Dissecting Oakland Raiders' Best, Worst Positional Units

Brian Flores@@Raiders_TrackerContributor IIIJuly 14, 2015

Dissecting Oakland Raiders' Best, Worst Positional Units

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    With the start of Oakland Raiders training camp just around the corner (less than three weeks away!), a clear picture of the roster has taken shape. Players being released and new additions being brought in are still a possibility, but for the most part, the roster that we'll see this upcoming season has already been assembled.

    Now that we know who the Raiders will have on the field in 2015, it's possible to make well-informed assessments of each position group. More specifically, we can predict with some accuracy which positional units should excel and which ones could struggle.

    Hopes are high in Oakland for the upcoming season. More importantly, those hopes are well-founded. This is the deepest, most talented Raiders roster we've seen in a long time.

    But while some units have definitely improved and should have a major positive impact on game days, there are some that still provide more questions than answers.

Defense's Worst Positional Unit: Cornerback

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    One of the biggest head-scratchers of Oakland's 2015 offseason is the lack of moves the team made at cornerback. Primarily, what is missing from this unit is a proven performer. The team knew that heading into the offseason but did nothing about it.

    According to Pro Football Focus, projected starters D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie both graded out as "average" cornerbacks last season. However, watching the two in action provides evidence that they both have the potential to be good NFL cornerbacks.

    Unproven second-year man Keith McGill is expected to see a major increase in playing time. Along with Hayden and Carrie, there's plenty of potential at the top of Oakland's cornerback depth chart.

    But "potential" is one of the most dangerous words in the NFL. While Hayden, Carrie and McGill have plenty of it, what they are desperately short on is actual experience and, more importantly, proven production. 

    Hayden, Carrie and McGill only have a combined 43 games of experience (out of a possible 64) in four combined seasons. Their experience at cornerback is actually less than that when you consider that much of McGill's playing time in his rookie year came on special teams. They also only have three career interceptions between them.

    Oakland showed a lot of confidence in this unproven trio this offseason. That confidence isn't completely illogical, but it's also a gamble given that there isn't much cause for showing this much faith.

    Given how much raw talent this group contains, it's possible this unit turns into one of the more exciting, up-and-coming cornerback groups in the entire league.

    But as of now, it's just as likely that the group proves to be ineffective, which will mean another long, frustrating, difficult-to-watch season from Oakland's secondary that could doom the fortunes of the entire team.

    (Dis)Honorable Mention: Defensive End

    The Raiders had a clear need at defensive end this offseason. Specifically, the team needed to add a reliable pass-rusher.

    After not addressing the issue in free agency, the team was left with the draft to address the problem. Rather than adding one of the many available proven pass-rushers, the team instead selected Mario Edwards Jr., the uber-talented but perpetually underperforming defensive lineman out of Florida State.

    Unlike at cornerback, the Raiders have at least one proven performer at defensive end in Justin Tuck. Even at 32 years old, Tuck's production can still be counted on. If Edwards, or possibly Benson Mayowa or Max Valles, can create a consistent pass rush, this unit can at least be effective. But for now, the unit as a whole remains a question mark.

Offense's Worst Positional Unit: Offensive Line

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Before anyone starts yelling, let me clarify: When I say offensive line, I more specifically mean the right side of the line.

    If you start at center and look left, the Oakland offensive line is exciting. Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson and Donald Penn have the potential to be a dominant group both in run blocking and in pass protection. According to Pro Football Focus, Oakland's current projected starters at center (Hudson), left guard (Jackson) and left tackle (Penn) all grade out as "good" (or above average) players at their position.

    But if you look to the right, things look much less promising. As of now, Khalif Barnes is the leading candidate to start at right guard, and Austin Howard and Menelik Watson will battle it out in training camp for the starting right tackle spot.

    Per Pro Football Focus, Howard is the highest rated of the three with a grade of "average." And it's downhill from there, with Barnes and Watson both grading out as "below average."

    The right side of the offensive line grading out as below average overall is worrisome enough. But the real issue is that there isn't much hope of future improvement.

    At 33 years old, Barnes isn't going to get better. In fact, his play is more likely to decline from this point forward. The other option at right guard is rookie Jon Feliciano, who's yet to prove that he's ready to contribute in the NFL. As of now, they don't inspire much confidence for solid play at the position.

    It's a similar situation at right tackle. Howard has always been an average right tackle, so it's unreasonable to expect him to play much better than he has up to his point in his six-year career. At best, he'll remain average. At worst, his play could decline.

    As for Watson, his development has been frustratingly slow since Oakland drafted him in 2013. He can't be expected to take over at right tackle until he actually shows some significant improvement.

    As good as the O-line might be at center and on the left, the group as a whole needs to perform as a single, cohesive unit. The right side could drag down the performance of the unit overall, which will be a major blow to the entire offense.

    Sixty percent of the line is pretty good. The other 40 percent, on the other hand, leaves a lot—A LOT—to be desired.

    Looked at in this way, there are some serious concerns about how good the O-line as a whole can actually be this season.

    (Dis)Honorable Mention: Running Back

    Running back is one of the more intriguing positional units in Oakland. The biggest issue is a lack of proven consistency. The group is exciting, but that excitement is primarily based on projected, not proven, production. However, what this group does have going for it is a ton of talent in the form of Latavius Murray, Trent Richardson and Roy Helu Jr.

    For now, this unit is one of the biggest question marks on the roster because it's unproven, and it could disappoint over the course of the season. But it has the real potential of becoming one of Oakland's most effective units.

Defense's Best Positional Unit: Linebacker

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    In 2014, the Raiders linebackers struggled because of injuries and a lack of depth. In 2015, this unit is healthy and deep, making it arguably the strongest unit on the entire team.

    Oakland has a foundational player on defense in Khalil Mack. In his rookie season, Mack was a beast against the run. He struggled finishing plays as a pass-rusher, but he did show that he's capable of frequently getting into the backfield. Adding quarterback hits and sacks to his game in his sophomore season will turn him into one of the NFL's best overall defenders.

    Across from Mack, the Raiders have the grossly overlooked Sio Moore, who has been an effective overall weak-side linebacker since Oakland drafted him in 2013. He can stop the run, he can rush the quarterback and he can cover running backs and tight ends on passing plays. No matter what he's asked to do, he does it, and he does it well.

    The real problem for Oakland last season was at middle linebacker. Oakland had to play without a true middle linebacker for much of the season because of injuries, and the whole defense suffered because of it. That won't be case with the addition of the tackling machine known as Curtis Lofton, a proven NFL-caliber middle linebacker.

    Lofton had 87 combined tackles in his rookie season. In the six seasons since, he's never had fewer than 117. In this six-year span, he's averaged 135.3 tackles per season and 8.5 tackles per game. Lofton can struggle in coverage, but at the very least, the Raiders know they can depend on his production in every game.

    While the Raiders missed a true middle linebacker last year, just as big of an issue was the lack of depth. That's also been addressed with the addition of Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith. The unit is also bolstered by the rise of Ray-Ray Armstrong, who's received rave reviews all offseason. Justin Tuck noted Armstrong as a player he believes will make a name for himself in 2015.

    New head coach Jack Del Rio has been similarly impressed with Armstrong's progress, via Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien: "A guy like Ray-Ray has really had a productive offseason. As a staff, we're really excited about where he's tracking."

    Add to this the exciting draft picks Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball and undrafted rookie Josh Shirley, and Oakland is suddenly loaded at linebacker.

    This group has yet to play an actual game, but the talent, depth and proven production the team now has at linebacker clearly makes this Oakland's best defensive unit.

    Honorable Mention: Defensive Tackle

    Despite the Raiders' defensive struggles last season, the team was actually solid against the run. The team allowed an average of four yards per carry, good enough to tie for eighth in the league in this category.

    The the team should be even better in this category this season with second-year man Justin Ellis and new addition Dan Williams clogging up the middle. Oakland should be one of the toughest teams to run against in the entire league thanks to the imposing presence—and the combined 665 poundsof these two defensive tackles.

    The issue for this group will be the pass rush. There's no defensive tackle currently on the roster who can be counted on to create pressure up the middle. If a defensive tackle can step up in this role and pressure the quarterback consistently, this unit can go from effective but one-dimensional to truly scary and game-changing.

Offense's Best Positional Unit: Tight End

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The Raiders struggled to find consistent production at tight end last season due to a combination of injuries and unproven players. Aside from Mychal Rivera, the Oakland tight end position was a revolving door that included players like Brian Leonhardt (still on the roster) and Nick Kasa (waived in May).

    Overall, the tight ends struggled both to consistently catch passes and to block effectively on passing and running plays.

    Neither of these will be problems in 2015.

    To fix the issues in blocking, the team added Lee Smith, one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. As Silver and Black Pride's Levi Damien noted: "Smith is considered one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL. In 2013 he was top five in both pass and run blocking according to Pro Football Focus grading. He slipped a little bit in 2014 in those grades but still received positive marks in both areas."

    While his addition didn't make many headlines and his play won't make many highlight reels, it'll have a major impact on the field.

    Buffalo Rumblings' Brian Galliford had this to say about Smith's impact (via Damien): "Smith is also the guy on the team that is more than happy to take on the role of goon; that is, you'll notice that he's the guy blocking through the whistle and needling guys between plays, getting under their skin."

    Rivera is returning for his third season, and he'll bring with him his proven ability to get open downfield and make plays in the passing game. Now that he won't have to worry about blocking duties, he'll be able to focus on and excel in the strongest part of his game, which is catching passes.

    Between Rivera and Smith, the Raiders have a solid one-two punch at the position.

    But the real difference-maker will be rookie tight end Clive Walford, who was both a good all-around blocker and a consistently dangerous receiving threat in college. He's the every-down tight end Oakland's been missing since the Zach Miller days. He might not begin the season as the starter, but it's only a matter of time before he secures the position.

    In Rivera, Walford and Smith, the Raiders have a tight end group without any real weakness. This group can block on running and passing plays, and it's also capable of making an impact through the air. It contains proven production and veteran leadership. With Rivera and Walford still improving and learning the NFL game, the unit also has immense potential for growth.

    The tight ends will be Derek Carr's best friends in 2015, and they'll prove to be the offense's most dangerous unit.

    Honorable Mention: Wide Receiver

    After a mostly disappointing 2014 season, Oakland's wide receiving corps is primed for a major turnaround. Rookie Amari Cooper gives the offense a true No. 1 wide receiver, something the team hasn't had since Randy Moss was in town. The team now also has real depth in Michael Crabtree, Rod Streater, Andre Holmes and Brice Butler.

    But as good as Cooper is, he's still a rookie who'll be expected to take on an immense amount of responsibility. Some growing pains should be expected. Behind him, Crabtree and Streater will have to prove that they're not suffering any lingering effects from past injures and that they've returned to their pre-injury form.

    The unit's success also depends on the projected development of Carr. The unit has a lot of potential, but there are also a lot of questions that are yet to be answered.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL.com.

    Which do you think are the Raiders' best and worst units? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.


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