Oakland Raiders: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit at Start of Camp
The Oakland Raiders put their roster through a massive overhaul this offseason, and there isn't a single area of the roster that hasn't experienced major changes.
The biggest change is the level of talent. The Raiders have gone through the last two seasons with a succession of temporary fixes, while Reggie McKenzie attempted to get the team's finances in order. This offseason was the first under McKenzie in which Oakland could actually afford more talented signings.
Each position has been graded based on the level of success the unit is expected to have this upcoming season, given the quality of the current personnel. Each unit has also been graded on its potential ceiling: If each member of that position group plays to his potential, how good can that unit actually be?
We don't yet know what the results of all of these additions will be, but we do know that the 2014 Raiders will be a much more talented team. The only question now is how these additions will affect the team's on-field performance.
Projected Starter: Matt Schaub
Key Reserve: Derek Carr
Oakland last enjoyed a winning season and a spot in the playoffs in 2002. That was Rich Gannon's MVP season and the last year the Raiders made it to the Super Bowl. After two injury-plagued seasons, Gannon finally called it a career in 2004.
The Raiders have been trying to find a starting quarterback ever since.
There are many reasons for Oakland's decade of futility, but there's no question that the biggest hole in the roster has been at quarterback. The team traded for Matt Schaub this offseason, and for the first time since the Gannon years, the team has a real possibility of consistent production at the position.
Despite last season's struggles, Schaub gives the Raiders something they haven't enjoyed in a decade: a proven NFL starter who actually wants to be in Oakland. He isn't on the same level as guys like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, but he is a legitimate second-tier quarterback on par with Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith.
The Raiders have also created the ideal situation at quarterback. The team now has a starter who can secure the position for the next couple of years, and it also has the heir apparent in Derek Carr. Not only has the team secured the position now, but it has also secured it for the foreseeable future.
If the Raiders knew they were getting the Schaub of 2012, this grade would be slightly higher. However, the possibility that 2013 wasn't a fluke has to be considered, dropping the overall grade at the position.
The hope is that the change in scenery will see the return of the quarterback that Schaub used to be in Houston: not flashy but consistent and effective. Until proved otherwise, 2013 should be looked at as an aberration, which means Schaub will provide the leadership the Oakland offense has so desperately lacked.
Projected Starter: Darren McFadden
Key Reserves: Maurice Jones-Drew, Latavius Murray
Oakland's running back situation remains an uncomfortable mix of potential and injuries.
The biggest culprit has been Darren McFadden, who has teased with his potential since entering the NFL. Unfortunately, that potential has never fully materialized on the field as he has yet to make it through a full 16-game season.
Even when he has been on the field, the results have been mixed. McFadden has averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry in three of his six seasons, according to ESPN.com.
His subpar performance was largely due to the foot injury he suffered in 2012. According to Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, the injury "required two screws to hold his left foot together." Farmer goes on to point out that Jones-Drew "had to relearn how to walk, then how to run." It remains to be seen how close to his former self he can get.
The team has also expressed excitement about second-year running back Latavius Murray, who offensive coordinator Greg Olson pointed out has shown "the biggest upside" this offseason, per Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com. However, Olson also provided a caveat: Murray can excel "if he can stay healthy," referring to the fact that Murray missed his entire rookie year after going down with an injury during the 2013 preseason.
In short, the Raiders have three primary options at running back, all of which have to prove that they can stay on the field.
The Oakland running back depth chart looks impressive, but it also has too many questions. Will McFadden ever be able to stay healthy? Has Jones-Drew fully recovered from his foot surgery? Can Murray look as good against real NFL competition as he has in practice?
On paper, the depth chart at running back is brimming with potential. Unfortunately, this potential doesn't do the team any good unless it translates onto the field. Until that happens, the running back position will remain an unknown quantity.
Project Starter: Marcel Reece
Key Reserve: Jamize Olawale
For years, Raiders fans have wondered why Marcel Reece hasn't been featured more prominently in the offense. If 2014 is finally the year that occurs, Reece will be looking at a massively successful season.
It's not often that fullbacks are featured in an offense, but Reece has shown that he should be an exception.
Regardless of how he's been used, he has excelled since joining Oakland in 2009. According to ESPN.com, he's averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 10.7 yards per reception for his career. Those are impressive stats. The only thing keeping them from being more impressive is that he hasn't been allowed to produce often enough.
In the running game, he's only featured when injuries to the running backs have forced the coaches' hands. In the passing game, there always seems to be a reluctance to get him the ball rather than just using him as a last resort. Both of these things continue to be true despite Reece producing in both areas.
Jamize Olawale finds himself in a tough position as he's a backup at a position that many teams are trying to phase out altogether. Still, he's proved to be an effective blocker. If nothing else, he remains a key member of special teams. As long as Reece is in the lineup, this is as prominent a role as he'll find in Oakland.
How much success Reece has will depend on the coaching staff's willingness to use him. There's nothing he can do if the coaches choose not to play him. Getting Reece 20 touches per game is unreasonable, but there is no reason why the coaches shouldn't be calling his number more often.
If they do, teams will have to game-plan for how to stop him. He's that good.
Projected Starters: James Jones, Rod Streater
Key Reserves: Denarius Moore, Andre Holmes
Oakland's collection of wide receivers is surprisingly talented. What was missing last season was a quarterback who could consistently get them the ball, but now that the quarterback issue has been addressed, this group is primed for a breakout season.
The signing of James Jones could prove to be one of the most important additions made by any team in the league this offseason. The Raiders' receivers already had a ton of potential but lacked experience. The eight-year veteran provides the leadership that the younger receivers need, and he can show them what it takes to consistently have an impact on the game.
Rod Streater remains one of the best stories on the team. Since joining the Raiders as an undrafted rookie in 2012, he has done nothing but improve and impress. Despite inconsistent quarterback play, he still produced 888 yards and four touchdowns on 60 receptions in 2013. In 2014 he's finally secured a starting spot, and his production will only continue to grow.
The Raiders have been waiting for years to see just what they have in Denarius Moore, and the coaching staff still has questions regarding his consistency. Fortunately, the team is no longer depending on him. Jones and Streater continue to secure their spots as starters, and players like Juron Criner, Brice Butler and Andre Holmes have shown that they can all be dangerous as third and fourth receivers.
If Moore finally finds consistency, great. If not, this group is deep enough not to notice his absence.
The Raiders had an exciting group of young, hungry and quietly productive receivers last season, and that was with Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin throwing the ball. The addition of Schaub's proven production and Jones' veteran leadership makes this a truly dangerous unit and one that opposing defenses will have to plan for.
Projected Starter: David Ausberry
Key Reserve: Mychal Rivera
The Raiders have a collection of intriguing but unproven options at tight end.
As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, David Ausberry is currently running with the first team. Now entering his fourth season, he has become a perennial offseason star for the Raiders, but that has never come close to materializing in the regular season. For his career, he has a grand total of nine receptions for 106 yards. That production (if you want to call it that) took place in 2011 and 2012. Ausberry missed all of last season to injury.
Those stats are nothing to be excited about.
Still, the 6'4", 258-pound Ausberry is a physical specimen, and many believe that his impressive 31-yard catch-and-run again the Miami Dolphins is a sign of what he can do on a weekly basis. Injuries and players ahead of him on the depth chart have previously kept him from getting major playing time. Now that the team is willing to make him the man at the position, he'll have the opportunity to prove that the faith in him is well-founded.
If Ausberry fails to produce, the team has Mychal Rivera waiting in the wings. Coming in as a rookie, Rivera was looked as a something of a project, but circumstances (such as the season-ending injury suffered by Ausberry) forced him into action. He played surprisingly well, finishing last season with 38 receptions for 407 yards and four touchdowns. Rivera might not have the upside that Ausberry has, but he proved last season that at the very least he can be effective.
Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien notes that Schaub has always had an affinity for his tight ends: From 2009 to 2012, Schaub spread out more than 1,000 receiving yards per season among all of his tight ends. This bodes well for Ausberry and Rivera.
Neither Ausberry nor Rivera is particularly impressive as a blocker. Rivera still needs a lot of work in this area, and Ausberry hasn't proved to be much better. This is something the team will have to address. However, both of them are at the top of the depth chart because of the potential success they can have in the passing game. If this proves true, the team will figure out some way to cover for their blocking deficiencies.
To prove how much faith they have in these two, the Raiders didn't sign a tight end in free agency who could threaten for playing time and didn't pick anyone up at the position in the draft.
How good Ausberry and Rivera can be remains to be seen, but at the very least, the team has shown its faith in them, and Schaub will make sure that they are efficient.
Projected Starters: Stefen Wisniewski, Donald Penn, Austin Howard, Khalif Barnes, Kevin Boothe
Key Reserves: Gabe Jackson, Menelik Watson
Oakland finds itself in a very delicate situation in one of the most important areas of the team as the offensive line will see only two returning starters: center Stefen Wisniewski and guard/tackle Khalif Barnes.
Not only will more than half of the offensive line be manned by new personnel, but the team will also have new starters at tackle on both sides. Securing the edge is huge, and the team is depending on newcomers Donald Penn and Kevin Boothe to do the job, both of whom had their struggles last season.
Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper noted that one of the major reasons the Tampa Bay Buccaneers parted ways with Penn was because, although he excelled as a run-blocker, he struggled in pass protection. As for Howard, the problems where the opposite. Dan Hanzus of NFL.com pointed out that Howard was efficient as a pass-protector and allowed only two sacks, but he was a liability as a run-blocker.
Wisniewski's return at center will be huge, as he'll provide some stability to the unit. Everyone else on the line will be able to focus on just doing his job, knowing that the unit's leader knows what he's doing.
The Raiders have some young, exciting prospects on the offensive line, such as second-year tackle Menelik Watson and rookie guard Gabe Jackson, but they should continue to let these players develop behind the veterans. With so much turnover on the offensive line, Oakland can't afford at this point to have anyone learn on the job.
Still, for all the turnover on the offensive line, the Raiders do have plenty of experience. The average career of this projected starting line is more than seven years, which means each player will be more comfortable stepping in and picking up the game plan.
However, this experience hasn't been with each other. An offensive line's success is based largely on how comfortable everyone is playing with the guy next to him, and this is largely missing from this unit. Experience will partially make up for this, but it will take some time for cohesiveness to develop.
For now, the offensive line has the parts it needs to be effective, but it remains a work in progress.
Projected Starters: Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Pat Sims
Key Reserve: Justin Ellis
No unit on the team has inspired as much excitement for Oakland this offseason as the rebuilt defensive line.
Of all of the major additions the Raiders made this offseason, the most potential impact comes along the defensive line. Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley are projected to be the starting defensive ends, and Antonio Smith is expected to step in at defensive tackle. All three provide an upgrade at these positions from what the Raiders had least season.
Still, there are questions surrounding this unit, and they aren't unfounded.
According to ESPN.com, Tuck finished last season with 11 sacks, but he had a combined nine in the two seasons before that. At age 31, can he recreate that level of production?
Can Woodley stay healthy for an entire season? Is this the year that Smith, who'll be 33 in October, finally sees a drop-off in production? Which version of Sims will Oakland get in 2014: the impressive version from late in 2013 or the underperformer from earlier in the season?
These are legitimate concerns, but the players have proven track records. Oakland should expect positive results until the on-field product shows otherwise.
There is also the question of depth, something Oakland doesn't have too much of behind the starting four.
Rookie defensive tackle Justin Ellis is an intriguing option, and at more than 330 pounds, he certainly has the size to clog up the middle. His impact will depend on his ability to control his weight, an issue he acknowledged in an interview with Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien, but he'll see limited action, so he'll have the opportunity to shine in situations that play to his strengths.
Ultimately, this unit can provide something the Raiders haven't had in years: dependability. Despite the concerns, this group has the potential to both get after the quarterback and be effective against the run. If it plays to its potential, it can be one of the most effective defensive lines in the league.
Projected Starters: Nick Roach, Sio Moore, Khalil Mack
Key Reserves: Miles Burris, Kaluka Maiava
After two years of good signings and good drafting, the Raiders suddenly find themselves with an exciting group of linebackers.
Nick Roach had a great 2013 season, finishing with 112 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks. He provides exactly what you want out of a middle linebacker: consistency and dependability. He simply shows up every single game, and you always know what you're going to get from him: effective production.
After Oakland selected Sio Moore in the third round of the 2013 draft, he was quick to express his belief that he was the best linebacker selected, and he certainly did his best to prove the point true. Per NFL.com, Moore finished his rookie campaign with 50 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks, and as Scott Bair notes, he was solid in both run and pass coverage.
Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien reported that Miles Burris had started to take reps away from Moore at weak-side linebacker, but this is more due to Moore's switch in position. The move from strong-side to weak-side linebacker will include an adjustment period, something Moore is currently going through.
However, Burris doesn't have as high a ceiling as Moore. Once he works his way through this, Moore will once again be running with the first team.
The most exciting member of the group is rookie Khalil Mack, who'll step right into the starting lineup at strong-side linebacker. The positive reviews continue to come in, and the San Jose Mercury News' Jerry McDonald notes that everyone, from the veterans to the coaching staff, has been impressed by his early performance.
The expectations are sky-high for Mack, and he has given no indication that he won't meet them.
Per Pro Football Talk's Josh Alper, the Raiders will be cutting veteran Kevin Burnett, but the Raiders have depth at the position with Burris and Kaluka Maiava, which means that the unit shouldn't feel Burnett's absence.
The one major element missing for the unit is experience, and there could be some growing pains this season. However, it's arguably the strongest unit on the team, and it has the personnel to excel in every area.
This group will impress once the season begins.
Projected Starters: D.J. Hayden, Tarell Brown, Charles Woodson, Tyvon Branch
Key Reserves: Carlos Rogers, Chimdi Cheka, Usama Young
No position group on the Oakland roster is as worrisome as the secondary. It was the weakest unit on the team last season, and it's the unit that's seen the least improvement this offseason.
After missing much of last year's offseason, D.J. Hayden was expected to make major improvements this year. But he's once again injured, and the news only seems to be getting worse. The San Jose Mercury News' Jerry McDonald reported that the Raiders have officially placed Hayden on the PUP list.
Per CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair, Hayden's foot injury was a lot worse than initially reported. Hayden actually had foot surgery back in June, and he's now about halfway through an expected four-to-eight-week recovery period, meaning he'll likely miss all of training camp.
This creates a major problem at cornerback as Hayden's absence will force the coaching staff to reshuffle the entire unit, and Bair notes that the team is now scrambling for answers.
Carlos Rogers could now be moved from slot corner to outside corner. This means that someone will have to fill in at slot, possibly rookie T.J. Carrie. Chimdi Chekwa is now looking to get more reps than expected, along with rookie Keith McGill, which could leave Rogers in the slot, while Chekwa and McGill try to man Hayden's position.
Basically, the Raiders are going to throw every idea at the wall and hope one of them sticks.
At safety, Oakland is set with Charles Woodson and Tyvon Branch, but there are also major concerns here. Woodson finished 2013 with 97 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, two sacks and an interception. Those are impressive stats, but he'll be 38 in October, and there's no guarantee that he can play another season at the same level.
Branch has been one of the defense's few bright spots since being drafted by the Raiders in 2008, but he is coming off a leg injury that ended his 2013 season after only two games. Bair reports that Branch has fully recovered, but that won't be certain until he can prove it in live action.
The Raiders made major changes all over the roster, but they also have something else at those positions: a plan. That's not something that can be said about the Raiders secondary at this point.
For now, Oakland just seems to be hoping that the problems at cornerback somehow work themselves out, that Branch is 100 percent and that Woodson has made another trip to the fountain of youth. Wishful thinking doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.
Unless someone unexpectedly steps up, this unit will once again struggle in 2014.
Projected Starters: Sebastian Janikowski, Marquette King, Jon Condo
Key Reserves: N/A
For years, the Raiders had one of the best kicking tandems in the NFL in kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler. After Lechler signed with the Houston Texans last season, the Raiders replaced him with Marquette King, and the unit was just as good, if not better.
According to ESPN.com, King ranked No. 1 in the league in average punting distance at 48.9 yards per punt, and the average return on his punts was only 10.4 yards, good for eighth in the NFL. At only 25 years old, King has taken firm hold of the position, and as long as his performance continues at this level, the Raiders won't have to worry about the position for the foreseeable future.
One of the most unappreciated positions in football is the long snapper. It's a position that nobody pays attention to until something goes wrong, and Raiders fans learned this the hard way when Pro Bowler Jon Condo went down with a concussion against the San Diego Chargers in 2012. Most fans might not have heard of linebacker/backup long snapper Travis Goethel before that game, and most fans might not have heard of him since, but everyone knew him that Monday night as the guy who botched three long snaps in one game.
Fortunately, that was an aberration, and Condo has locked down the position since. Thanks to him, it's once again something that the team doesn't have to worry about.
The major question for special teams is the consistency of Janikowski. He still has one of the strongest legs in the league, but all that power doesn't matter without the accuracy. Per ESPN.com, he only hit on 70 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2013, ranking him 32nd in the league, but in 2012, he was ranked fifth in the league at 91.2 percent. The success of Oakland's special teams will depend on which version of Janikowski the team gets in 2014.
The grade for this unit will ultimately be decided by Janikowski's accuracy, something he's struggled with at various points throughout his 15-year career. He didn't dip below 80 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to NFL.com. If he can get back to this, special teams will be one of Oakland's most reliable units in 2014.
The Oakland Raiders have gone through huge improvements this offseason. That has to be taken in its proper context as the team was not very good last season. A big leap may only mean that the team is average, but it'll also indicate a major step in the right direction.
It also remains to be seen what this coaching staff can do with this talent. Although some may perceive it as an excuse after back-to-back 4-12 seasons, the truth is that there just hasn't been that much talent to work with in recent years.
The coaching staff no longer has that excuse.
The Raiders are not ready to contend, and a lot of things would have to go their way to make any sort of playoff push. However, this team has a reasonable shot at seven wins, maybe even eight wins with some luck. That may not sound like much, but after consecutive 12-loss seasons, it's something to be proud of, and it's certainly something the team can build off going forward.
Overall Grade: C+