11 Oakland Raiders That Must Impress Most in 2012
For the Oakland Raiders to be a playoff team in 2012, they need a few key players to have impressive seasons. There are several players that need to impress to have a job on the Raiders in 2013 and beyond and several others that need to impress just to stay in the NFL.
It's easier said than done as some of these players will have to overcome their own weaknesses and others will have to rely on the coaching staff putting them in the right position to be successful.
There are a few notable players that are not on this list. Richard Seymour and Michael Huff are two examples that were left off because their contracts make it very unlikely they will be with the Raiders past 2012. Others were left off because an impressive season wouldn't do enough to make a difference for the Raiders or for their outlook beyond 2012.
Darren McFadden is one of the few players that must impress in a way that has nothing to do with his play. He simply must stay healthy in 2012. He hasn't played more than 13 games in any of his first four seasons.
There is concern that the zone-blocking scheme doesn't suit McFadden. In the past two seasons, McFadden has averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 10.0 yards per reception in a predominantly man-blocking scheme. In the two years prior, McFadden averaged 4.0 yards per carry and 10.9 yards per reception in the zone-blocking scheme.
Not only will McFadden need to stay healthy for at least 13 games, but he need to prove the scheme was not to blame for his poor performance in 2008 and 2009. It's likely that the quarterback and offensive line play had more to do with McFadden's struggles early in his career as the starter ahead of him, Justin Fargas, averaged 3.9 yards per carry.
I've been selling Rolando McClain since the middle of last season and I have little reason to start buying. The 2012 season is McClain's last chance to show the Raider Nation that he's worth the eighth selection in the 2009 NFL draft.
Remember, McClain replaced Kirk Morrison. Morrison was an average linebacker, but recorded 120 or more tackles as a middle linebacker for four straight years. McClain has yet to break 100 tackles.
The Raiders rush defense has also regressed with McClain as the middle linebacker and has given up 4.7 yards per carry compared with 4.2 yards per carry for the two years prior to McClain's arrival. Opposing offenses have even less respect for the Raiders rush defense and have run the ball 101 more times over the past two years than they did the two prior to McClain's arrival.
That's not to mention McClain's problems in pass coverage. With a jury trial looming next offseason stemming from an alleged discharge of a firearm near the head of an associate last year, he needs to impress everyone in 2012 to have a future in Oakland.
The now infamous midseason trade for Carson Palmer never worked out for Hue Jackson. At the time, Palmer would be paired with Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford, Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey to get the Raiders to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
That didn't happen, partly because McFadden got hurt the following week and it turned out to be a season-ending foot injury. Moore missed three games and Ford missed six games and the Raiders offense was never good enough to make up for the poor defense.
It wasn't all bad for Palmer. Excluding a relief appearance only days after the trade, Palmer tossed 307 passes for 2,637 yards in nine games. His 293 yards per game projected over a full season is 4,688 yards, which would have been a shade above Aaron Rodgers and a shade below Eli Manning last season.
Unfortunately the yards came with 13 interceptions (again excluding the relief appearance against the Chiefs) and 13 touchdowns, projecting to 23 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. The yardage was likely inflated due to the loss of McFadden and the interceptions the result of being unfamiliar with the playbook and his receivers.
It's worth noting seven of the 13 interceptions were in just two games, his first as starter for Oakland against Denver and the other against Green Bay in a game where the Raiders were being blown out and had to throw.
There are encouraging signs here for Palmer, but a sub-standard performance could make you the next Jeff George or Kerry Collins and not the next Rich Gannon.
Pro Football Focus fantasy writer Bryan Fontaine has Jacoby Ford as a potential breakout candidate in 2012 based upon the 'Brandon Lloyd' factor. That's probably a good thing for Ford, because he had a disappointing 2011 season.
A lot of Ford's lack of production can be directly attributed to injury and the emergence of Denarius Moore. Ford played in eight games, but only started three and only had one game in line with expectations.
With a healthy and young group of receivers that includes a couple of rookies, Ford needs to impress to hold onto his snaps. Failure to impress at receiver could make Ford nothing more than a return specialist and depth receiver.
You would think Darrius Heyward-Bey did enough last year to prove himself, but with a new regime in Oakland and fans wanting to see if he can step into the role of a number one receiver, he still has plenty left to prove.
Part of the reason not everyone is sold on Heyward-Bey is because Heyward-Bey was so inconsistent. From Weeks 4 to 7, Heyward-Bey enjoyed success by catching 22 passes for 385 yards and one touchdown. Then he was benched in Week 9 and didn't record a single catch in Week 10 despite starting and playing 59 snaps. Weeks 11 to 13 were average at best.
Heyward-Bey recapured the production from earlier in the season from Weeks 14-17 with 26 receptions for 433 yards and two touchdowns. The Raiders and the Raider Nation are hoping Heyward-Bey can produce more consistently in 2012 and become the top receiver Al Davis hoped he would be.
The Raiders made two midseason trades in 2011 which is highly unusual. The first trade was actually Aaron Curry, the former first-round draft bust of the Seattle Seahawks.
Curry restructured his contract this offseason, and it will keep him in the silver and black in 2012, but beyond that will depend on Curry's play. Curry is due a $500,000 roster bonus in 2013 with a total cap figure of $3.877 million. Going forward Curry will cost the Raiders $3.877 million per year until 2016, although the contract is voidable starting in 2014.
All this to say that Curry needs to be impressive enough for the Raiders that he is worth the extra cash. He's proven to be the best linebacker the Raiders have had in years when it comes to supporting the run, but he's still a liability in pass coverage and needs to get better in that area of his game.
Curry did show improvement in pass coverage for the Raiders as the weak-side linebacker as opposed to the strong-side linebacker that he was in Seattle. Pro Football Focus actually gave Curry a plus-1.8 grade in pass coverage when he was with the Raiders which is actually better than his run defense grade of 0.4 when he was with the Raiders.
Slightly above average is not going to be worth nearly $4 million. Curry must impress the new coaching staff and develop his coverage skills in 2012 or he won't be a Raider in 2013 and beyond.
He signed a one-year contract with the Raiders and is entering his fifth professional season. He's started only 24 games over the past three years. Wheeler developed as a run defender last season, but is a well-balanced linebacker that is equally agile in coverage.
With the Raiders' lack of depth and few quality players at the linebacker position, the Raiders are counting on Wheeler to be a big part of the defense. Anything less and there's no guarantee he gets another contract offer from the Raiders.
Like Wheeler, Bartell signed a one-year contract with the Raiders. He's also coming off a scary neck injury. When healthy, Bartell was a underrated cornerback playing for a team that hadn't been successful during his tenure.
He'll be the top cornerback in Oakland, another team that hasn't had much success lately, but there are also two young cornerbacks that could eventually push for playing time.
If Bartell is impressive, the Raiders could offer him another contract to keep him around for another couple seasons, but absent a good year the Raiders might move on with the youth they have at the position.
Like Bartell and Wheeler, Shawntae Spencer signed a one-year contract. Spencer is coming off several average seasons in San Francisco and has had various injury issues over the past few years.
In Oakland Spencer will have to opportunity to start over promising young cornerbacks DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa, but the position is far from guaranteed and he'll have to win the job.
If Spencer doesn't earn the starting job outright, there's a pretty good chance the Raiders will shop for a cornerback next year. If Spencer earns the starting spot and is impressive as the starter, he could find himself getting another couple years with the Raiders.
After an initially strong role as a nickel safety his rookie season, Mike Mitchell failed to improve over the last two seasons. There is some question that he will even make the squad in 2012.
Provided Mitchell does make the final 53-man roster, he'll need to be impressive to get another contract from the Raiders. Mitchell enters the final year of his rookie contract and the new regime in Oakland will need to be impressed enough with him to keep him around, even as a role player.
The lack of depth at linebacker and the weakness of the group being pass coverage could provide Mitchell with more opportunities in 2012 as a nickel linebacker, and he'll need to take advantage of the additional opportunities.
He appears to be getting the nod as the Raiders starting tight end, but David Ausberry and Richard Gordon are expected to push him during training camp and throughout the regular season.
Myers has been the second tight end for the last few years, but this might be his one and only chance to be an NFL starter. If Myers is impressive enough blocking and receiving, he could keep the job until the Raiders find a tight end in the mold of players like Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
It's Myers one and maybe only shot to impress the Raiders and the Raider Nation and prove he can be a starting tight end in the NFL, but there are younger more explosive players that will make it hard on Myers in 2012.