2015 AFC Preview: Oakland Raiders
From now until the New England Patriots begin training camp, Phil Perry looks at the 15 other AFC teams: The biggest question they face heading into the season, their story line on offense, their story line on defense, and their "threat level" to the Patriots.
Today's opponent: The Oakland Raiders.
THE BIG STORY
Can Derek Carr make the leap?
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long said that players going into their second seasons in the NFL have a real opportunity to make significant on-the-field improvements. With the experience of one professional season in the rear view, and a full offseason under their belts, it’s a perfect storm for development.
If that holds true for Raiders second-year quarterback Derek Carr, who showed real promise as a rookie, then the Black Hole can expect an improvement on its team’s 3-13 record last season.
With little in the way of weapons in 2014, Carr made 16 starts, completed 58.1 percent of his passes and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 21-to-12. His supporting cast should be improved this season after the Raiders added potential No. 1 wideout Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick in the draft as well as free agent receiver Michael Crabtree. Running back Latavius Murray -- who will run behind an improved offensive line that added free-agent center Rodney Hudson – won the starter’s job at the end of last year and should bolster a ground game that complements Carr’s big arm.
The Raiders have a new coaching staff in place -- Jack Del Rio is in as head coach and Bill Musgrave is the team’s new offensive coordinator -- which could stunt Carr’s growth in the short-term as he gets adjusted. But if the Fresno State product is trusted enough to take more shots down the field, and if he develops quick chemistry with Cooper, he has a chance to solidify himself as one of the best young signal-callers in the game.
Carr missed most of the team’s OTAs this spring due to some numbness in his hand, but he threw in minicamp and should be good to go for training camp.
OFFENSIVE STORYLINE TO WATCH
Helu's addition provides a safety valve
Cooper’s addition to the Raiders offense will garner the bulk of the attention paid to Oakland’s newcomers in 2015, and rightfully so. He may have been the most pro-ready prospect -- at any position -- in this year’s draft class, and his impressive athleticism will combine with his ability to run polished routes to make him an immediate threat.
But don’t overlook the importance of running back Roy Helu to Carr’s arsenal. The veteran pass-catching back had plenty of interest on the free-agent market this offseason, and he should be a reliable security blanket for Carr, who oftentimes looked to make the safest throw available last season. As Carr weans himself off of check-downs and gains more trust in his down-the-field reads, he could rely heavily on Helu in third-down situations.
DEFENSIVE STORY LINE TO WATCH
Raiders front on the rise
The Raiders struck gold with last year’s first-round pick Khalil Mack. A strong-side linebacker who converts to an edge rusher in passing situations, Mack solidified himself as the team’s best defender in his first season.
Still, with Mack performing as a seasoned vet, Oakland had just 22 sacks last year and gave up 28.2 points per game. Mack needs some help, and he appears to have gotten some on the defensive line. The team signed former Cardinals space-eater Dan Williams to play defensive tackle and drafted Florida State versatile defensive lineman Mario Edwards in the second round. If Williams and Edwards can play to their ceilings, the Raiders front-seven, led by Mack, could cause legitimate problems for opposing offenses. Oakland’s secondary, whose best player may be 39-year-old safety Charles Woodson, is another story…
THREAT LEVEL: LOW
The Patriots got a real scare from the Raiders in Week 3 of the 2014 season, needing a Vince Wilfork interception in the fourth quarter to seal a 16-9 victory. While this year’s Oakland squad will be improved over that group, it very likely won’t be making the playoffs, and it poses no real threat to the defending Super Bowl champions. Carr, Cooper and Mack may help the Raiders double up on last year’s win total, but that will still leave the team with a record of 6-10 and at the bottom of the AFC West.