In the best-case scenario, the 2014 Raiders prove engineered to win now.
In the worst-case scenario, they are a collection of yesterday’s news.
The Raiders shook up their roster in free agency, signing at least a half-dozen players who figure as starters. They traded for Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who comes off his worst season but helped lead Houston to a wild-card win in each of the previous two campaigns.
That is the thing about the Raiders — the résumés of the assembled talent look quite good. Schaub has made two Pro Bowls, and free agent additions Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Tuck, Donald Penn, Carlos Rogers, Antonio Smith and LaMarr Woodley have combined nine Pro Bowl nods to their credit, per Pro Football Reference records.
However, of those seven players, the 29-year-old Jones-Drew is the youngest — and he gained a mere 3.4 yards per carry a season ago. Schaub, Tuck, Penn, Rogers and Smith are all 30 or older, and Woodley turns 30 in November.
The Raiders had salary-cap space to use this offseason, and they did not lack for needs. And let there be no doubt: the Raiders’ depth chart is better for all that spending. But will it be enough for Oakland to close the gap on its AFC West rivals, all of whom made the postseason in 2013?
The Raiders’ rushing attack should be a strength, just like it was in 2013. Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden can share the workload in the backfield, and this might be the way to keep both fresh and effective for 16 games. Versatile fullback Marcel Reece can catch, rush and block.
The defensive front seven looks solid. New starting ends Woodley and Tuck are accomplished edge rushers, and Tuck can kick inside in passing situations, too. Smith provides a stout and disruptive presence at defensive tackle opposite of Pat Sims, the lone holdover starter along the line. Rookie Khalil Mack has the talent to be a difference-maker right off the bat at strong-side linebacker — and he adds a needed dose of youth to an older club, as does second-year weak-side linebacker Sio Moore. The Raiders might be as deep at linebacker as they are at any other position.
Keep an eye on the Raiders’ receiving corps. Ex-Packer James Jones is an ideal addition to this young group; tough, dependable and productive, he can be a tone-setter. And there’s a good deal of intriguing talent beyond Jones, with Rod Streater, Denarius Moore and Andre Holmes all having playmaking ability.
While the Raiders traded for Schaub and drafted a signal-caller in Round Two (Derek Carr), they might still be unsettled at quarterback. If Schaub’s 2013 struggles were no fluke, and if Carr isn’t ready for NFL play, the Raiders could be in trouble — big trouble. And let’s be frank: even if Schaub or Carr proves just OK as a starter, the Raiders’ quarterback play will lag behind that of division rivals Denver and San Diego — and perhaps Kansas City as well.
The Raiders’ secondary also looks a little shaky. The club lacks a real standout cornerback. The progress of second-year pro D.J. Hayden bears watching. If he can stay on the field and pick up his play, he’ll give Oakland someone to build around now and in the future.
Finally, we must mention the lingering concern about the age of some of the Raiders’ key contributors, as well as the wear-and-tear some of Oakland’s core players have endured. For instance, Woodley — whom the Raiders are counting upon at defensive end — has missed a combined 14 games in the last three seasons. Moreover, McFadden’s durability woes are no secret, and Jones-Drew has more than 2,000 career touches to his credit.
The Raiders have replaced their leading passer (Terrelle Pryor), rusher (Rashad Jennings) and left tackle (Jared Veldheer). Penn, an above-average left tackle at his best with Tampa Bay, will take over for Veldheer, who signed with Arizona.
Penn’s addition is just one of several changes along the offensive line, which could have new starters at 4-of-5 spots. Ex-Jet Austin Howard could get the call at right guard, with rookie Gabe Jackson among the options at left guard. Ex-Giant Kevin Boothe could also be in the mix at guard. Second-year pro Menelik Watson, a 2013 second-round pick, looks to have a shot at right tackle.
The Raiders’ additions of Woodley, Tuck and Mack were the headline-grabbing moves on defense, but the signings of ex-49ers cornerbacks Rogers and Tarell Brown are also notable. Rogers and Brown will help replace departed starting corners Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter, who left in free agency.
Carr should push Schaub, who tossed 14 picks in 10 games in 2013. The Raiders have to hope competition makes both better for the experience. If Schaub looks a little shaky and Carr is a quick study, the Raiders — a team built for today, not tomorrow — are going to have an interesting decision to make.
The Raiders could also have some competition at left guard, right tackle and cornerback.
The Raiders have collected some skilled, proud players who all have something to prove. If Schaub, Jones-Drew, Tuck and Co. all find their best form, the Raiders could be significantly improved over a season ago — certainly better than the NFL’s 32nd-best club. But to make a run, the Raiders are going to need to get more than their share of breaks, especially in the turnover and health departments. Schaub must take care of the ball, and the starters need to stay in the lineup.
The Raiders must make the most of a favorable early schedule. Four of Oakland’s first six games are home, and the Raiders face just two 2013 playoff teams (New England, San Diego) in their first seven games.
Oakland just cannot afford a slow start. In their final nine games, the Raiders face the Seahawks, 49ers, Chargers and Rams once and the Broncos and Chiefs twice. If the Raiders can’t get into gear right out of the gate, the season could snowball on them, which could prove problematic for head coach Dennis Allen and G.M. Reggie McKenzie.
Here’s the good news: the Raiders have a puncher’s chance in the AFC, the weaker of the two conferences. Here’s the bad news: given their schedule, age and division, the Raiders may be the most vulnerable club in their conference. Their ceiling just doesn’t seem that high, even after they spent all that money in the offseason.
But their floor?