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The LiveBall Sports Oakland Raiders Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom.

What we said about the Raiders prior to the 2012 season

I picked the 2012 Raiders to make the playoffs on pretty much the same hunch I picked the 2012 Dolphins to make the playoffs.  I saw the Broncos, Bengals, and Steelers as major candidates for regression, and as a team that played all three of those teams, the Raiders made sense as a team that should have been able get over .500 for the first time in a decade.  It wasn’t a team that had enough talent to win more than 9 or 10 games, but it was one that had enough talent to win about half of its games, maybe more.

I did not think that the Raiders were the favorites in the AFC West, however:

Instead of taking one last run in 2012 with Hue Jackson’s guys (a personal friend of McKenzie), the Raiders will field an average roster that they can build towards bigger things in 2013.  That decision was questioned at the time, but looks a heck of a lot better now that Peyton Manning has signed on with the Broncos.  With San Diego and now Denver fighting atop the division, and Kansas City able to improve at a greater rate than the Raiders, Oakland couldn’t have done anything to be the favorites in the division.

It’s not like the defense could have been any worse than it was in was in 2011 and the pieces of the decade-best offense that Hue Jackson built in 2011 were still intact, fueling the optimism in Oakland.

What should we have known with the benefit of hindsight

The Raiders will not be “building towards bigger things” in 2013.  The 2012 season was a major disappointment, even by the standards the Raiders have set.  An 8-8 ish roster went 4-12, and at times looked worse than a 4-12 team.

The Raiders weren’t a deep team last year, and they were a really injured team in 2011, so it was reasonable to expect the Raiders to not get their depth tested in quite the same way as 2011.  That was wrong.  The 2012 Raiders was a team that lacked depth, got that depth tested, and lost.  Then they released everybody, but that’s a story for later in the article.

Darren McFadden has never been a great player, by the numbers, but I picked him to win offensive player of the year (which was won by AFC West rival Peyton Manning).  McFadden was perhaps the worst running back in the league last year.  Some of that was scheme, some of it was poor blocking up front, most of it was McFadden trying to bounce everything and be a hero on a team that had a very competent quarterback in Carson Palmer and an offense built around Palmer.  Instead of finding a way to positively contribute, McFadden torpedoed his offense as much as any non quarterback did in the NFL.  He also got hurt and missed about half the season which, he’s still Darren McFadden, so yeah.

We probably should have known that a team that had absolutely no chance of getting any impact from its draft class (its top 2012 draft pick was Tony Bergstrom, a 26 year old guard) wasn’t going to compete over the long haul, though in my defense, 9-7 isn’t exactly competing over the long haul, it’s really just six good weeks (see: Bengals, Cincinnati).

Palmer threw for 4,000 yards last year, but largely disappointed any reasonable expectation for his performance.  Palmer did not play poorly by any measure, but the offense was built around him, and the Raiders passing offense has been fairly progressive the last two years.  Palmer left too many plays on the field, and the Raiders did not have a very high margin of error in most of their games.

Also, a team that cannot tackle well is likely not going to improve much on defense.  The Raiders improved their tackling in 2012, but Doug Martin was not aware of this and all that improvement in tackling just exposed the real problem: personnel mistakes such as Aaron Curry and Rolando McClain.  One of those players ended last season out of the league, and the other is currently out of the league.

Where does the team appear to think it’s at?

The Raiders are more or less an expansion team at this point.

How did the team improve itself through the draft and free agency?

The highest paid member of the 2013 Raiders will be “deadcap”, who will receive a $50 million salary on this team.  Deadcap does not count towards roster limits, and cannot play any sports.

The Raiders were frugal in free agency, waiting until last week to add their biggest offseason acquisition, WR/KR Josh Cribbs.  Cribbs feels like he’s been around forever, and he may very well be done as an elite returner, but he’s just thirty years old.  When you compare Cribbs to another special teams ace that switched teams this year, Lorenzo Alexander who signed with Arizona after six years with the Redskins, Cribbs has every advantage: more accomplished, younger (by 9 days), plays a premium position in offensive sets, more value in those sets than Alexander offers, and shorter contract for less money.  He may look pretty done at this point, but at age 30 hes still a really good pickup.

The Raiders had a really nice draft, one that can be the cornerstone draft for the next eight or so years of the franchise, one that would not have been possible without the assistance of the Dolphins, who liked Dion Jordan enough to make the trade up to the Raiders’ third overall pick.  Oakland got the player they wanted, CB DJ Hayden, who profiles as a cornerstone defensive player at a position where the Raiders have been weak since letting Nnamdi Asomugha walk to Philly two years ago, and so weak last year, that Michael Huff (a safety) let them in starts at cornerback.  Getting a projectable RT project in Menelik Watson makes sense so long as by project the Raiders mean “in the starting lineup as a rookie” because Watson, a former amateur boxer, will be 25 this season.  And the Raiders are going to enjoy watching LB Sio Moore wreck people on special teams before they have to worry about finding a spot in the starting lineup at this time next year.

The Raiders had little choice but to let some of their strongest contributors from 2012 walk in free agency.  Phillip Wheeler signed a five year deal with the Dolphins.  Tommy Kelly was released and signed with the Patriots.  Darrius Heyward-Bey was released and signed with the Colts.  Rolando McClain was released, signed with the Ravens, then retired.  Mike Goodson signed with the Jets.  Michael Huff was released and signed with the Ravens.  Matt Shaughnessy signed with the Cardinals.  But the player that general manager Reggie McKenzie really wanted to retain, Desmond Bryant, signed with Cleveland for a lot more money than he was worth to the Raiders.  More of the teams’ cornerstone players will be eligible for free agency next year, and while the cap constraints may keep Oakland from extending those players during the season, they will have plenty of money after the season to make moves and keep those long term pieces in Oakland.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

Pretty poor, but maybe not as bad as it’s been suggested.  The Raiders do have some semblance of their identity, and they don’t have any candidates for regression on the roster, which will happen when you get rid of everybody that is established and only shop for bargains.

Palmer was traded to Arizona in the offseason, which is strangely a footnote in a fairly dysfunctional offseason.  Matt Flynn is the quarterback of the Raiders until he isn’t, which is not a statement intended to be so obvious, its just meant to describe Matt Flynn’s place in this league.

Flynn needs to keep winning to keep his job, but the Raiders are going to struggle to string together wins in the early going.  An upset here and there is probably the best case scenario for what appears to be a four win team.

Previously: Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars,

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