The Oakland Raiders have gone nine seasons without a playoff berth.
Under Hue Jackson, the 2011 Raiders believed they were poised to end the drought after a 5-2 start. They lost quarterback Jason Campbell to a broken collarbone in Week Six. Capitalizing on a brief power acquisition following the passing of longtime owner Al Davis, Jackson attempted to save the season by sending first- and second-round draft picks to Cincinnati in exchange for quarterback Carson Palmer. The move backfired miserably as Palmer threw 16 interceptions in ten appearances, and Jackson was fired after the season.
New G.M. Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen inherited the league’s worst situation from both a salary cap and drafting standpoint. Though their hands were largely tied, McKenzie and Allen did the best they could to supplement and solidify the roster by making some key offseason additions and retaining difference-making safety Tyvon Branch with the franchise tag.
Running back Darren McFadden has recovered fully from last year’s season-ending Lisfranc sprain and returns as the straw that will stir Oakland’s offensive drink. New playcaller Greg Knapp — who also coordinated the team’s offense in 2007 and 2008 — is installing a zone-blocking scheme up front while bringing a decidedly run-first philosophy to The Black Hole. He’ll lean heavily on McFadden as an offensive centerpiece.
Young receivers Denarius Moore, 23, Darrius Heyward-Bey, 25, and Jacoby Ford, 25, surround Palmer as explosive, big-play threats. 22-year-old rookie Juron Criner gives Oakland more of a physical possession target fitting Knapp’s West Coast-based scheme. With Moore flashing No. 1-caliber receiver tools and Heyward-Bey turning the corner after two miserable seasons to begin his career, the Raiders may quietly boast a top-ten NFL receiver corps.
Defensively, the Raiders are relatively stacked up front. Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston are impact defensive ends, while versatile backup Desmond Bryant can play inside and outside and is coming off a five-sack season. Interior linemen Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly are aging, but still going strong. Although their consistency was lacking, the Raiders’ front four flashed the ability to control 2011 games in the trenches.
Knapp’s West Coast offense historically gets quarterbacks on the move on rollouts and bootlegs. It could be a tough schematic fit for Palmer, who has lost all semblance of mobility nearing age 33. Palmer can still power the football downfield, but it may not end well if the Raiders ask him to fit their scheme, as opposed to adjusting their offense to fit the quarterback.
Knapp is also implementing system change on the offensive line. While his zone-run scheme has a successful track record, projected starting right tackle Khalif Barnes and left guard Cooper Carlisle are potential liabilities. Carlisle will be 35 when the season starts, and is no longer playing at a high level. As a right tackle, Barnes plays a crucial position for a run-first team. And he has never been an effective blocker.
The Raiders will rely on castoff veteran cornerbacks in Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, who were each released by their former teams this offseason. Bartell has been a strong starter when healthy, but missed all but one game last season with a fractured neck. Spencer has never been very good.
Bartell, Spencer, backup quarterback Matt Leinart, reserve defensive end Dave Tollefson, and linebacker Philip Wheeler were all low-cost pickups for a cap-strapped franchise. New right guard Mike Brisiel knows Knapp from their time together in Houston and was Oakland’s costliest spring addition, signing for $20 million over five years. The Raiders also traded for running back Mike Goodson, and they’ve consistently been linked to free agent Cedric Benson in rumors and reports leading up to training camp.
Campbell, longtime backup running back Michael Bush, and defensive tackle John Henderson have moved on.
The biggest changes occurred up top, though, with managing owner Mark Davis hiring McKenzie, and the new G.M. tabbing Allen to coach up the roster. Bouncing around a bit, Allen is on staff with his third different team in as many years. He was the Saints’ defensive backs coach in 2010, and the Broncos’ defensive coordinator in 2011.
Goodson, Taiwan Jones, and perhaps Benson (if signed) will battle it out for the backup job behind McFadden. Fifth-year veteran McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season, so the running back behind him is more likely than not to be counted on for a big role in 2012.
There is some feeling that 2011 supplemental draft pick Terrelle Pryor could unseat Leinart for the No. 2 quarterback job behind Palmer. If Criner’s spring OTA and minicamp performances were any indication, he’ll also make a solid case for a depth-chart climb.
Keep an eye on promising second-year cornerback Demarcus Van Dyke, who held his own in four starts last season. He could put some heat on Spencer for the job opposite Bartell.
On paper, at least, the Raiders don’t at all resemble a truly bad team. They have a game-breaking running back and two-time Pro Bowl quarterback. The receiver corps is very promising. Oakland’s offense should not struggle to score points.
There is talent throughout the defense, particularly in the front four. While the Raiders are a bit makeshift in the back seven, strong line play can make the rest of the defense look better.
The Raiders are still a team in major transition with big question marks on both sides of the football. While there is some potential for Oakland to contend in the wide-open AFC West, we ultimately couldn’t feel comfortable ranking them any higher than 23rd.