In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC West, starting with the Oakland Raiders today.
Recap of 2015: The Oakland Raiders came into 2015 with a new head coach in Jack Del Rio, but otherwise their usual low expectations. Oakland had not made the playoffs since Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002 and won only three games in 2014. While the Raiders missed the playoffs again last year, they did improve their win total by four games by finishing 7-9 and made great progress in rebuilding their team. They had an up and down season, but did have some impressive victories including one over the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos on the road. One of the biggest bright spots last year was the combination of quarterback Derek Carr and rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper. AC/DC connected 72 times for over a thousand yards last year. Another bright spot was linebacker Khalil Mack who became the first player in NFL history to make first team All-Pro at TWO different positions after finishing with 15 sacks in just his second NFL season. Maybe even more impressive than that, Mack also had FIVE sacks on his own in that big win at Denver. If you aren’t watching Mack’s dominance, you need to start tuning in to some Oakland games this year. Overall, the Raiders finished 14th in overall DVOA last year, 15 spots higher than they finished in 2014 (29th overall). Between the overall team improvement last year and the breakout seasons for their young stars, Oakland is a team on the rise as we head into 2016. One other note though is the team almost moved to Los Angeles this offseason and talks will continue to swirl about a possible to move to LA, San Antonio, or Las Vegas this season. How this impacted last season’s on field play or will impact this season’s play cannot really be quantified, but should be considered none the less.
Significant Additions: OG Kelechi Osemele, DE Bruce Irvin, S Reggie Nelson, CB Sean Smith
Significant Subtractions: DE Justin Tuck (retired), LB Curtis Lofton, S Charles Woodson (retired)
Potential Impact Rookies: S Karl Joseph, DE Jihad Ward, RB DeAndre Washington
Team Strengths: Aside from Dallas, the Raiders might have the best offensive line in the league, especially after signing ex-Raven Osemele this offseason. Pro Football Focus ranked the Raiders, led by Gabe Jackson and Donald Penn, as the sixth best O Line last season BEFORE the Osemele signing. Now that they have upgraded their weakest line spot, Derek Carr should have plenty of time to find Amari Cooper for long touchdowns. The Black Hole will be losing their mind as they watch the Raiders’ big uglies maul teams this year.
Team Weaknesses: I think this has to be the running back position. Latavius Murray had a pedestrian 2015 season despite the aforementioned offensive line blocking for him. He was not very elusive and failed to earn many yards after contact overall. The Raiders did little to upgrade the position this offseason outside of drafting DeAndre Washington. Murray will also be a free agent after the season, so if he does not improve, the Raiders will be in the running back market next spring.
Fantasy Players to Watch: The number one Raider player to target in your drafts is Amari Cooper. The second year player should improve on his impressive rookie year and should be in WR2 territory in most leagues. If you are in a keeper or dynasty format, he should be rated even higher, as he just turned 22 this summer. His AC/DC counterpart Derek Carr is in the middle tier of quarterbacks. Probably not start worthy week to week in most leagues, but definitely worth keeping as a backup or as a QB2 with upside. There are a lot of reports that Latavius Murray does not have a lot of trust from the coaching staff, but until there is another viable option at running back (maybe 5th round pick Washington), Murray should once again get at least flex consideration this year. WR Michael Crabtree still has solid value as bye week and injury insurance and should be owned in most leagues. I would avoid all Raiders tight ends in fantasy for the time being, and their defense has not been overly fantasy friendly in recent history.
2016 Outlook: The Raiders have their best chance in years to make a playoff run in 2016. They have clearly done a great job of improving their team through both the draft (Carr, Cooper) and free agency (Osemele, Irvin). The AFC West is still a tough division, but the Raiders have closed the gap between them and the Broncos and Chiefs. Their offense should at worst be pretty good, but has the potential to take another leap forward this year. I am most excited to see if their defense can come together. Khalil Mack is an absolute destructive force that the Raiders should unleash in a myriad of ways. Bruce Irvin’s speed rush will be complemented well if Mack is taking on multiple blockers. Their secondary is intriguing as well, especially if rookie Karl Joseph comes back strong from his injury and displays some of the ballhawking skills he showed at West Virginia.
Record Prediction: The Raiders schedule looks reasonable to start the season, at least on paper. They do not play a team with a 2015 winning record until the Chiefs come to town in Week 6. They also play some of their tougher non-division opponents (the Panthers and the Colts) at home later in the season. I think the schedule sets up pretty well for Oakland and if all goes well, they can sneak back into the playoffs once again and maybe even make a run at the AFC West title. Having said that, I still think they are about a year away from truly contending and will finish 8-8 this season.
Photo Credit: Chris Keane / Associated Press