Oakland Raiders' Offseason To-Do List
Today would've been the first day of Derek Carr's preparation for a "Tuck Rule" rematch.
It's just another day of recovery instead—for both the best Oakland Raiders quarterback since that 2001 AFC Divisional Round run and the fans who root him on. Carr's broken leg impacted the playoffs more than any injury in recent memory; it'll take time to absorb the truth of what could've been a Super Bowl year gone sour. That's doubly true if this year signals the end of football in Oakland.
Luckily for general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio, Raider Nation expands far and wide. And unlike the club that lost a conference championship game bid in wild fashion 15 seasons ago, this version feels like it's at the start of a successful journey—not the back end.
Here are 10 steps McKenzie and Del Rio can take to ensure it stays that way.
Don't Rush Derek Carr Back
Quarterback injuries are a tricky tightrope to walk in today's NFL.
Of course the Raiders would like their franchise leader back and better than ever. They just can't risk pushing the envelope and spoiling another year of Carr's prime.
Backups Matt McGloin and Connor Cook took valuable reps late in the season. Should one of them need to start for Oakland in the first few weeks of next year, it wouldn't be the end of Raiders football as we know it. Like Andrew Luck's heading into the 2016 campaign, Carr's long-term health shouldn't just be a priority; it should be the only real priority.
Look to the Future at Offensive Tackle
Note to McKenzie: Don't stand pat just because Oakland's line was great in 2016.
The general manager has to be aggressive in the line market, particularly because the Raiders play in a division with so many scary pass-rushers. If keeping Carr healthy is his top priority, he'll make moves to strengthen and deepen Oakland's blocking stable.
Help could come in the form of a tackle or two. Donald Penn was a great blindside protector, but he was also my teammate back in the day and will be 34 before next season starts. His bookend, Austin Howard, needed a little help on the right side as the season wore on.
Get Amari Cooper Involved Again
Maybe it was at the start of Oakland's quarterback carousel.
Maybe it was even earlier than that.
Amari Cooper became a forgotten superstar somewhere down the stretch in 2016. It'll be Del Rio's job to locate the turning point and make sure his offense never goes down that path again.
Cooper can help his own cause, too. The 22-year-old blossoming superstar posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaign but also leads the league in drops since 2015 with 22, per Pro Football Focus. Those issues came to a head in the Raiders' Wild Card Round loss. If Cooper hits the Jugs machine this offseason, he will be as good as new come September.
Put More on Carr's Plate
Oakland's offensive system acted as a set of training wheels for Carr.
Now, the man behind that system is gone. And Bill Musgrave's successor—former quarterbacks coach Todd Downing—knows exactly what Carr likes and dislikes. It's time to take off the training wheels.
Downing's first step as the Raiders' new offensive coordinator? It should be naming No. 4 his co-coordinator, an on-field extension of himself. Carr is heady and talented enough to take Peyton Manning-level control of the Oakland attack.
If he does so, the Carr-Downing complex will call more varied plays than Musgrave ever did. Predictability was a bit of a problem at O.co Coliseum; the Raiders need to correct it.
Find One More Pass-Rusher
Look at any elite defense, and you'll see not one but multiple pass-rushers screaming off the edge.
The addition of Bruce Irvin was a great start. But despite his late-season come-on, I'm not sure Irvin is the kind of pass-rusher who can consistently prevent Mack double-teams. That's the kind of guy the Raiders need—the kind they might've lost when Mario Edwards Jr. was hurt and don't have in complementary pieces like Denico Autry.
Pursue the You-Know-What out of Gus Bradley
Oakland hired Ken Norton Jr. to bring some defense down from Seattle a couple of years ago.
He's had mixed results. Why not inquire about the services of the Seahawks' true defensive architect? He just hit the job market and might find a common bond with another ex-Jaguars head coach in Del Rio.
Gus Bradley will have no shortage of suitors this winter. The Raiders should join the fray after what Bradley pulled off with Jacksonville's overworked defense (ranked No. 6 in the league) in 2016. He could do wonders with the coverages Norton has struggled to install. And Oakland players would feed off the energy he brings to practice every day.
Locate the Next Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright
So the Raiders want to run the Seahawks' "press Cover 3 bail" style, do they?
Oakland forgot two key ingredients: linebackers who are heady enough to call that defense and spry enough to clean up after its flaws.
Seattle has two such players in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. So, come free agency or draft season, Oakland should look to players in their mold. Any tall, lanky, athletic ball-hunters are welcome; Malcolm Smith had his moments, but the rest of the Silver and Black's linebacking depth chart leaves much to be desired.
Find a Role for Karl Joseph
Karl Joseph may be the long-term answer for his team on the back end.
I just haven't seen it yet. On film, the West Virginia product looked lost and confused (see also: like a rookie) for long spans. The first-round pick was the third-best safety on his team.
Joseph will need to train both body and mind this offseason. He also might require a new role, as Nate Allen and Reggie Nelson played well enough to secure starting jobs in Del Rio's defense. Here's what I'm thinking: a dual nickelback/third safety role for No. 42 that wouldn't be much different from the one Tyrann Mathieu holds down for the Cardinals.
Import a New Crop of Cornerbacks
Sean Smith is getting a little too long in the tooth at 29 years old. And David Amerson looked more like the guy the Redskins cut than the one who bounced back by the Bay last season.
Oakland can't be comfortable with either one as a starting cornerback. An upgrade seems inevitable given the team's big-play susceptibility (it allowed an AFC-high 16 passes of 40-plus yards, according to Pro Football Reference) and change at secondary coach.
Expect this to be a top draft priority for McKenzie, too. This year's class is chock-full of cornerbacks who far exceed those currently on the roster.
If Relocation Is a Must, Do It Quietly
Don't take a page from Stan Kroenke's book.
Relocating is a terrible thing—especially for a team with such entrenched roots as the Raiders. So if owner Mark Davis should announce a move to Las Vegas, let it be just an announcement.
That means no HBO docuseries to chronicle the move and all the players involved. That means no big logo reveal to get the fans in Las Vegas riled up. We've seen the effects—both before and after—that changing markets can have on an NFL franchise's winning prospects.
Oakland can't afford to flush a competitive season down the drain because its talented players are too distracted. The stadium business needs to be dealt with swiftly.