The Raiders Looming as AFC West Threat

By: Zack Freud

The 2016 Raiders are in a great position to take the AFC West by storm. They are 4-1, with a top five offense and a bottom five defense so far.  But how did the seemingly hopeless Raiders get to this point where they could be a serious playoff threat in the AFC?

It seems as if the Raiders have stuck in mediocrity for forever. As someone from Southern California, I have never taken the Raiders seriously. This is a team that hasn’t made it to the playoffs since 2002, not even coming in second place in the division one time over that timespan. They have been stuck in a spell of terrible coaching and quarterback play for so long with infamous combinations such as Art Shell/Andrew Walter, Tom Cable/JaMarcus Russell, and Dennis Allen/Terrelle Pryor.

A change in ownership from Al Davis to his son Mark so far has been a positive change. The difference is noticeable. Al had his fingerprints all over the team, while Mark lets his GM Reggie McKenzie do the work for the most part. What really hamstrings a team is missing on first round picks year after year, which is exactly what the Raiders did throughout the 2000s, drafting the likes of Fabian Washington, Michael Huff, JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, and Darrius Heyward-Bey.

The way they have drafted the last four years has really been the biggest factor in their recent success. They landed Latavius Murray–one of their current featured running back in the sixth round which highlights their 2013 draft. The following year they had their best draft in franchise history, obtaining defensive monster Khalil Mack at five, their franchise QB Derek Carr at 36 and their starting right guard Gabe Jackson in the third round. They gave Carr a number one WR by getting Amari Cooper, and they have some promising rookies this year like Safety Karl Joseph and DE Jihad Ward.

In their strong start to the 2016 season through five weeks, the Raiders only loss came against a Falcons team that is an offensive juggernaut—attacking defenses with rejuvenated Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and IU’s own Tevin Coleman. A notable win came in week one against the Saints where young quarterback Derek Carr took his team on a game winning fourth quarter drive capped off by Jack Del Rio’s ultra-aggressive move to go for two when it was 33-34 instead of kicking the tying extra point and going to overtime. That two point play was a fade to Michael Crabtree, who looks like he’s in his Texas Tech form this year, already scoring five touchdowns. Carr has six fourth quarter comebacks since week one of 2015—good enough for the most of any QB over that span.

The advancement of Carr has revitalized this team. He can make all the throws, and is highly athletic. Watch him do a complete flip for a first down on a scramble. I can’t imagine his coach was happy about that, but he was so confident when he leaped and landed. He tends to get complacent at times, but can really turn it on when he needs to.

His O-line has protected him very well this season. He has gotten sacked on a mere 2.5% of his pass attempts, which is second best in the league. He puts up a league average 7.2 YPA and has 11 TDs and just 2 picks, and is on pace to rack up over 4400 yards passing. It helps that he has two very good receivers to throw to.

Although Cooper has had a relatively quiet start, he is very dangerous. He might have broke out vs the Chargers last week, catching six of his 12 targets for 138 yds and a td. With Crabtree rejuvenated, and Cooper being Cooper, their passing attack is one to be reckoned with. This pair of receivers now leads the league in combined yards with 950. Per DVOA rankings by the great people of Football Outsiders, the Raiders have the 3rd best offense so far this season. Last year, they finished 18th in offense, so this is a massive jump for them. This year they are scoring 6 more points per game compared to last year—from 22.4 to 28.4 ppg. They have the 4th best passing and rushing DVOA through five weeks. The Raiders will ultimately go as far as Carr takes them.

It doesn’t seem like Vegas or the public is as convinced with the Raiders as I am, and that is for good reason. As I write this on Thursday the 13th, the line for their home game vs the 2-2 Chiefs this Sunday is even.

Though their offense has shown to be formidable, the same cannot be said for their defense. The Raiders through five weeks rank 29th in defensive DVOA per football outsiders, and have let up a monstrous 452.6 yards per game, which is last in the league. Their secondary is going to have to step it up, but they have also let up some massive pass plays, most notably the 98 yard strike to Brandin Cooks from Drew Brees in week one, which make them look worse than they might actually be. They have a lot of young players on defense, and are a young team in general, so they will make some mistakes and have miscues. This unit will only get better as the season progresses and the players get more game reps. I expect Khalil Mack to play better than he has so far, considering he made the All-Pro team at two different positions last season. The Raiders have proven they can hang around in games and come back when they need to, but are still looking to get that definitive win this season.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that the Raiders are in the best position to win their division. The Chargers have been in some games, but find a new way to lose every week it seems, regardless of Rivers’ play, and sit at a measly 2-4. The uninspiring dink-and-dunk Chiefs are 2-2 and a possible wildcard threat. That leaves the Denver Broncos to contend with. Looking ahead at the schedule, Oakland’s next four games are against the Chiefs, Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Denver. They could very well be 7-1 when Denver comes to town.

Denver on the other hand just lost to San Diego on Thursday Night in an uninspiring loss, then they face Houston, followed by the Chargers again and then go to Oakland. Oakland could pull ahead if they are able to beat the Broncos in week 9. With their giant question mark at the QB position, I would not pencil them in for anything this season, even though their defense is still extremely tough to play against. Von Miller is really a unique talent in this league. The way he bends his body to get around would be blocks blows my mind. His combination of strength and speed must keep defensive coordinators up at night. Trevor Siemian has looked good so far to the surprise of many considering he was a seventh round pick. His backup, Paxton Lynch… not so much. The Broncos have now lost their last two games, only putting up 16 and 13 points in each. That simply is not enough points to consistently win in this league. With Denver’s offensive woes, Oakland should be geared up to finally win their division.

Led by their three young stars—Mack, Carr and Cooper, along with their aggressive coach, Del Rio, the (new to be Las Vegas) Raiders have successfully built the foundation of their team. Their team is a fun, young group to watch. This is not a team that will be fun to play come playoffs. They will be more refined on defense, and their offense will execute better as well. A lot can happen in between now and that week 9 face off, but it appears that the Raiders will be in first place by at least a full game by then. It will be a nice change to see them in the playoffs, possibly hosting a game, should they win the AFC West. They have the talent; now they just have to put in the work.

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