Breaking Down Oakland Raiders' Likely 2014 Opening Game Starting Lineup
After two preseason games, the Oakland Raiders roster is starting to take shape.
With two games left to play in the preseason, there's still time for players to make an impression, but this is mostly for reserves fighting for playing time. For the coaching staff, the process is now shifting toward letting the projected starters get in important reps and figuring out what needs to be worked on heading into the regular season.
There are still some position battles to clear up. While certain positions, like the defensive line, are already settled, others positions, like cornerback, will remain a work in progress beyond the preseason.
Still, for the most part, the coaches have made it pretty clear who the starters will be.
Here are the projected starters for the Raiders at every position.
Projected Starter: Matt Schaub
Matt Schaub remains the Raiders' starting quarterback.
As soon as Schaub arrived in Oakland, head coach Dennis Allen declared him the team's staring quarterback, per Marc Sessler of NFL.com. He hasn't wavered from this position despite Schaub's unconvincing performances in the team's first two preseason games.
This is how things will remain, but Schaub's grasp on the position is not as secure as it was heading into the preseason. He's going to have to produce a convincing performance soon. If he doesn't, the calls for the backup will get too loud to ignore.
Derek Carr has already shown improvement between games. And despite the scary moment when he left the game injured against the Detroit Lions, NFL.com's Ian Rapoport tweeted on Monday that Carr has already returned to practice. He's going to be in the thick of the starting quarterback conversation until Schaub's on-field performance proves there's no debate to be had.
This is Schaub's job to keep, and if he can get back to the form we saw prior to 2013, he'll remain the starter throughout this season. The Raiders are just waiting for him to perform at that level.
Schaub is the only Oakland quarterback who's yet to throw a touchdown pass after two preseason games. He needs to prove the faith the organization has in him is well founded, and he needs to do it soon.
Projected Starters: Rod Streater, James Jones
When it comes to the battle to start at wide receiver for the Raiders, it all comes down to one thing: consistency.
Oakland is loaded with potential at the position. Andre Holmes has shown the same ability to get open that we saw last season, Denarius Moore continues to show flashes of his potential, and offensive coordinator Greg Olson has been impressed by the early signs from Greg Little. Even Brice Butler, who entered camp on the roster bubble, according to CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair, was impressive against the Lions.
But for all of their potential, none of these receivers has shown they can be reliable.
Every offense wants a playmaker, but that player also has to be reliable. Little has continued to struggle to hold on to the ball, as has Holmes, and Moore continues to disappear for stretches during games. As for Butler, the Oakland Tribune's Jerry McDonald tweeted that he's currently out with a concussion.
James Jones is not the flashiest option, but he is the most reliable. He was brought in because of his experience and consistency, and he's provided that.
Rod Streater has also proven reliable while exhibiting some explosiveness. He surprised with his production as an undrafted rookie in 2012, and he made huge improvements in 2013 when he finished with 888 receiving yards and became the team's top wide receiver.
Little, Holmes and Moore have game-breaker potential, and they'll be given plenty of opportunity to get on the field and prove they should be seeing more targets.
But to start the season, the Raiders will go with Streater and Jones, the two receivers they know they can depend on.
Projected Starter: Maurice Jones-Drew
Running back was always expected to be one of the closest position battles in camp, and that's proven to be true. But only one can be the starter, and Maurice Jones-Drew will be that player come Week 1 of the regular season.
Jones-Drew has been a more consistent producer throughout his career, and despite the difference in size, he's actually more of a workhorse-type back than Darren McFadden. His speed and power have surprised many, including offensive coordinator Greg Olson.
McFadden will see about the same number of touches as Jones-Drew, but the addition of another back to help carry the load could prove to be just what McFadden needs to finally realize his potential.
McFadden's always had the explosiveness, but his body hasn't been able to handle the wear and tear of an every-down back. While he'll still get plenty of touches, being the second-string running back will allow for him to be more of a situational player. He'll be on the field during situations that play to his strengths more often.
A key advantage Jones-Drew has is that he's a much better runner between the tackles. The Raiders completely overhauled their offensive line, adding size and power. Jones-Drew has always been able to use his 5'7 frame to his advantage, hiding from the defense behind his linemen, finding a hole, then bursting through.
His style of running is simply better suited to Oakland's game plan and to this offensive line.
Jones-Drew and McFadden were projected to split the workload more or less down the middle, and that's what we've seen so far in the preseason, but Jones-Drew will be this team's starting running back.
Projected Starter: Mychal Rivera
Oakland entered training camp with a very intriguing group of tight ends. David Ausberry was healthy and was primed to put his skills on display, Mychal Rivera was set to build off of his impressive rookie campaign, and even Nick Kasa had made great strides this offseason, both as a blocker and a receiver.
Since then, this once-promising group has become a one-man show.
Ausberry is expected to be out until at least the start of the regular season, although CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair notes that his exact return is still undetermined, and Nick Kasa is going to miss all of 2014 with a torn ACL.
While the depth chart is now pretty thin, the Raiders do still have Rivera, who was already challenging for the starting tight end spot. He's continued to display great hands and the ability to make defenders miss in the open field.
Rivera was originally set to be Ausberry's backup. Injuries have pushed him into the starting role, but this isn't a bad thing.
He still needs work as a blocker, although he's shown improvement in this area. What Rivera will provide for the offense is a legitimate threat in the passing game.
Projected Starters: LT Donald Penn, LG Khalif Barnes, C Stefen Wisniewski, RG Austin Howard, RT Menelik Watson
Oakland's offensive line is one of the most settled position groups on the roster. The unit is made up of a collection of experienced veterans with proven track records, which should provide reliability up front.
Second-year player Menelik Watson is the one exception to this, but so far, he's been able to hold his own despite his inexperience. He's exhibited the strength and agility that got him drafted, and he's on his way to securing his spot as the Raiders' undisputed right tackle.
The biggest issue for this unit will be to develop cohesion.
ESPN's Paul Gutierrez notes that Matt Schaub faced constant pressure against Detroit's first-team pass rush. The offensive line often looked confused about blocking assignments.
The talent is there, but the players need to figure out how to work as a unit. If they don't, it won't matter who's under center.
The one spot on the offensive line that's still something of a question is left guard, where rookie Gabe Jackson has seen some playing time with the first team during the preseason as he's rotated in and out with Khalif Barnes.
However, Barnes has the experience, and he's proven to be capable at the position. This means Jackson won't be rushed into action, and he'll have time to develop and continue to learn to play the position at the NFL level.
It won't be a surprise to see Jackson starting at left guard in 2014, but if that happens, it won't be until later in the season.
Projected Starters: LDE Justin Tuck, NT Pat Sims, DT Antonio Smith, RDE LaMarr Woodley
No position group looks as impressive as the Raiders' defensive line on paper, and no group is as settled.
The starting defensive line for Oakland is locked in. Veterans Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith will start Week 1 for the Raiders, along with Pat Sims, who the team is hoping will build off of an impressive end to 2013.
While this unit has an impressive collective resume, the results on the field have yet to reflect that. Although these four players have only seen limited action, they've combined for only one sack and three tackles for a loss in two games.
More importantly, they haven't been able to apply any disruptive pressure against the opponent's passing game. The defensive line simply hasn't been able to get to the quarterback often enough.
Via CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair, Smith admits that the unit is still "knocking the cobwebs off" as they all adjust to playing with one another, but he believes the defensive line has begun to perform better as they play more with one another.
This unit looks impressive. Now all it has to do is go out and play like it.
Projected Starters: WLB Sio Moore, MLB Nick Roach, SLB Khalil Mack
Nick Roach has been firmly entrenched as the Raiders' middle linebacker since he arrived last season. He's not a flashy player, but he's certainly productive. He finished 2013 with 112 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks, and he's exhibited the same play this preseason.
He provides a consistent presence in the middle of Oakland's defense, something the team will depend on to try to get this defensive unit settled and help it become effective.
Khalil Mack has been penciled in as the starting strong-side linebacker since he was drafted, and he's continued to look good in practices. However, he's looked overwhelmed in games, and he's yet to make any play of note. Via CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair, Mack himself admits that he's underwhelmed so far, but he's confident the big plays will come.
Mack is clearly going through some growing pains as he learns the NFL game, but this doesn't seem to be too much of a concern for the coaches. According to head coach Dennis Allen, via Bair:
There wasn’t a ton of production from a standpoint of tackles or assists or sacks or whatever the case may be, but I thought he[Khalil Mack] made improvement from where he was at last week... Khalil Mack is going to be just fine.
The coaches are being patient with Mack, but he needs to show some major progress soon.
The most intense competition has been at weak-side linebacker between Sio Moore and Miles Burris, and Moore is currently starting at the position. He's the more athletic of the two, and the team will depend on his ability to both get after the quarterback and help in the passing game.
The starting linebackers are set, and this is how the group will remain until results dictate otherwise.
Projected Starters: CB Tarell Brown, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Charles Woodson, SS Tyvon Branch
Oakland's secondary didn't inspire much confidence heading into the preseason, but no one expected it to look this bad.
CSN Bay Area's Scott Bair notes that through the first two preseason games, the opposing starting quarterbacks have combined to go 14-of-16 for 148 yards and two passing touchdowns.
This is over only three series.
The situation at safety was supposed to be settled, but the results have been unconvincing. According to Pro Football Talk's Darin Gantt, Charles Woodson finally felt like he was getting comfortable playing free safety this season, but that didn't show up against Detroit.
Tyvon Branch is still making his way back from a season-ending injury in 2013. It remains to be seen just how close he is to his former level of play.
Cornerback was already Oakland's weakest position group, and the situation has been made even worse by injuries, further hindering an already thin depth chart.
D.J. Hayden was expected to start, but he's out indefinitely. He's been out since surgery on his foot landed him on the physically unable to list (PUP) back in June, and he still seems a long way from returning. NFL.com's Ian Rapoport tweeted that Hayden has begun to do some work during practices, but he still hasn't joined the rest of the team.
With Hayden's injury, Chimdi Chekwa stepped up and was seriously considered to replace him in the starting lineup, but now he too is out with an injury. CBS Los Angeles reports that Chekwa is still out with a knee injury and is likely to be out for the rest of the preseason.
The Raiders will depend on experience at cornerback to open the regular season, but this will remain a fluid situation as long as the unit continues to struggle. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers will remain the starting cornerbacks, but this is mainly by default. Both have looked bad, and the starting jobs are there for the taking
The coaching staff will continue to look for production from anyone. Any player, from veterans to rookies, who exhibits potential at cornerback will be a given a shot.
Projected Starters: K Sebastian Janikowski, P Marquette King, LS Jon Condo, KR Kory Sheets, PR TJ Carrie
Sebastian Janikowski, Marquette King and Jon Condo are all locks for their positions.
Condo remains one of the NFL's best long snappers, and King has quickly established himself as an elite punter. In fact, he finished 2013 with an average of 48.9 gross yards per punt, good for the best average in the entire NFL.
Both have exhibited the same level of play in 2014, ensuring the Raiders won't have to worry about either position.
Janikowski has consistently had one of the strongest legs in the league, but he hasn't always had the accuracy to match. When he's on, he's one of the best kickers in the NFL, and he was accurate in his first preseason action against Detroit. As long as he can keep that up, the Raiders will have one of the best kicking games in the league.
Oakland does have an interesting competition at kick returner and punt returner. There's a long list of players the coaches have taken a look at in practice and in games. Of this group, running back Kory Sheets and cornerback T.J. Carrie have been the most impressive.
Sheets is a very intriguing player. He finds himself in a position group that's already set with Jones-Drew and McFadden atop the depth chart. At best, he's looking to become the Raiders' third running back, but even that spot's been reserved for Latavius Murray, a player the Raiders have very high hopes for.
However, Sheets has played well in the preseason, and the team will look for ways to keep him and use him. Kick returning is a way to make this happen, and Sheets has shown that he can excel in the role. Against Detroit, he averaged 25.8 yards per return on two attempts.
ESPN's Paul Gutierrez still sees Sheets as a long shot to make the final 53-man roster, but Sheets excelling in multiple roles could be the difference.
Although listed as a cornerback, Carrie was actually brought in for his skills in the return game, and he's shown why. Against Detroit, he averaged 31.5 yards per punt return, including an impressive 48-yard return.
The dilemma Oakland faces is that Carrie has performed much better than expected at cornerback, and he's worked himself into the rotation at the position, per Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Gate. He was already being considered for significant playing time at cornerback, and this is now a guarantee given the injuries and overall disappointing performance at the position.
The Raiders could decide that they need him more at corner, meaning they won't want to risk injury. But for now, he's Oakland's best option for punt returns.