The Oakland Raiders have made some pretty dynamic moves this offseason, locking in their franchise quarterback to a mega-deal and locking in a relocation that is possibly more controversial than the moves the Rams and Chargers made, while drumming up national interest in the former “bad boys” of football. Of course, this is all probably going according to owner Mark Davis’ plan: turn the surging on-field team into an offseason story for the next several years as they prepare to move to Las Vegas. The building blocks exist to make Vegas the home of a perennial winner, but do the Raiders have what it takes to take the next step forward in 2017?
STAFFING MATRIX: General Manager Reggie McKenzie inherited a horrible salary cap situation and had to repeatedly tell Mark Davis to be patient with him as he cleaned everything up and drafted for the future. McKenzie looks like a genius now, with a star QB, receiver, and defensive leader all obtained via the draft. Head Coach Jack Del Rio is finding ways for Khalil Mack to make plays and letting his offensive coaches do the work they were hired to do, while doing a better job than he did in his previous stint in Jacksonville of managing the overall situation. Neither will face any job scrutiny, barring a disastrous season.
STORY OF ’17: Can the Raiders sustain the success that they saw in 2016? Due to a tiebreaker, the Raiders did not win their division, but for the first time since 2002, they made their way to the playoffs. Thanks to Derek Carr’s broken leg, they had to rely on then-rookie backup quarterback Conner Cook to carry them past the Texans, and then they didn’t make it out of the first round. That being said, expectations are incredibly high for this team, whether the Colts break your QB’s leg or not. They kind of improved their contingency plan by signing a backup with actual starting experience in EJ Manuel, but Carr is the undisputed leader of this team. If the team doesn’t at least get to the playoffs again this year, and if Carr doesn’t play up to his contract, I am pretty sure it will be seen as a disappointment – and right now, I would put them in the upper echelon of AFC teams.
FRESH FACES: Running back Marshawn Lynch literally came out of retirement to be a part of the Raiders. He is one of the biggest offseason acqusitions in recent memory and a huge get for the team, who have largely seen a revolving door at running back by not drafting anyone of note; while Latavius Murray was serviceable, they didn’t feel like keeping him was a priority. If Lynch can provide 75% of the ground game he brought in Seattle, he will have a huge impact on the way the Raiders play, and on how other teams play the Raiders. The team also drafted heavily on defense, adding speedy Ohio State corner Gareon Conley with their first round pick. They let some of their four losses last year slip through their fingers, and a few of their wins were way too close, and it’s pretty obvious that Oakland is trying to overcome their deficiencies. Finally, as stated above, new backup EJ Manuel should provide experience in the backup QB role that Conner Cook can’t bring at the moment, in the case of an injury to Carr.
SIDE TO SIDE: Khalil Mack is the star of the defense, and rightly so. You can watch this entire video if you want, but just check out the first highlight in the following video:
You can see Mack’s explosiveness, speed, and disruption in one single play. The man can play either linebacker or defensive end and does both quite well. He is the cornerstone of the defense – and the coaching staff should be thankful he is on their team. Del Rio spent a lot of time in Denver with great defensive players (and a true star in Von Miller), and Mack is the “Von Miller” of this team. The defense will be what turns the tide of the games, as long as they play well and don’t give up too many big plays. Although the team only had four losses last year, each loss had their opposing team scoring at least 21 points, and the Raiders overall last season gave up 20 points or more in 13 games. That’s a trend that needs to stop in order for them to do what they want to do offensively – take a bit of the load off Carr and let Lynch eat up the clock. The defense features several solid players, and outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who will be playing his first full season since his hit-and-run incident in San Francisco, may elevate the unit, as long as he is not a distraction. Also, new first-round pick Gareon Conley has the chance to be a solid addition in pass defense, and may make an immediate impact. Also, somehow, the team employs Reggie Nelson, who has wound up on Del Rio’s squad after stints in Jacksonville and Cincinatti.
THE REAL MVP: Let’s face it, if Derek Carr is anything but great this year, the Raiders will not make it to 12-4. As with many other squads, the success of the Raiders falls with their quarterback. He does have the potential to have an even better year than 2016, as long as he can stay upright. Fortunately, Oakland does not play the Colts in the regular season in 2017.
BENCH POINTS PREDICTION: The Raiders face a challenging schedule this season, playing the AFC East and NFC East as well as being a part of one of the most challenging divisions in the league. Their first four games feature only one “gimme” in the Jets and if they can’t make it past weak teams like the Chargers and Bills, then they won’t see much success. I like the idea of Oakland being a solid challenge to the likes of New England and Dallas, but I don’t think they’re quite up to being a lock to beat teams like that. If I’m proven wrong there, then great. That said, I think there’s a strong possibility the Raiders will go 11-5 in 2017.