Here’s my training-camp preview for the Raiders.
The Raiders may be on the upswing.
They have a quality head coach (Jack Del Rio), college football’s top offensive weapon from 2014 (Amari Cooper) and a franchise quarterback (Derek Carr).
But Oakland still has a ways to go before it becomes a playoff contender. Here are five key questions the Raiders will face during training camp:
1. Do they have a deep-threat wide receiver?
They didn’t have one last season. So the offense featured an inordinate amount of quick drop-backs and dump-offs behind the line of scrimmage, and starting quarterback Derek Carr had the lowest yards-per-attempt average (5.46) in the NFL. This offseason, the Raiders spent their first-round pick on Cooper, the top wide receiver in the draft. In three seasons at Alabama, he averaged 15.2 yards per catch. He was a legitimate deep threat. If he can be a similar threat in the NFL, Carr should have a much better season in 2015.
2. Will Michael Crabtree add anything to the offense?
The Raiders’ wide-receiver depth chart last season was full of Crabtrees, i.e. non-deep-threats. Oakland’s No. 1 receiver was James Jones, who caught 73 passes for 666 yards (9.1 yards per reception) and scored six touchdowns. The Raiders apparently were unsatisfied with Jones’ production, so they didn’t re-sign him during free agency. Instead, they signed Crabtree, who caught 68 passes for 698 yards (10.3 yards per reception) and scored four touchdowns last season with the 49ers. Does he qualify as an upgrade? Will he even be in the league after next season?
3. Can the offensive line protect Derek Carr?
They certainly couldn’t last season, even though Carr mostly took short three-step drops. According to Pro Football Focus, the Raiders’ offensive line allowed 150 hurries last season, tied for third-most in the AFC. Starting left tackle Donald Penn and starting right tackle Khalif Barnes combined to give up nine sacks and 47 hurries. Barnes was so bad, this offseason Oakland moved him to right guard and replaced him at right tackle with Austin Howard, who gave up five sacks and 24 hurries in 2014. He was almost as bad as Barnes. What’s the good in shuffling an offensive line if it’s no good to begin with?
4. Can the defense generate pressure without blitzing?
It didn’t matter if they blitzed or not, they couldn’t consistently pressure the opposing quarterback in 2014. In 16 games, the Raiders’ defense recorded just 22 sacks — tied for second-lowest in the NFL. Next season, the Raiders’ front-four during passing situations will be Khalil Mack (four sacks in 2014), Justin Tuck (five sacks in 2014), Justin Ellis (no sacks in 2014) and rookie Mario Edwards Jr. (three sacks at Florida State in 2014). Unless one of those four becomes a dominant pass-rusher next season, the Raiders probably will have to blitz more than they’d prefer, which could expose Oakland’s secondary.
5. Is there one quality cornerback on this team?
In 2013, the Raiders traded down from pick No. 3 to pick No. 12 in Round 1 to draft former Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden. After the draft, Raiders’ general manager Reggie McKenzie famously said he would have drafted Hayden with the third pick even if Oakland hadn’t received an offer to trade down. That’s how much McKenzie believed in Hayden. In two seasons, Hayden has played only 18 games. Last season, he played 10 games and allowed a passer rating of 121.6 — third worst in the NFL among corners who played at least 600 snaps. And he’s the Raiders’ No. 1 cornerback. The No. 2 cornerback, T.J. Carrie, was a seventh-round pick in 2014 who gave up a completion percentage of 69.1 as a rookie. Carrie and Hayden might as well have big, neon signs on their backs flashing the words “HE’S OPEN.”