10 Players Most Critical to the Oakland Raiders' Success in 2013
Every NFL team has a core of players from its 53-man roster that it considers critical for success, and it isn’t necessarily the marquee names that get on the list.
The Raiders, in the second year of a rebuilding phase under general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen, have a large contingent of players that will have to fill critical roles for the team in 2013.
We’ve whittled that list down to 10, though it’s certainly open for debate. Here iare our 10 players who are the most critical to the Oakland Raiders success in 2013:
RB Darren McFadden
The Raiders made it clear in the offseason that they were building the offense around McFadden. It’s now time for the sixth-year running back to prove he was worth it.
At various times in his career, the former first-round pick has looked unstoppable. At others, he’s been very mediocre—and that’s when he wasn’t nursing the plethora of injuries that have kept him from playing a full 16-game season.
Oakland wisely switched blocking schemes this year, scrapping the zone-blocking system that McFadden struggled with in 2012. The power system that is now in place is a better fit for McFadden’s downhill style of running, though he didn’t do much in the preseason while playing sparingly.
Coming off a season in which he averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry, McFadden is also at a crossroads in his career. His contract with Oakland expires after the 2013 season, and the market could be quite lucrative for him if he can put together a big season.
K Sebastian Janikowski
No kicker has meant more to his team over the past decade than Janikowski, and there’s no reason to think things will be any different in 2013.
Entering his 14th NFL season, the "Polish Cannon" continues to be one of the most powerful kickers in the league and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Janikowski missed just three field goals a year ago, from 51, 61 and 64 yards out, respectively. Over the last two seasons, he’s made 62 of 69 attempts overall.
With a little luck, it’s possible that Janikowski could break the NFL record for most career field goals from 50 yards or longer this season. That will be critical on a team that has so many question marks offensively.
The only question is how well Janikowski adapts to having a new holder on field goal attempts after long-time teammate and close friend Shane Lechler signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent. Marquette King, who replaced Lechler as Oakland’s punter, will assume the holding duties.
QB Terrelle Pryor
The last pick of the Al Davis era, Pryor is expected to open the season as the team's starting quarterback, and he can’t afford to let the opportunity to establish himself go by.
Pryor got the job, in part, due to the injury to left tackle Jared Veldheer. The domino effect on Oakland’s offensive line left the Raiders no other choice but to go with Pryor, an electrifying runner, over Matt Flynn.
With Flynn’s sore elbow healed, however, Pryor might not have much margin for error.
The key for Pryor is simple: don’t try to do too much.
At times during the preseason, Pryor was so bent on proving that he could be a throwing quarterback that he bypassed wiser opportunities to run. Those are risks that he can no longer take now that the regular season is here. He’ll have to prove he can keep the offense moving in order to keep the job, be it with his feet or his arm.
DT Pat Sims
The former Cincinnati Bengal missed nearly all of training camp due to injury, but he proved in the final preseason game that he’s more than ready to go. That’s good news for the Raiders, who have had their fair share of problems defending the run for the better part of the last decade.
Sims is a 6’2’’, 310-pound run-stuffer who will pair with Vance Walker to form the interior of Oakland’s defensive front. The two men, both signed as free agents in the offseason, are looking to upgrade a unit that allowed 118.6 yards on the ground per game in 2012.
It’s Sims who will matter the most when it comes to stopping the run. He can dominate in 1-on-1 matchups and is a frequent target of double teams, which should free up Oakland’s linebackers to make more plays.
If there’s a concern, it’s Sims’ health. In addition to the time he sat out during training camp, the veteran defensive lineman has missed 13 games over the past two seasons.
DE Lamarr Houston
As one of only two returning starters on the Raiders defense—safety Tyvon Branch is the other—Houston was asked by head coach Dennis Allen in the offseason to take more of a leadership role within the locker room, and the former second-round draft pick has responded.
Keeping that respect will depend on what Houston does on the field.
Since he entered the NFL as the the No. 44 overall pick in 2010, Houston’s numbers have gone up incrementally every season. Last year, he had a career-best 77 tackles (58 solo) and four sacks on a team that generated just 25 sacks in total.
Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie overhauled the defensive line in the offseason but kept Houston, who was the Raiders best overall pass-rusher a year ago, despite his low sack numbers. He had 31 hits on opposing quarterbacks and 17 hurries while also compiling 14 tackles for a loss.
The addition of fellow defensive end Jason Hunter this season should take some of the focus off Houston, who has to have a big year if the Raiders have any hope of being a playoff contender.
WR Denarius Moore
Moore may be the most enigmatic player on the entire roster.
At times, Moore has been the most dominant player on the field—an acrobatic, leaping wide receiver who had three 100-yard games as a rookie in 2011 while averaging 18.7 yards a catch.
At others, the former Tennessee Volunteer appears disinterested. He’s been held to two catches or fewer in 10 of the 28 NFL games he’s played in, and he’s never caught more than five passes in a single game.
The Raiders, who went through training camp without a clearly defined No. 1 receiver, need Moore to step up in 2013. Three of the four other receivers on Oakland’s 53-man roster have been in the league less than two years, and none of the four have caught more than 39 passes in a single season.
With the situation the Raiders have at quarterback, it will be critical for Terrelle Pryor to have a reliable go-to receiver. Moore has to be that player.
LB Nick Roach
Of all the changes the Raiders made to their defense during the offseason makeover, none was more significant than the signing of Roach to fill the void at middle linebacker.
Oakland had spent the past three years waiting for former first-round draft pick Rolando McClain to live up to expectations before unceremoniously dumping him in April. When head coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver looked for a replacement this offseason, they quickly zeroed in on Roach.
An outside linebacker for most of his NFL career, Roach moved to the middle in Chicago when Brian Urlacher suffered a hamstring injury and missed the final four games of last season. He filled the gap well enough that Oakland signed him early on in free agency and then handed him the reigns to the defense.
Roach’s versatility to play both inside and outside gives the Raiders flexibility to alternate between a 4-3 front and a 3-4. They didn’t do much of it in the preseason, but Allen has hinted that this type of versatility will be something the team tries to incorporate more into the weekly gameplans.
FB Marcel Reece
When you’re as polished of a blocker as Reece is and can catch more than 50 passes as a fullback while also chalking up a 100-yard game as an emergency starter at tailback, you deserve to be included on this list.
Reece did all of that in 2012 while solidifying his status as one of the best, if not the best, all-around fullbacks in the NFL today.
A former wide receiver in college, Reece is a nightmare matchup for opposing defensive coordinators. He can swing out of the backfield into the flat as a check-down receiver, pair up against a linebacker in the slot or line up out wide and go against a cornerback.
More often than not, it’s a mismatch in Reece’s favor.
Furthermore, his role as a lead blocker for running back Darren McFadden has taken on greater significance heading into 2013, especially with the issues along Oakland’s offensive line.
OT Menelik Watson
A knee injury threatens to keep the rookie offensive lineman out of Sunday’s season-opener in Indianapolis, per Jerry McDonald of the San Jose Mercury News, though it doesn’t appear to be a long-term concern. That’s good news for the Raiders, who fully expect their second-round pick to play a pivotal role up front in 2013.
If he’s healthy, Watson will start at left tackle in place of the injured Jared Veldheer and will be charged with protecting the quarterback’s blind side. He held up fairly well after making the switch over from the right side prior to the final game of the preseason, but it’s a huge leap from the exhibition schedule to the regular season, especially for a rookie.
Watson has great size (6’5”, 315 pounds) and uses his hands extremely well, which is a result of his boxing and basketball background. However, he is still very raw, having played football for just two seasons, including one at a junior college in Southern California.
The hope in Oakland is that Watson can hold up well enough until Veldheer is cleared to return from his triceps injury. After that, it’s likely—if not probable—that the Raiders will move him back to the right side to make a push at tackle Khalif Barnes’ job.
P Marquette King
King makes this list for a few reasons.
He’s replacing perennial Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler, who signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent in the offseason. After spending all of 2012 on injured reserve, King had to beat out veteran Chris Kluwe in one of the best position battles in Raiders camp this summer.
He’ll also be holding on field goal attempts for kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who has had only one holder (Lechler) for his entire career. Janikowski and King are still not completely comfortable with one another yet, and they had a few hiccups in training camp, although it doesn’t appear to be a big issue.
While he’s got the big, booming kicks that will evoke memories of Lechler, King’s most important responsibility will be to bail out the offense if it struggles, particularly early in the season. That was a role Lechler is all too familiar with, and it is one that made him the team’s unofficial MVP each year.