Oakland Raiders: Carr And Cooper Must Improve When It Matters Most

January 31, 2016; Honolulu, HI, USA; Team Rice quarterback Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders (4) celebrates after a play in front of wide receiver Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders (89) during the second quarter of the 2016 Pro Bowl game at Aloha Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
January 31, 2016; Honolulu, HI, USA; Team Rice quarterback Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders (4) celebrates after a play in front of wide receiver Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders (89) during the second quarter of the 2016 Pro Bowl game at Aloha Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders have two of the most dynamic young talents in the NFL today – yet, both need to step up their games in a big way if the team is going to fulfill those lofty expectations.

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Bolstered by a plethora of young talent, expectations surrounding the Oakland Raiders are higher – and more realistic – than they have been in nearly a decade and a half. For the first time since their Super Bowl appearance back in 2002, the idea that the Raiders could win the division and return to the playoffs seems – reasonable. However, for that to happen, the team is going to need its young stars to step up their games and shine bright.

Derek Carr and Amari Cooper are the young stars leading this resurgence of the Raiders offense. Even saddled with the bland and uninspired offense being run by Dennis Allen and Greg Olson in his first year, Carr showed that he has what it takes to be an elite-level NFL quarterback – and prove a lot of doubters wrong along the way.

In his rookie season, Carr threw for 3,200 yards and 21 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions. He showed poise, an ability to read – and react appropriately – to the defense, and make the right decisions with the ball. It wasn’t a breakout superstar type season by any stretch of the imagination, but Carr showed that he had the intangibles a quarterback needs to lead a pro offense.

In his first year under HC Jack Del Rio and OC Bill Musgrave, Carr took a big step up in most relevant statistical categories. His completion percentage improved to 61 percent, he threw for 3,987 yards, 32 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions, and his QB rating rose to 91.1 – up from 76.6 in 2015.

By all metrics, Carr had a very fine season and one that seems to point to even bigger things on the horizon for him and for this team.

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Of course, it helped quite a bit that the Raiders added a savvy veteran in Michael Crabtree and a very explosive playmaker in Amari Cooper. With 72 receptions for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns, Cooper set a number of team records along the way.

In Cooper, the Raiders look to have the true number one receiver they haven’t had since the days Tim Brown roamed the field.

The arrow is most definitely pointed upward for the Raiders, but to attain the level of success most believe is possible with this team, Carr and Cooper in particular, are going to have to pick up their games in a big way.

Carr, as good as he is, will most definitely need to improve in a number of key situational areas if he’s going to be as great as many think he can be. Last year, on third down situations, with between four and six yards to go, Carr was, quite frankly, pretty terrible.

In that particular situation, Carr went 14 for 41 (34 percent) for 232 yards. It was, by far, his worst statistical breakdown in Oakland’s situational offense.

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As a point of situational contrast though, on third and 7-9 yards, Carr connected on almost 58 percent of his passes (22/38 for 373 yards) and on third and ten plus, he hit on a very fine 68 percent of his passes (39/57 for 398 yards).

That isn’t to say Oakland’s offense was great in third down situations as a whole. Because they weren’t. Overall, the Raiders ranked 26th in the league in third down success, clocking in at 39.1 percent – a paltry 86 conversions on 220 attempts.

Oakland Raiders
Sep 20, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper (89) scores on a 68-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens as at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

For this offense to succeed, to keep the chains moving, and put points on the board, they are going to need to be able to convert their third down opportunities at a far better clip than that.

Not only will they need to convert third down opportunities, they are going to need to be able to hang on to the ball. And a big part of that falls directly on the shoulders of Cooper.

As electrifying as Cooper was in 2015 – who else recalls him weaving his way through the entire Chargers defense on his way to a long touchdown? – he had a problem holding on to the ball. For the year, Cooper was tied for second in the rather dubious category of dropped passes.

Mike Evans lead the league with 11 drops, but Cooper was tied with Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon Marshall for second with 10 apiece. Michael Crabtree was right up there as well with eight drops of his own.

As a team, the Raiders were second in the league in dropped passes, victimizing Carr with a whopping 31 of them – their rather (un)healthy 5.2 percent drop rate was also second in the league.

Fans have reason to take heart however. Going into their second year in Musgrave’s system, Carr and Cooper are growing together. They’ll head into this season with a full offseason of shared work (Carr was limited with an injury last year) and a solid sense of bonding and chemistry growing between them.

In speaking of his favorite target, Carr said, “I’m able to throw the ball a lot earlier, you know? I’m able to trust where he’s going to be at. I’m used to seeing his routes run a certain way. Those are things that take time, like we talked about last year.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Cooper. “Yeah, it’s comfort. I know with every route that I run, I know where Derek wants to go with the ball. I know how he wants to throw it. That will be the best words to describe it.

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There is still a lot of work to do and a lot of wrinkles that still need to be ironed out – their situational offense is going to have to improve dramatically and that drop rate needs to decrease just as sharply.

But if the early work the pair has been doing this offseason is any indication, the Raiders offense is going to be in pretty good shape. The AC/DC connection is one that paid big dividends last season, and if they can improve in those key situational areas, it is one that will be incredibly potent and perhaps nearly unstoppable in 2016.