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Playoffs or Bust for 2016 Raiders

Reaching the playoffs – it’s the only measure of success for the Raiders next season, as the coach Jack Del Rio and GM Reggie McKenzie have made abundantly clear in offseason interviews. Winning the AFC West and making the playoffs has come up in essentially every interview from either of them since their season ended around the turn of the year.

Everything the team has done this offseason has been designed to cross the threshold to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The team has been loading up on veteran talent this offseason like they are preparing to make a run for the Super Bowl, not just try to make the playoffs.

Because of solid handling of the salary cap by Reggie McKenzie over the last few years, the team can afford to load up on promising younger talent instead of the aging talent that is typically associated with a team spending big to try to get themselves into the playoffs or to a Super Bowl.

The teams’ big 3 incoming free agents of Kelechi Osemele, Bruce Irvin, and Sean Smith are 26, 28 and 28 respectively – all with plenty of quality football years left in front of them.

The Raiders also resigned Aldon Smith, only 26, to a 2 year contract as of this week.

Those 4 younger players are joined by 32 year old Donald Penn, who re-signed with the team after a protracted contract negotiation but comes back for at least another year. Although Penn signed a two year contract, all of the guaranteed money is in year 1 and the team could easily part with him in 2017 if it chose.

As of yesterday, the team also signed 32 year old safety Reggie Nelson, who led the league in interceptions in 2015 with 8 while playing for the Cincinnati Bengals. Nelson will be 33 in September, the first month of the 2016 season, but still has enough in the tank to be a bridge player to help the Raiders for a season or two until the team can find a longer term solution at the position.

 

All of these signings emphasize one fact: the Raiders are locked in on the playoffs and any outcome other than making them would be a failure on the season. For many fans, this may be first time they see the team make it to the playoffs as the team hasn’t been there in 14 years – one of the longest droughts in the NFL.

 

With so much recent focus on free agency, it’s almost been a side note up to now that the Raiders are going into the 2016 Draft – which is a mere 3 weeks away – with 8 total picks. They have one pick in every round with an additional pick in the fifth round courtesy of the Brice Butler trade to the Cowboys. That trade cost the team their 6th round pick but they are still picking in that round due to the trade of Sio Moore to the Colts.

The Raiders now are in an interesting position as it pertains to the draft- should they take players at all of their 8 current draft spots, knowing that their team depth is now such that eight rookies are unlikely to make the team? Or do they try to package those picks to move up in the draft to get players they deem to be special?

We haven’t seen McKenzie make this kind of decision, yet, as the team has never had this kind of core starter-quality group of players under his regime. In his first four years as GM of the team, the Raiders have not once traded up in the Draft. I can see that changing this year if a player McKenzie loves falls close to Oakland’s spot.

 

The Raiders’ depth is decent at every position, with some positional groups more complete than others. Here’s a quick look at the team composition prior to the draft:

Quarterback: Coming into his third season, Derek Carr is being mentioned in at least the top half of starting QBs in the league and frequently in the top 10. He avoided the dreaded sophomore slump that claims many promising young passers and he showed improvement over the course of the season and another year in Bill Musgrave’s offense with essentially the same receivers should do him a lot of good.

Behind Carr, the Raiders put a 2nd round RFA tender on Matt McGloin, who has shown himself to be a great competitor and has the skills to come into the game and win if Carr needs to go out. The team also has Garrett Gilbert, a second year player out of Southern Methodist but he faces long odds to make the final squad.

Expected Draft action: None at Quarterback although a late round pick on someone they feel to be an upgrade over McGloin wouldn’t be a complete shock. I doubt they address QB in the draft this year, though.

 

Wide Receiver: As of now, there is essentially no change at this position.

Last year’s first round pick Amari Cooper started the 2015 year looking like he was a Superstar until a nagging foot injury brought him to heel (pun intended). With an offseason of rest, he should be ready to again give opposing defensive backs fits going into 2016.

Across from Cooper, Michael Crabtree will again be filling the role as the possession receiver who can move the chains. Crabtree struggled mightily when Cooper was hobbled but when Cooper is healthy and drawing more focus to his side of the field, Crabtree is able to be a factor.

In the slot, Seth Roberts comes back again this year after standing out in camp last year, his second year in the league, after spending 2014 on the team’s practice squad. Another season can only do him good in terms of getting quality reps with Carr and continuing to polish his routes.

Andre Holmes was re-signed in free agency after catching only 14 balls in 2015 – a drop from 47 receptions in 2014. Holmes has been inconsistent in his time with the team but has a knack for making the big play and that cannot be overlooked. Ideally, the team will get him more time outside in rotation with Crabtree so that he can stretch the defense vertically and help free up Cooper underneath for a reception and yards after catch.

A 7th round pick last year that never saw the field due to a season ending injury, Andre Debose will return to the team in 2016 hungry for a chance to play. His primary impact will be as a returner but he has some value as a speedster and backup receiver as needed.

Expected Draft action: The Raiders should draft a receiver in 2016 as Crabtree isn’t getting any younger and it’s not clear if either Holmes or Roberts can be an answer outside – neither is signed beyond 2016. Another impact receiver to go along with Cooper can only help Carr.

 

Tight End: The team hopes that second year player Clive Walford will take the next step this year after missing essentially the entire 2015 training camp to injury. Walford had some great moments but struggled through many games without much impact. Walford only reeled in 28 catches in 2015, an underwhelming amount of a player of his talent.

Lee Smith will continue to be the team’s primary blocking tight end and he’s very good at it but he’s not much of a factor in the passing game other than the occasional ball thrown his way. He did catch a career high 12 passes in 2015 along with 1 TD but his contributions to the team are on the line, not the stat sheet.

Behind those two, Mychal Rivera continues to be unappreciated. In 2015, his third year in the league, the former 6th round pick caught only 32 passes, a career low, and didn’t start any games for the first time in his career. Now, there are rumors that he is on the trade block going into the 2016 draft. Speaking personally, he seemed to be underused in 2015 as he made catches for the team at times when the offense had no spark. While he isn’t a prototypical tight end due to his blocking, he should have some value as a flex tight end and a mismatch against linebackers and safeties.

Gabe Holmes joined the team as a UDFA last year (out of my Alma Marter Purdue) and showed enough to make the practice squad before being elevated to the active roster in November. His emergence is likely the reason the team is okay with trading Rivera.

Expected Draft action: I don’t see any action at this position unless you count a trade for Rivera but it’s always possible the team has a player they really like fall to them. This isn’t a position of need at this point.

 

Offensive Line: The offensive line has been the focus for the Raiders in free agency in recent years as they’ve made an offensive lineman a top signing in free agency in each of the last 3 years: Austin Howard in 2014, Rodney Hudson in 2015, and Kelechi Osemele in 2016. Donald Penn was also resigned this year and he is expected to protect Carr’s blind-side for the third year in a row.

The only projected starter that the team has actually drafted and developed is Gabe Jackson who has been a starter at left guard his first two years in the league but is expected to transition to the right side with the signing of Osemele.

At this point the starters look to be:       LT            LG                C                 RG             RT

Penn   Osemele     Hudson     Jackson    Howard

 

Fourth year player Menelik Watson is also in the mix at right tackle but Howard played well there last year and so Watson would likely have to beat him in camp to earn the starting nod.

The team also currently carries guards Jon Feliciano and Mitch Bell and OT Matt McCants.

Whichever of Howard or Watson that doesn’t start is likely in line to be the backup swing tackle and Feliciano likely has the edge to stick as a backup guard and, potentially, center.

Expected Draft action: Penn is likely done after this year or next and the team may very well look for a long term replacement at OT in the draft. McKenzie values versatile offensive linemen so an OT drafted could also fit in a t OG or C in the short term if the team chose.

 

Running back/Fullback: Latavius Murray had a solid-if-not-spectacular 2015 and as of now looks to be the starter at running back. The draft could change that if a good running back fell to the team and allowed them to move Murray a complimentary role.

Taiwan Jones will likely make the team as a special teams ace but lost the favor of the coaching staff with his ball control issues – just as he’d lost the confidence of the previous coaching staff for the same reason.

Roy Helu was a healthy scratch more often than not last year and it’s not entirely why. When he played, he wasn’t very effective anyway and those two are a bad combination. I doubt he makes the team.

The only other running back on the team is George Atkinson III but he’s been a fringe player his entire time on the team and that doesn’t seem likely to change.

At fullback, the team’s starter the last few seasons, Marcel Reece, is facing the remaining 3 games of a 4 game suspension that was given to him before the final game in 2015. Plus, he’ll be 31 by the time the season starts and he looked substantially less explosive in 2015. I think it’s entirely possible that he has played his final game in Silver and Black.

Jamize Olawale is under contract for the next 3 seasons and looks to be a better option for the team. He not only served as an option at fullback last year but also was the best option as a backup running back. As such, he seems a good bet to make the team.

Expected Draft action: I fully expect the team to take a running back at some point in the draft. The team has been pretty vocal that they are going to get Murray some help in the backfield. Whether that means a back that can help spell him or a back that will replace him as starter remains to be seen.

 

Defensive Line: Khalil Mack headlines what could be a solid defensive line but one that still has its fair share of question marks.

While recent indications are positive for second year DE/DT Mario Edwards, who missed the last two games with a neck injury that initially looked simple but was compounded, later, by some undisclosed genetic disposition. Edwards has been working out recently with no known exclusions and the team has been increasingly positive about his chance to return next year.

The team also recently re-signed DE/OLB Aldon Smith who will not be able to return from a year-long suspension until November at the earliest. During his suspension, Smith is not able to work out with the team nor spend time in the facility. It will be interesting to see what kind of shape Smith is in if/when he returns from his suspension and how much of an impact he is able to have.

The middle of the line is again projected to be large DTs Dan Williams and Justin “Jelly” Ellis. The two showed great run-stopping ability in 2015 and they both played the majority of early downs before rotating out on obvious passing downs. Ideally, the team would probably like to have another large body to rotate in – one that can also provide a bit more pocket collapsing pass-rush abilities from the middle of the line.

Leon Orr and Stacy McGee also return and perhaps one of them will provide the additional big body that the team is looking for but it doesn’t seem like either is a lock to stick on the final roster at this point.

A surprise standout last season, Denico Autry will also return to the defensive line in 2016 as the team extended a restricted free agent tender earlier this offseason.

Expected Draft action: Despite Autry’s emergence and Edwards’ surprisingly good 2015, defensive end still seems likely to be addressed at some point in the draft. Additionally, I’ll be surprised if a large DT isn’t taken at some point. Either of those could be taken in the first round as defensive line is deep in this draft and that means a good defensive lineman will likely be available at #14 overall but DTs, especially, can be drafted later in the draft and still be effective. Ellis, for example, was a 4th round pick.

 

Linebacker Corps: Getting Bruce Irvin from Seattle was a big pickup for the Raiders as he is a versatile athlete who can play up on the line and in coverage. He was one of the best LBs against the run in 2015 and when he rushed he showed skill there, too, contributing 5.5 sacks to the Seahawks last year.

Irvin joins Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney to form the backbone of the linebacker corps at the start of the season. Aldon Smith, who plays both DE and OLB, can join as early as November. Neiron Ball, who looked promising in very limited play in 2015, is also in the mix for the linebacker corps.

Expected Draft action: It’s entirely possible that linebacker is in the mix early in the draft as the Raiders don’t have an elite Mike LB as of now. Heeney showed up decently in 2015 but also made his fair share of mistakes and has some physical limitations that he has to work around. If the team rolls with the players they have it will be fine but they may choose to upgrade the linebacker corps with one or more of their eight draft picks.

 

Secondary: Sometimes a year makes all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, the Raiders’ starting cornerbacks were DJ Hayden and TJ Carrie both of whom are still on the team but neither of whom is set to start in 2016. That’s because of two big moves at the cornerback position over the last year.

The first big move was claiming David Amerson off waivers when Washington released him after week 2. He plugged into the team immediately and played for the Raiders starting week 3, earned his way into a starting spot, and had one of the better performances for a cornerback over the 2015 season. He is expected to be one of Oakland’s starters again in 2016.

Across from him, new comer Sean Smith stands to be the best corner in Oakland since Nnamdi Asomugha left after the 2010 season. Smith comes from rival Kansas City, which makes the signing that much better for the team.

Both starters are tall, lanky corners that can play press against wide receivers and they project to be the best corner tandem that the Raiders have boasted in quite some time.

Behind them, veteran free safety Reggie Nelson provides a lot of experience and a ball-hawk mentality. At 32, Nelson led the NFL in interceptions last season with 8.

Nate Allen was cut and then re-signed by the Raiders for a lower salary and it’s not clear if he’s back as a starter or as depth.

TJ Carrie may see time at safety or as a slot corner – I like him better as a corner, personally. Neiko Thorpe and DJ Hayden are also back in 2016 with the former more exciting than the latter at this point, sadly.

Keith McGill has struggled in his time as a cornerback and I think his best NFL fit is at safety. We will see if the coaching staff agrees and moves him there at some point in training camp. He has great size and enough straight line speed to be able to play safety and he has not been able to stay with receivers thus far in his career which means that corner isn’t a good play for him.

Finally, the team has the 3 McDonalds – Dexter, Dewey and Tevin, who play corner, corner and safety respectively. Of them, Dexter likely has the best option of making the team.

Expected Draft action: It wouldn’t be surprising to see another corner selected because the team is far from loaded at the position but a safety seems inevitable. Depending on the skill level of the safety selected, they could be starting a rookie at one of the safety spots opposite Reggie Nelson.