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Shutdown Countdown: Oakland Raiders have many new faces for turnaround

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

In Week 17 last year, the Raiders were outmatched in a way you just don't see in the NFL.

The Raiders' horrible finish didn't get enough attention last year. They were outscored 153-85 in four December games, part of a 1-8 stretch to end the season. The win came against the 2-14 Texans. And their last game was a debacle. The Broncos had zero chance of losing to the Raiders that day. Denver led 31-0 at halftime and Peyton Manning was 25-of-28 for 266 yards and four touchdowns in one half of work. The Broncos could have won by 50, easily, and maybe 60 or more. The game is memorable for Manning breaking the single-season passing record, but if you were looking closely, it was just as memorable for how one team didn't belong on the field with the other. It was basically Alabama against Western Carolina.

You very rarely see that type of game in the NFL, where one team could play another 100 times and not win once. The NFL is built so every team has at least a chance against the other. That's why you very rarely see NFL point spreads of more than two touchdowns. But that type of FBS vs. FCS mismatch happened, in Week 17 last season. It was sad to see. There was no question after that game that the Raiders finished last season as the worst team in football.

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Oakland RB Darren McFadden (AP)

Oakland RB Darren McFadden (AP)

These Raiders barely resemble the team that wheezed across the finish line last year. 

One can argue with how the Raiders handled free agency, but they did add a lot of new starters. There are five new projected starters on each side of the ball, and by opening day there might be one or two more added to that list. Almost all of the new starters fit the same description: Old veterans nearing the end of their careers, with the Raiders trying to squeeze one or two more years out of them on short-term deals.

Do the veteran additions, as well as a pretty promising draft, turn the team around? The Raiders likely will be better. That's the reason Jacksonville, not Oakland, showed up at No. 32 on this countdown. But a brutal schedule and uncertainty about how all these new pieces will fit (and how much many of them have left in the tank) means we have to wait and see before moving Oakland any higher.

2013 review in less than 25 words: Oakland actually looked competitive through Week 7, at 3-4 with wins over Pittsburgh and San Diego, before crashing to 4-12.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Better has to be the answer. Do I think Oakland would have been better served overpaying for young players rather than collecting old vets? Probably. But general manager Reggie McKenzie needed to save his job. So the band-aids were bought in bulk. Pass rushers Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, receiver James Jones, offensive linemen Austin Howard and Kevin Boothe, cornerback Carlos Rogers and running back Maurice Jones-Drew were the main signees, and quarterback Matt Schaub was acquired in a trade. Almost none of these players will help in 2016 and beyond. Aside from Howard, they are all aging and signed to short-term deals. But they will help now.

Best offseason acquisition: The Raiders need building blocks for the future. McKenzie and the front office hope to be around to see those future stars pay off, which is why there were all the quick fixes in free agency. Khalil Mack could become a legitimate franchise player the Raiders desperately need. The dynamic outside linebacker from Buffalo fell to the Raiders at No. 5, and they were smart to take him. Who was the face of the franchise before that, safety Tyvon Branch? Oakland didn't retain offensive tackle Jared Veldheer or defensive end Lamarr Houston, both of whom were young players that could have helped form a foundation. Now it's on Mack to be a foundation player.  

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Khalil Mack (Getty Images)

Khalil Mack (Getty Images)

Achilles heel: Remember that last paragraph, talking about young foundation players? Oakland simply doesn't have many. Part of that is the awe-inspiringly bad and ridiculously ill-conceived trade for Carson Palmer. The 2013 draft is becoming something to watch in Oakland. The Raiders had the third pick of the draft and turned it into cornerback D.J. Hayden and offensive tackle Menelik Watson. The spotlight will be bright on those two after neither did much in their rookie year. A rebuilding team like the Raiders can't afford to have the third pick and not get much out of it, especially when the three picks after Hayden (following a trade down) were Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei and Kenny Vaccaro, all of whom look like future stars. It's way too early to write off Hayden or Watson (the rest of the draft is a mixed bag; linebacker Sio Moore was a nice pick, but quarterback Tyler Wilson was an uber-bust), but for the sake of starting to build a winner, it would be nice to see them take a step forward this year. The Raiders can't afford for that to be a lost draft.

Position in flux: One position battle that's interesting is at running back. The smart money would be on neither Darren McFadden or Maurice Jones-Drew lasting all 16 games, and the Raiders will hope that their injuries don't overlap. McFadden has averaged 3.3 yards per carry over 22 games the past two seasons. Maybe injuries have just taken an irreparable toll. MJD averaged 3.4 yards per carry last year, a scary number for someone with more than 2,100 career touches. Second-year Latavius Murray is an intriguing size-speed prospect if he gets a shot, but it's hard to predict what a former sixth-round draft pick with zero career carries will do in the NFL. 

Ready to break out: It might be Mack, but nobody would be too surprised by that. It might even be rookie quarterback Derek Carr, if Matt Schaub looks like the 2013 version of himself again. Carr was a smart pick for the Raiders in the second round. But the answer could be Hayden. He wasn't great as a rookie, allowing 65 percent completions and a 110 quarterback rating according to Pro Football Focus, but he was coming off a life-threatening injury and most rookie cornerbacks struggle. The Raiders couldn't have expected too much last season. Hayden ended the season on IR after sports hernia injury. In Hayden's second year, a lot more will be expected. McKenzie's love for Hayden was well documented before the draft, and now it's time to see that pay off.

Stat fact: Matt Schaub threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in four straight games last season with Houston, an NFL record. His numbers were down in a big way from 2012 in just about every category, and the Texans were willing to dump him for the low price of a sixth-round pick. The Texans are starting Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback this year, by the way. But the Raiders have to hope that Schaub can rebound, and he's not too far removed from being a solid quarterback. The last three times Schaub played 16 games in a season (2009, 2010, 2012), he averaged 4,383 yards and 25 touchdowns. The Raiders would take that, especially as Carr is groomed to be the starter of the future.

Schedule degree of difficulty: Well, this is where it's really scary for Oakland. Simply put, this is one of the hardest schedules in recent memory. The Raiders play in a division with three 2013 playoff teams. They get to face the NFC West, unquestionably the toughest division in the NFL with four teams that are probably in the top half of the league. There are games against the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins, all of which were at least .500 last year. That leaves three "easy" games: vs. Houston, at Cleveland and vs. Buffalo. On paper, it's easily the toughest schedule in the NFL this year, and in many years actually.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: There is a path to being a much better team, although the schedule will prevent a playoff run. While adding quick-fix veterans makes little sense in the long term, many of those older players are coming off solid seasons and should help. If the Raiders get 2012 Schaub, the running backs stay remotely healthy, the offensive line is improved, Tuck, Woodley and Mack provide a pass rush and the secondary (particularly Hayden) is better, the Raiders will be a tough out every week.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: If the Raiders actually acquired 2013 Schaub, McFadden and Jones-Drew fall apart physically, the team's older signees start to hit the wall, the players from the 2013 draft don't break through, the 2014 draft doesn't provide a lot ... well, with this schedule, let's just say that if a majority of those things happen, the record is going to be very bad and a lot of people in Oakland are going to lose their jobs. 

The crystal ball says: The Raiders will be better. They were so thin at so many positions last year that having 10 or more new competent starters can't hurt. Schaub was a decent gamble, because he shouldn't be finished at age 33. The product on the field has to be more competitive. Now, the question is, what's the payoff? Oakland went 4-12 last season. Given their schedule, it's entirely possible the Raiders are a much better team but finish with a similar record. But at least they won't have any games in which they look like a FCS team taking a beating against a FBS powerhouse for a paycheck.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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