Yes, the Raiders are bringing up the rear in PFT’s preseason rankings.
Now, let’s get to the silver linings.
The Raiders are better in July than they looked in April. General manager Reggie McKenzie did well to bolster the roster late in the spring after free agency’s first wave.
Another positive for Oakland? Division rivals Kansas City and San Diego have their flaws, too. Second place in the AFC West isn’t an impossible dream for the Raiders.
However, the 2013 Raiders face many challenges on the path to competitiveness. They have parted ways with some of their most proven and expensive talent, with quarterback Carson Palmer’s departure to Arizona the most notable move. Oakland lacks both starpower and depth, and its quarterback play is a big worry.
The 2013 Raiders are in throes of transition, and it’s impossible to project how the regular season will play out without looking ahead to next offseason. The looming question is whether the 2014 Raiders will be operating off the same blueprint they have now.
But first things first. Here’s a closer look at where Oakland stands entering training camp.
Running back Darren McFadden has rare talent, and he will be just 26 at the beginning of the 2013 season. However, he’s struggled to stay healthy, never playing more than 13 games in any of his first five NFL campaigns. McFadden shouldn’t be lacking for motivation; he’s a free agent at season’s end, and given the chilly reception veteran backs have received lately, he needs to do everything he can to prove he’s a featured runner.
McFadden isn’t the only standout in the Raiders’ backfield. Versatile fullback Marcel Reece was the club’s only Pro Bowler a season ago. Reece is a very good pass catcher who can step in at tailback, too. Like McFadden, he’s in a contract year.
The Raiders’ defense has some intriguing younger veterans, with defensive end Lamarr Houston and safety Tyvon Branch foremost among them. Also, safety Charles Woodson returns for another stint with Oakland. Ideally,Woodson will bring playmaking ability and leadership to a defense looking to bounce back after struggling a season ago.
Finally, the Raiders appear sound in the kicking game. Placekicker Sebastian Janikowski is one of the NFL’s best. Ex-Brown Josh Cribbs is an above-average returner and can help in kick coverage, too. Also. new punter Chris Kluwe is a solid replacement for Shane Lechler.
The Raiders may have the NFL’s most unsettled quarterback situation. Their most experienced passer, Matt Flynn, has two regular-season starts to his credit. The other options are third-year pro Terrelle Pryor (one NFL start) and rookies Tyler Wilson and Matt McGloin.
The Raiders’ pass rush also looms a worry. Oakland recorded a mere 25 sacks in 2013. With no star pass rusher, it’s going to take a team effort to create consistent pressure.
The Raiders’ ability to cope vs. the pass is a big concern even after adding Woodson and cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins in free agency and drafting corner D.J. Hayden in Round One. Porter and Hayden come with durability concerns, while Jenkins tailed off after a promising start to his career in Dallas. Woodson, meanwhile, will be 37 in October.
That said, at least the Raiders have some reasonably solid depth in the secondary. That’s not the case along the offensive and defensive lines.
The Raiders’ decision to deal Palmer made sense. He wasn’t a long-term solution at quarterback, and the Raiders saved some money moving him. Nevertheless, the Raiders are clearly weaker without Palmer.
Palmer wasn’t the only notable name to depart Oakland. The club released wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey, safety Michael Huff, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Ronaldo McClain. Also, Lechler, defensive tackle Desmond Bryant, tight end Brandon Myers and linebacker Phillip Wheeler left in free agency. The Raiders also appear to have moved on from defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who remains unsigned.
Without much money to spend, and with the club in rebuilding mode, McKenzie waited until later in free agency to start his serious shopping. The defense got some much needed reinforcements, primarily younger veterans on shorter-term deals. In addition to Jenkins, Porter and Woodson, the Raiders signed defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker and linebackers Nick Roach and Kaluka Maiava.
The Raiders have changed offensive coordinators, with Greg Olson replacing Greg Knapp. Olson, who coached the Jaguars’ quarterbacks in 2012, has had stints as an offensive coordinator in Detroit, St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Oakland also added former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano as offensive line coach / assistant head coach. Sparano ran the Jets’ offense a season ago.
Ideally, someone emerges to seize the Raiders’ quarterback job — runs away with the thing. The guess here is that Flynn will be the Week One starter; he has the most experience and is probably the safest bet to provide some semblance of stability early. Perhaps the more interesting topic to ponder is which quarterback will be starting come December. If Flynn doesn’t make a strong long-term case for the job and the Raiders fall out of contention, you have to wonder if someone else gets a look.
Another interesting position battle is at cornerback, where Porter and Jenkins are trying to recapture their best form and Hayden aims to make a successful comeback from a scary heart ailment.
At punter, Kluwe’s experience and holding ability gives him an edge over strong-legged Marquette King, who has some upside.
How the Raiders fare in September will be telling. Oakland play three 2012 playoff clubs in the first month of the season, with a Sept. 23 trip to Denver especially daunting. Also, opening the season at Indianapolis is no picnic, either.
With those road trips right off the bat, the Raiders need to make the most of home games against Jacksonville (Sept. 15) and Washington (Sept. 29). A loss to the Jaguars would be a big setback; this is Oakland’s most favorable home matchup at home all season. Beating Washington will be more difficult, but the Redskins are traveling cross-country, and if the Raiders are in top form, they can compete with Washington.
In short, the Raiders’ schedule in September, while far from easy, is not impossible for a decent team to manage. And should the Raiders get out of September with, say, a .500 record, they will enter the second quarter of their schedule with a chance to build a little more momentum. Three of the Raiders’ next four games after Washington are at home, and all three home games against teams that missed the postseason in 2012 (San Diego, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia). The lone road trip is at Kansas City, where Oakland won a season ago.
The Raiders need to sock away a few wins early, for their second-half schedule is daunting. From Nov. 10 through Dec. 8, the Raiders have just one home game, and they make road trips to the Giants, Texans, Cowboys and Jets. Oakland’s final three games are against AFC West competition, with the season finale vs. Denver.
Should the 2013 season end with the Raiders again missing the playoffs and earning a high draft pick, the focus will turn to the job statuses of McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen. The late Al Davis wasn’t known for his patience; will current owner Mark Davis take after his father, or will he allow the Raiders’ rebuilding to continue under the current leadership? As Brian McIntyre of Yahoo! Sports recently noted, the Raiders will have plenty of salary-cap room next offseason, which will allow them to be big players in free agency if they so choose.
Whether that’s a sound strategy or not is another issue for another time.