interior rusher. Ward, Edwards, and Autry will all see snaps inside in sub packages.

In base packages, holdovers Darius Latham and Justin Ellis will compete for snaps with 3rd round rookie Eddie Vanderdoes. Latham struggled on 319 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and is best in a reserve rotational role. Ellis, meanwhile, is a capable run stuffer at 6-2 335. He’s coming off the worst season of his career, but the 2014 4th round pick still finished above average as a run stuffer on 336 snaps. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but is a great fit as a base package run stuffer and could easily see more snaps in 2017. Vanderdoes, meanwhile, is a raw boom or bust prospect and could be thrown into the fire early. All 3 players could see base package snaps, as the Raiders try to patchwork together decent defensive tackle play.

In sub packages, when Edwards moves inside, Bruce Irvin will move from outside linebacker to rush the passer off the edge opposite Khalil Mack. They were arguably the best edge rush duo in the league last season, finishing 1st and 11th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Irvin was a solid addition in the first year of a 4-year, 37 million dollar deal, while Mack is arguably the best defensive player in the league and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mack has finished #1 at his position in all 3 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 26 season. Expect another monster season from him. He’s one of the talented young players the Raiders will have to lock up in the next couple off-season. He is owed just 16.8 million over the final 2 years of his rookie deal, but could become the highest paid defensive player of all time on his next contract. Like Derek Carr, the Raiders will not let him leave and will pay him whatever it takes to keep him.

While Mack has been a strong pass rusher since entering the league, Bruce Irvin actually finished below average as a pass rusher in the previous 2 seasons before last season. A first round pick in 2012, Irvin finished 10th, 11th, and 13th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively with the Seahawks, but that was mostly because of his run stopping ability and also his ability to drop into coverage when needed. In Oakland, he’s used much more as a pass rusher and a defensive end than he was in Seattle.

The 6-3 250 tweener is versatile and should have another solid overall season in 2017, but might regress a little bit as a pass rusher, especially since he’s already going into his age 30 season. Shilique Calhoun, a 2016 3rd round pick, will likely be the primary reserve edge rusher in sub packages, but won’t see a huge role behind Mack and Irvin, after struggling on 173 snaps as a rookie. The Raiders are deep on the edge, but have serious problems at defensive tackle still.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As mentioned, Bruce Irvin plays outside linebacker in base packages and drops down to the defensive line and rushes the passer off the edge in sub packages, when the Raiders go to two linebackers and bring in a fifth defensive back. The problem is the Raiders got very poor play from those two every down linebackers last season, which really hurt this defense as a whole. They shook things up this off-season by letting outside linebacker Malcolm Smith walk and replacing him with ex-Dolphin Jelani Jenkins.

Smith was one of the worst linebackers in the league last season, finishing 67th out of 87 eligible. Jenkins was even worse, finishing dead last at the position, but knee issues slowed him all season. He made 27 starts in 2014 and 2015 combined and finished above average in both seasons, before being limited to 372 snaps by injuries in 2016. Still only going into his age 25 season, Jenkins has bounce back potential and still has a bright future if he can stay healthy. He could prove to be a steal on a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal.

At middle linebacker, the Raiders didn’t add anything this off-season and did not re-sign veteran Perry Riley, who made 11 starts in 2016. Ben Heeney made the first 2 starts of the season, but the 2015 5th round pick struggled mightily, got benched, and then went down for the season with an ankle injury. He hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league. 6th round rookie Cory James took over for him before they signed Perry Riley and didn’t play much better, struggling mightily on 377 snaps. James and Heeney will compete for the job and 5th round rookie Marquel Lee could push for snaps down the stretch. Middle linebacker figures to be a position of weakness again in 2017, though Jenkins could easily be an upgrade at outside linebacker.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to Irvin, the Raiders also signed cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson to deals worth 38 million over 4 years and 8.5 million over 2 years respectively last off-season. Both players played well. Smith got off to a rough start and was actually benched for poor play in week 1, but went on to make 15 starts and finish 17th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He was a little bit better in 2014 (5th) and 2015 (12th), but has finished above average in 6 of 8 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 30 season, his best days could be behind him, but he should have another solid season in 2017.

Reggie Nelson also struggled to start the season, but rebounded and finished above average for the 7th straight season. He ended the season ranked 29th among safeties. That was a decline from 2015, when he finished 8th at the position, and he is now going into his age 34 season, so it’s unclear if he can continue playing at a high level going forward, but the Raiders didn’t pay him all that much on that two-year deal and he could have another capable season. He was a smart signing.

One of the problems on this defense last season was that David Amerson, their other starting cornerback, took a big step back, finishing 59th among cornerbacks (below average) after finishing 14th the season before. That wasn’t a huge surprise, considering the 2013 2nd round pick was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league in his first 2 seasons int he league and was actually cut by the Redskins early in the 2015 season, before going to Oakland and playing well.

Despite the risks, the Raiders bet a lot of money to keep him last off-season, giving him a 4-year, 33.93 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2016, so they are obviously hoping he can bounce back. If he doesn’t turn it around, the Raiders can get out of the rest of his deal this off-season, but they will have paid him 12.55 million in new money for one extra season if they do that, so the Raiders definitely want to avoid that.

At the other safety spot, the Raiders will start 2016 1st round pick Karl Joseph who was decent on 590 snaps (9 starts) in an injury plagued rookie season. Injuries have been an issue for him since his collegiate days and he missed most of his final season at West Virginia with a torn ACL, but he has high upside if he can stay healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a breakout second season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

The Raiders also used a first round pick on a defensive back this year, taking Ohio State’s Gareon Conley at #24 overall. Conley was a top-15 talent, but it was a very risky pick because Conley was accused of rape the week before the draft. Though he was taken off of many teams’ boards, the Raiders did their homework and feel comfortable that he won’t be charged. They clearly love his talent and had to draft him in the first to prevent a team like Dallas from drafting him, but he obviously comes with a lot of risk. He has yet to be charged with anything, but the investigation is still open and that could change at any time.

As of right now, Gareon Conley is expected to take over as the 3rd cornerback and play in sub packages. He has a high upside and should immediately be an upgrade over DJ Hayden, who finished last season 96th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 476 snaps as the 3rd cornerback in 2016. Hayden is now in Detroit. The Raiders also used their 2nd round pick on a defensive back, taking Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu. At 6-4 224, Melifonwu has the size to play safety, but he also has some experience at cornerback and is an incredible athlete for his size. He’ll start as a versatile dime back, but the Raiders are probably planning on him being Reggie Nelson’s successor at safety long-term. This secondary is deeper than last season because of the draft.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Raiders were not as good as their record suggested last season, but they are still one of the more talented teams on the league on paper. They have made several upgrades on offense and could be one of the best offensive teams in the league, while their defense could easily be improved as well, especially if someone steps up at defensive tackle or linebacker. They might not win as many games as they did last season, but they should be an improved team overall and are probably the favorites to win the tough AFC West. Last year’s winner, Kansas City, is another team that was not as good as their record in 2016.

Prediction: 10-6, 1st in AFC West

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