Thankfully, we are nearing the end of the NFL’s slow season – with training camp starting in a little over 2 weeks – and it has been a particularly slow year for the Raiders, who have been without much drama in recent memory. In fact, the only real drama around the team these days is which city will house their home games in the long-term, something that is only minimally relevant to the players and coaches, at least in an immediate sense.
Instead of arrests, holdouts, or other forms of distractions that used to plague the Raiders the team is basking in the glow of national positivity as the Raiders are one of the teams mentioned in most conversations about “who won” the draft, free agency, or off-season or named as a dark horse team to make and do well in the playoffs.
The Raiders have built what looks like a competitive team for the first time in a decade. With at least the 2014 and 2015 Drafts showing strong returns, the team boasts what look to be one of the better starting units on both side of the ball coming into 2016. The off-season has been filled with praise for the offensive line, the defensive line, third year stars Khalil Mack and Derek Carr who both appear to be coming into their own, and the offensive unit as a whole.
There is a lot of work to do, of course, before the Raiders can make the playoffs. While the positive press is a welcome change for a franchise that is more used to be maligned, being dubbed a playoff team on paper isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Before the Raiders can even consider playoffs, though, they have to make it into the season in good shape so they can beat teams. Thus far, not only has there been an abundance of positive press for Oakland, the Raiders have had successful mini-camps, rookie camp, and OTAs thus far this off-season with “success” defined as escaping any serious injuries thus far. And, indeed, it’s injuries that are one of the biggest threats to the team going into this season.
Injuries will, of course, happen to every team. And depending on the injury, the position of the injured player, their role on the team, etc. the impact of those injuries can range from marginal to catastrophic for the team. Injuries must be one of the biggest worries to GM Reggie McKenzie and the coaching staff at this point because while the team has solid to great starters at most positions, the team’s depth remains a point of concern.
While there are differing levels of depth at the different positions, as a group the Raiders look pretty top-heavy going into the season. The team has high-level players at quarterback, offensive line, wide receiver, defensive end/outside linebacker and cornerback but there is depth lacking at most of these positions and an injury to a key starter could be a very tough loss for the team to overcome.
This isn’t a criticism of Reggie McKenzie, who should be given credit for building what looks like one of the best starting units in the NFL, but instead a reminder that a team is never a set, static group of players. As injuries happen – and they will happen to some extent to the Raiders as well as every other team – the depth of the Raiders squad will be tested in 2016 and there are some concerns about the depth at multiple positions on the team.
Almost no team can absorb a long-term injury to their starting quarterback and still do well due to the demands of the position and the relatively few players who can really excel so we’ll set that position aside. But outside of Derek Carr, the Raiders are top-heavy at a number of other positions, more so than other teams around the league. Injuries in certain areas of the starting unit could be very difficult for the Raiders to overcome.
Oakland’s secondary was revamped with the additions of cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson in free agency and then adding Karl Joseph in the draft. Those three new-comers to the team are likely to join corner David Amerson to form the starters in the secondary. If Joseph is as good as advertised and is healed from his 2015 knee injury, that starting four looks to be pretty solid.
However, if one or more of the four aren’t able to make it through training camp, the secondary unit suddenly becomes much weaker. That could be a problem for the Raiders as neither Joseph nor Nelson have been healthy enough to practice in the OTAs this off-season. While both are slated to return in time for training camp, every year there are injuries that do not respond as teams hope and players who miss more time than initially planned.
The wide receiver corps is another top heavy unit. When Amari Cooper suffered through a foot injury in 2015, the team’s formerly high-powered offense was inconsistent in moving the ball and putting up points and his fellow receivers struggled to get consistent separation. Cooper’s speed and route-running abilities cause the opposing defense to focus heavily on him and that helps open up the rest of the offensive unit. If he were to suffer an injury, it would be a big blow to the offense again.
In the offensive backfield, Latavius Murray had a career year last year, becoming the first running back to cross the 1,000 yard mark since Darren McFadden did it in 2010. While Murray is not an elite running back and definitely has room for improvement as a runner, an injury to him would still throw the Raiders into disarray.
In 2015, Jamize Olawale stepped up to run pretty well to backup Murray for a few games, averaging 4.6 yards a carry on 24 carries for 110 yards. It’s not much…but it’s good enough to earn him third place on the team in carries and yards behind only Murray and, sadly, Carr.
While it would be nice to think that fifth-round rookie DeAndre Washington will be able to step in and be a quality starter if Murray were injured, it’s neither ideal nor clear that that would be the case.
Middle/inside linebacker is also a concern for the team as it’s one of the weakest positions for the team coming into training camp. Malcolm Smith, Ben Heeney, and Neiron Ball are all in the mix to start inside and all 3 have their question marks. An injury to thin out the already weak position could really be hard for the Raiders to overcome.
Every team deals with injuries and the Raiders will be no exception. Their roster will be tested every week by opponents and injuries alike. But before the team can beat their flesh-and-blood opponents, the first have to make it out of camp with no significant injuries.