Week 1: Top 10 Bengals, Raiders to watch
Now the games count
The Raiders surfed the preseason on a wave of positivity. Jack Del Rio’s new-look Silver and Black is clearly better than previous versions, with fans starting to believe better times are on the immediate horizon. Discussion doesn’t win football games. Del Rio’s Raiders must prove their mettle, starting with Sunday’s regular-season opener against Cincinnati at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders believe they have breakout stars in the making, though the Bengals will combat their efforts with talent of their own...
10) Austin Howard, RT
The Raiders paid top dollar for Howard’s services two offseasons ago, and haven’t exactly gotten their money’s worth. He was adequate in his first professional season at guard, and was behind Menelik Watson in the 2015 preseason. Then Watson went down with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in exhibition game No. 3. That puts Howard back into the starting lineup. He’s accustomed to that rank, and must be solid on the offensive line’s more suspect side for the offense to run well.
9) Jeremy Hill, RB
The Raiders run defense has looked good in the preseason, led by tackles Dan Williams and Justin Ellis, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and roving safety Charles Woodson. Hill will offer a strong test of that unit in Week 1. Hill had 1,124 rushing yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie, and seems primed for another big season. The Raiders must limit Hill’s per carry average to keep the Bengals off balance.
8) Taiwan Jones, RB/KR
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is excited about Taiwan Jones switching back to running back, and plans to use his speed in unique, unpredictable ways. We don’t know exactly how Jones will be used, but he could line up anywhere as a gadget player in search of a mismatch. He’s listed as the No. 2 running back on the depth chart, which means he might get more chances than expected. Also watch for him on special teams, especially as a kick returner by default.
7) Aldon Smith, DE
While it isn’t 100-percent certain that Smith with play against the Bengals just two days after signing with the Raiders, odds are good he’ll make an on-field contribution. The dynamic edge rusher is in great shape and can step in right away and get after the quarterback on passing downs. Putting Smith opposite Khalil Mack with Justin Tuck on the interior in the nickel package makes for a ferocious combination that should make Bengals QB Andy Dalton nervous.
6) Carlos Dunlap, DE
The Bengals had just 20 sacks last season, but Dunlap had nearly half of them. The veteran had 66 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles in 2014. He’s a steady producer, someone that must be accounted for on the right side off the Raiders offensive line by right tackle Austin Howard, with some tight end help from Lee Smith.
5) A.J. Green, WR
The fifth-year pro is a monster no matter who is throwing the football, exceeding 1,000 yards in each professional season. He’s an imposing force at 6-foot-4, 207 pounds, which has helped record 14.8 yards per reception. The Raiders must be strong with the ball in the air, and corners should get safety help from Nate Allen to avoid big plays openly despised by Raiders defensive coaches. Green will make an impact, but the Raiders hope to minimize it at O.co Coliseum.
4) Latavius Murray, RB
Murray will be the team’s feature back, a role earned with a late-season push in 2014 and an excellent offseason where he has clearly been the team’s best running back. He’ll see significant touches against the Bengals. What will he do with them? If Murray can produce steadily, a big play is bound to come around. If he can produce steadily, this Raiders offense will be exponentially better for it.
3) DJ Hayden, CB
The Raiders’ 2013 first-round pick has been watched closely during what many consider a make-or-break season for the former No. 12 overall pick. Hayden and TJ Carrie will start and be relied upon heavily this season. Hayden was the weaker player this offseason, and might get picked on if he struggles. Hayden provides good coverage quite often, but must be better defending passes thrown his way.
2) Khalil Mack, DE
It’s hard to find someone inside or outside the Raiders organization who doesn’t think Mack will be a star. He was dominant against Arizona during his only extended stretch of the preseason. He’ll have a chance to do so Sunday against the Bengals as he moves around some as a roving pass rusher. Mack is determined to make more game-changing plays. If he can, the Raiders will be in position to beat a 2014 playoff team.
1) Derek Carr, QB
Many players can make a significant impact on Raiders results, but quality quarterback play is essential to success. Carr had an uneven preseason while refining things, but seems poised to make strides in his second year. Avoiding mistakes will be key, but he must find room to be aggressive and make plays downfield to a vastly upgraded supporting cast.