Oakland Raiders: Predicting How The AFC West Plays Out This Season

Dec 24, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders fans celebrate after a missed field goal by the San Diego Chargers during the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Raiders defeated the San Diego Chargers 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 24, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders fans celebrate after a missed field goal by the San Diego Chargers during the fourth quarter at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Raiders defeated the San Diego Chargers 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /
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Oakland Raiders
Dec 24, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) celebrates with offensive guard Jon Feliciano (68) and guard Gabe Jackson (66) after a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers during an NFL football game at O.co Coliseum. The Raiders defeated the Chargers 23-20 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

1. Oakland Raiders

Nobody in the AFC West had a better or more productive offseasn than the Raiders. This is a team with playmakers all over the field – on both sides of the ball. This is a team with a very high ceiling and looks poised to claim their first AFC West title in more than a decade.

Oakland got the ball rolling early by signing mammoth guard Kelechi Osemele to help fortify an already physical and intimidating offensive line – one that was ranked as one of the best in the league last season.

With a projected line of Donald Penn, Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, Osemele, and either Austin Howard or Menelik Watson on the right side, Oakland is going to have one of the nastiest, most physical lines in the league. Some pundits have already said Oakland’s line could surpass Dallas’ line as the league’s best.

Having that sort of protection up front is going to do wonders for Derek Carr. With an array of weapons like Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts, and Clive Walford, Carr should be able to continue to develop on the trajectory he’s been on – which would put him among the better quarterbacks in the league.

Continuity is also going to help him continue to flourish. Being in OC Bill Musgrave‘s system for a second year should yield even better results as he’s already familiar and comfortable with the language and complexities of the schemes. Not having to learn a new system – again – is going to be a real boon for Carr, and for the offense as a whole.

If there is one area of concern, it is in the running game. With Latavius Murray‘s breakout season last year – topping 1,000 yards and posting the sixth best total in the league – the Raiders chose not to address the running back situation until the fifth round of the draft when they took Texas Tech’s Deandre Washington.

Given the drop in his production over the latter part of the season, in addition to his 266 carries – third most in the league – it seemed clear that Murray needed a little help in the backfield. Roy Helu and Taiwan Jones most certainly did not provide that help, and Oakland’s running game suffered because of it. As did the offense as a whole.

GM Reggie McKenzie believes that Washington is an “all around back” who can run between the tackles and help shoulder some of the burden with Murray. But given Washington’s stature – 5’8”, 200 lbs. – one has to wonder if McKenzie is simply being overly optimistic.

While it’s true that Washington was able to tear up defenses in college, the NFL is a much different game and guys his size don’t typically flourish between the tackles and are usually better suited to catching balls out of the backfield and then making plays in space.

But without any other options on the horizon, fans are left to hope that McKenzie’s evaluation of Washington is rooted in reality and is not simply a case of him trying to talk himself into somebody’s potential.

The offense is going to be dynamic. But the defense is going to be an absolute beast. McKenzie finally got Khalil Mack some pass rushing help – and a lot of it. They signed Bruce Irvin away from Seattle, and then drafted Shilique Calhoun and Jihad Ward.

The team got a bit of good news when Mario Edwards Jr. – who was proving himself to be a very valuable addition on the edge – was cleared to return to the field. And with Aldon Smith expected to be back from suspension in early November, the Raiders are going to have pass rushers to send from every possible angle.

Oakland’s pass rush, if they can play to their potential, could be even more ferocious and dominant than the Broncos last season.

Last year, Oakland’s secondary was an absolute train wreck. Though David Amerson – picked up during the season – stepped up and proved himself to be a very valuable asset, the other corner position was a dumpster fire. D.J. Hayden an Neiko Thorpe tried, but failed to lock down their side of the field and opposing quarterbacks were able to pick Oakland’s defense apart.

Oakland Raiders
Sep 13, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Baltimore Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele (72) reacts during the second half against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 19-13. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

McKenzie responded by adding arguably, the best corner on the market at the time in Sean Smith – bonus points for stripping him away from a hated division foe. So with Amerson on one side, Smith now on the other, and Travis Carrie now free to develop as a corner in the slot, opposing quarterbacks are going to have a pretty tough decision to make when throwing the ball.

With the retirement of Charles Woodson and the inconsistent play of Carrie – thrust into the role after Nate Allen‘s injury – the Raiders found themselves very thin and uncertain at both safety spots. After missing out on Eric Weddle – or not really trying to grab him – McKenzie signed arguably, the best safety on the market in Reggie Nelson, whose eight picks last year led the league.

After releasing Allen, McKenzie was also able to bring him back on a one year insurance policy. The team has also slid Keith McGill into a safety spot – a position he had success in during his college years – and drafted a hard hitting ballhawk in Karl Joseph.

And suddenly, one of Oakland’s biggest areas of weakness last year – the defensive backfield – is now a real strenght of this team. And given the pass rush the Raiders will be able to put on, this very well could be one of the most intimidating and best defenses in the league.

If there is one area to be concerned with though, it’s at the inside linebacker spot. McKenzie opted to not address it via free agency or the draft, perhaps showing his belief that Ben Heeney and Neiron Ball will continue to develop and flourish in DC Ken Norton Jr.’s system.

But given the difficulties Oakland had last season covering the short passing game – specifically covering the tight end, though Ball was a very big bright spot in that department – this is something to keep an eye on. If that pair of young linebackers can grow and develop, the Raiders are going to be in very good shape. If they regress in year two, the Raiders are going to have to find a way to compensate for it.

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The Raiders are a vastly improved team without a ton of glaring weaknesses. They will have a dynamic offense and a ferocious defense. They lost five games by a touchdown or less last season and having learned those tough lessons, will be looking to correct that this year.

Given the continuity of the coaching staff as well as their roster additions this offseason, this is a team on the rise and a team that will be able to climb to the top of the AFC West this year.

Record: 11-5 (1st in the AFC West)