A 12-4 season and return to the playoffs rained optimism in Oakland for the future of a young and talented Oakland Raiders squad. And we know California could use the rain.
Derek Carr announced his entrance into the realm of top signal callers. Khalil Mack’s reign of terror on opposing quarterbacks could last another decade. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree form one of the most formidable receiver duos in the NFL and the offensive line is among the best in football.
Oakland Raiders Football Future
Moving forward, these are cornerstones on which the Raiders’ foundation will be built, one dug deep by general manager Reggie McKenzie, who first had to dig Oakland out of salary cap jail and draft purgatory thanks to the failures of the previous regime in the Al Davis era.
Who are the players on the team now who will be essential to the future success of the Raiders? Some are obvious. Long-held NFL norms dictate the most important positions on the field at quarterback, pass rusher, receiver, corner and offensive tackle.
At this point in his career, there should be no more questions about the star status of Mack. He’s as good a defensive cornerstone as any team has in the league. Carr remains somewhat unproven, has yet to play in a playoff game and still relies too much on throws short of the sticks to make plays. His progress, however, can’t be denied, though neither can his necessary further steps forward.
But to put Carr on a list of most important players should be filed under the “duh” category right next to “no kidding.”
Some of the players on this list have some level of productivity and established talent, while others don’t. That’s the point. There is plenty of unfinished potential to go along with players already showing flashes of brilliance. They will dictate how successful the Raiders can be in two years, five years and beyond.
WR Amari Cooper
Let’s start with an obvious one. Cooper walked into the NFL a 1,000-yard receiver and after two straight such seasons to start his career, Cooper’s status as one of the best receivers in football appears assured.
His catch rate up ticked up from 55 percent to 63 percent in Year 2, and he went from the 37th best receiver in DYAR — defense-adjusted yards above replacement — to 13th.
But here’s the rub for Cooper: he has to get even better. Michael Crabtree will be 30 to open the season and though his game should be well-suited to age, there is a relative lack of depth in the receiving core for Oakland. For Carr to take the next step, so too must Cooper. For the Raiders to truly be an elite AFC team, they need Cooper to become an Antonio Brown/A.J. Green-type No. 1 receiver. The kind of player opposing defenses must scheme around.
And he can be. Still just 22 (he’ll turn 23 later this month) Cooper can get even better. If he does, this offense could go from good to great.
S Karl Joseph
Few outside the Bay Area realized how big an impact Joseph had for the Raiders defense, particularly in the passing game. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell pointed out in his playoff preview last season, the Raiders passing defense with Joseph in the lineup posted a QBR against that would have been the best in football for the season. Without him, they allowed a QBR that would have been easily the league’s worst.
Khalil Mack is the front-four field-tilter every defense needs. Joseph showed he has the makings to have that same kind of impact on the back end.
He’s a feisty, hard-hitting safety who flies around and makes plays. Joseph also frees up Reggie Nelson to roam and read the eyes of opposing quarterbacks, something he’s particularly adept at doing.
If he plays like he did as a rookie, or better yet, takes a step forward, Joseph will no longer be the best-kept secret in the league.
OT Austin Howard
If there’s a weak link on the Raiders mauling offensive line, it’s Howard. Bleacher Report graded him as the 24th best right tackle in the NFL in 2016, but with Marshall Newhouse to back him up, there are few options for Oakland at this point.
Furthermore, Donald Penn is 34 and may not have much left in the tank. It will be incumbent on McKenzie to fill that critical left tackle position when Penn calls it quits, but the effectiveness of that player will depend, in some measure, on whether or not the Raiders also need to replace Howard.
At 30, it’s tempting to say Howard is what he is at this point, and to some extent that may be true. However, if he can be the 15th best right tackle rather than just the 24th, that’s good enough for the Raiders to feel good about moving forward with a rookie on the other side. McKenzie has proven he will spend money to improve the offensive line, but the less money he has to spend there the better, particularly with big-money extensions needing to be paid to Carr, Mack and Cooper sooner rather than later.
CB Gareon Conley
This has as much to do with his on-field contributions as off of it. The Oakland Raiders selected the Ohio State corner 24th overall despite an investigation into rape allegations against Conley prior to the draft. Conley insists on his innocence, submitting his DNA and even reportedly undergoing polygraph testing. But cooperating with the investigation isn’t proof of anything.
If this ends up with charges, or it becomes clear there was sexual assault, the stain on the Raiders will — and rightfully should — be significant. In a case like this, that’s obviously not the most important outcome here (justice is), but it has to be discussed when Conley’s role on this team comes into question.
All of that said, the Raiders need the help at corner and while it feels somewhat odd to be discussing his impact on the field given the allegations he’s facing, the reality for Oakland remains the same: they need him, or a player like him.
For this pass defense to reach its full potential, a top-flight corner paves the way to accomplishing that goal.
DE Mario Edwards Jr.
Despite the impact of Bruce Irvin and Mack, Oakland finished in the bottom five in adjusted sack rate. Part of that had to due to with Edwards missing time, but it also represents an indictment of the Raiders’ secondary pass rushers. In short, they don’t have any at this point.
Edwards has shown some juice as a rusher, but in 16 games, he has just two sacks, though he also posted three forced fumbles. For the former Florida State Seminole, the games played issue looms large. Injuries shortened both his years in the NFL, including appearances in just two contests in 2016.
If you aren’t on the field, you can’t make an impact. The Raiders need Edwards on the field and at the very least occupying blockers and pushing the pocket to free up Irvin and Mack more often to make plays. If we don’t see significant strides in Year 3, it may be time for the Raiders to invest in another pass rusher and move on from Edwards.
S Obi Melifonwu
A week ago, I suggested the UConn rookie could be the key to solving the Raiders’ woes at linebacker. With spread offenses now fully saturating the NFL, versatile, speedy defenders provide the perfect antidote. Melifonwu doesn’t play to his unique size in terms of hitting ability, but his incredible athletic traits provide a canvas on which to paint the perfect queen on the chessboard-type hybrid player.
Play him deep and allow him Joseph patrol the box. Put him in the slot against receivers, tight ends and running backs. Line him up in a traditional linebacker position and let him fill in run support and play underneath zones in pass coverage.
It will take time, and Melifonwu has plenty to learn about the NFL game. We don’t know if he can play a lick yet. But if he can reach his potential, the sky’s the limit for how good he can be and how much better he can make the Raiders. Playing Joseph, Melifonwu and Nelson at the same time means more speed on the field, more versatility, and more playmaking.
That’s exactly what this Raiders defense needs moving forward.
Source: Fan Rag Sports