In a season marred by injuries and losses—lots of them—it can sometimes be tough to see the forest through the trees. In Oakland, however, there is some reason for optimism thanks to some younger players with the potential to become real difference makers.
For all the flack that Al Davis received for messing up drafts—some of which was deserved—Davis also found some real gems throughout later rounds that have become pieces worth building around.
Unfortunately, it's safe to say none of these guys are centerpieces. However, if Oakland can land an elite player somewhere in the draft or through free agency, they might have the supporting cast necessary to contend in the near future.
A fifth round pick in 2011, few people expected Denarius Moore to become a go-to receiver in the NFL, let alone immediately.
As a rookie, Moore showed flashes of brilliance despite playing in just thirteen games—notching 618 yards with five touchdowns. Even more impressive, however, was Moore's ability to make tough catches in traffic, a skill that few Raider receivers have had in recent years.
For his sophomore campaign, Moore has continued to impress.
In eight games thus far, Moore is averaging 72 yards per game with five more touchdowns despite becoming a known commodity.
Of all the positions on the roster, wide receiver seems to be Oakland's most reliable and promising—with guys like Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey (more on him in a bit), and rookies Juron Criner and Rod Streater.
Long considered a major bust, Heyward-Bey has taken his time but ultimately emerged as a solid receiving option for Oakland.
In fact, a look back at the 2009 draft could ultimately justify the decision to select DHB over the likes of Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree.
Obviously the biggest downside with DHB was his slow adaptation to the NFL game. However, in 2011 he had a massive coming out party, falling just 25 yards short of 1,000—good for the 20th best total in the league.
In 2012, DHB got off to a slow start with less than 100 yards in his first four games combined, but in recent weeks his production has improved, totaling 273 yards and two touchdowns.
For DHB, the question of raw skill and ability has always been there. It has just been a matter of whether he could maximize those talents and convert them into production. If he continues his improvement over the next few years, he could emerge as a very reliable and explosive wideout.
On a defense that has been largely disappointing this season (okay extremely disappointing), Burris has been a massive bright spot thus far.
The rookie from San Diego State was a fourth round pick this year, and with Aaron Curry, Rolando McClain and Phillip Wheeler in the rotation, many assumed this would be a learning year for Burris. After an injury to Curry, however, Burris was thrust into the starting lineup.
And then, he thrived.
In fact, Burris supplanted McClain and the linebacking corps didn't even miss a beat. In his last four games, Burris is averaging more than six tackles a game as he continues to see his role grow.
While the Oakland defense is mostly filled with aging veterans and guys who don't belong on an NFL roster, Burris is one Raider I could see sticking around for a while.
Hillsdale College isn't a name you hear too often in NFL starting lineups, but for the Oakland offensive line, it might be the most important school of all.
Hailing from the small college in Michigan, Jared Veldheer was Oakland's third-round pick in 2010 and in the past three years, he has evolved into the anchor of the offensive line.
Standing at 6'8", 321 pounds, Veldheer has more physical tools than almost any lineman in the league, but effective blocking typically comes down to footwork and fundamentals. Fortunately, Veldheer has shown great strides in those two areas as well.
Heading into Oakland's game against Atlanta in week five of this season, the Oakland left tackle had yet to allow a single sack.
Like most teams who struggle in the NFL, offensive line play has long been a weakness of the dreadful Oakland teams of the past decade. With guys like Jared Veldheer, however, the tides just might be turning.
I don't think there are many teams in the league who would expect to see their general manager on a list of people with bright futures—especially teams with just three wins on the season.
In Oakland, however, I think hope abounds because of McKenzie.
Through the draft, McKenzie added Miles Burris and Juron Criner, two players who have already contributed to the Oakland roster this season. He also added rookie free agent Rod Streater immediately after the draft, who has been one of the league's most pleasant surprises.
Through free agency, despite minimal cap room, McKenzie targeted Phillip Wheeler, the linebacker from Indianapolis who has become Oakland's best defensive player this season.
With more draft picks coming in the near future and hopefully a little bit more financial flexibility, I expect Oakland will be on the right track quickly towards reclaiming the mantra of a commitment to excellence.