The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing with the series of articles we remain in the AFC West and take a look at the Oakland Raiders — a team that could very well break its long playoff drought this season.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
Oakland Raiders 2016 Preview
2015 record: 7-9 (third place in the AFC West, missed playoffs)
Head coach: Jack Del Rio (second year)
Key arrivals: G Kelechi Osemele, CB Sean Smith, LB Bruce Irvin, S Reggie Nelson
Key departures: T J’Marcus Webb, LB Lorenzo Alexander
1. Can Derek Carr take that next step?
Raiders' success was heavily dependent on Derek Carr's performance last year. pic.twitter.com/r8G0UQkaqM
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) August 26, 2016
On the surface, Carr put up one of the best sophomore campaigns for a quarterback in league history. But when delving further into the numbers, there were inconsistencies.
It’s not a surprise to see that Oakland’s success was dependent on Carr. Rather, it’s surprising to see just how much he struggled when the Raiders lost. The correlation here is real, and it’s something we must focus on heading into the season.
What we’re going to want to see from Carr is a more consistent performance. The former second-round pick was borderline elite through the majority of last season. Though, he’s now looking to take that next step into top-five quarterback category. Should that happen, the Raiders will be set in the AFC West.
2. How will the revamped secondary perform?
One of Oakland’s biggest weaknesses last season was its secondary. The team finished 26th in pass defense and saw multiple big-name quarterbacks eat at its expense.
This, however, is the one major area Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie attempted to address during the spring.
Oakland first signed a top-end veteran corner in Sean Smith to play the role of a lock down guy. The 6-foot-2 Smith can be that guy to go up against the Jeremy Maclins, Keenan Allens and Demaryius Thomas of the world in the AFC West.
Not only did signing him from the Kansas City Chiefs hurt their division rivals, it gave the Raiders a top-10 cover guy on the outside.
Oakland will also head into the 2016 season with two new starting safeties. It drafted former West Virginia strong safety Karl Joseph in the first round before adding a Pro Bowl caliber cover guy in Reggie Nelson during free agency.
With three quarters of their secondary slated to be new contributors, the Raiders surely did address this area. It now remains to be seen how much impact these upgrades will have on the field.
3. How dominating can the offensive line be?
Oakland’s offensive line was surprisingly good last season. The likes of guard Gabe Jackson and left tackle Donald Penn both played at Pro Bowl levels.
The Raiders then doubled down on this position by giving a Pro Bowl caliber guard in Kelechi Osemele elite-level money to help out on the ground game. That’s the one area Oakland wanted to address.
After all, Carr was sacked a grand total of 31 times last season. Unfortunately, the Raiders averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt.
If that area of the line can improve, it could very well compare favorably to the Dallas Cowboys a bit further south. Should that happen, the Raiders could be looking at an AFC West title.
Clive Walford, tight end
Despite putting up a surprising performance on offense last season, the Raiders got very little production from the tight end position. In total, the team’s tight ends combined for 72 receptions.
Walford, a third-round pick of the Raiders last season, recorded 28 of those receptions for 329 yards and three scores. With a 50 percent catch rate, it was an incredibly uneven performance from the young tight end.
Now entering his second season, the Miami (F) product has looked exceptional during the preseason and summer.
If he can provide Carr with that additional target to go with Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, it will be huge for the Raiders’ offense. Look for the team to look in that direction early and often.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Talent. A lot of talent. The Raiders are among the most-talented young teams in the NFL. Talent that’s been relatively untapped up to this point.
We’re talking about a team that may very well boast the second-best all-around player in the NFL in the form of Khalil Mack. In reality, he was right behind J.J. Watt as the most-productive defender in the NFL last season.
If the Raiders can get a second player to step up on this defense, it will take that next step among the best in the conference.
And with an offense that already has what it takes to finish in the top-five in scoring, there’s a real good chance the Raiders will take that next step to playoff status this season.
REASON FOR PANIC
Panic? Well, there’s not much to panic about in Oakland these days. The Raiders have a firm identity under second-year head coach Jack Del Rio.
It’s an identity that tells us about a team that’s going to attempt to dominate the trenches while beating the opposition through the air.
If we were to look at one thing outside of the Raiders potentially moving to Las Vegas, it would be regression.
Is it possible that Carr’s ceiling is what we saw last season? Will Amari Cooper continue to struggle with drops? Will this year’s version of Michael Crabtree compare favorably to last year’s version?
Oakland’s defense might be improved this season, but its bread and butter is on offense. Should that side of the ball short circuit, this team will be in trouble.
Prediction: 10-6, second place in the AFC West