2016 NFL Preview: Raiders will be a Super Bowl contender, and soon

Shutdown Corner

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 of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

If the Oakland Raiders break out this season, we can point to last Dec. 13 as one of the turning points.

The Raiders were 5-7, still searching for a quality win that would make everyone take notice of their improvement. Against the Denver Broncos, defensive star Khalil Mack had five sacks. Quarterback Derek Carr threw two second-half touchdowns against the best defense in football. The Raiders went into Denver and beat the eventual Super Bowl champions 15-12. The Broncos went 8-2 from Nov. 22 on, including a Super Bowl 50 win. Denver only lost at Pittsburgh (understandable) and at home against the Raiders.

It wasn’t the prettiest win for the Raiders, but it mattered. Given the strides the Raiders have made the past couple years, it seemed like a milestone in their rebuild. My guess is that by the end of this season, everyone will agree that the Raiders are finally back.

Before the 2014 draft, it seemed like a significant improvement was a long way off and needed a new front office to execute it. The Raiders screwed up the 2014 free-agency period. The Raiders had a then-record amount of cap space and signed almost nobody of note. Their one big signing was offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, which was a head-scratcher, and a couple days later the team voided Saffold’s deal because of a failed physical. The entire period was a failure. General manager Reggie McKenzie looked like he was in over his head.

Then the Houston Texans (and, to be fair, other teams) allowed the Raiders to have one of the best drafts of any NFL team this century. Houston picked Jadeveon Clowney first overall, and Mack slipped to fifth. The Texans, who badly needed a quarterback, for some reason passed Carr to take guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. The Raiders found a franchise quarterback with the No. 36 overall pick. If you had a do-over with the 2014 draft, Carr, Mack and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald probably go 1-2-3 in some order. Everything has gone right for Oakland since.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The Raiders drafted receiver Amari Cooper last year, and he looks like a future star. McKenzie has done much better in free agency. Gone are the days of the Raiders overpaying washed-up veterans just to fill space. The Raiders signed three blue-chip players right away this year — offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith and pass rusher Bruce Irvin — and even waited for the market to settle and got a good deal on Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson.

McKenzie has done well in finding other moderately priced free agents like receiver Michael Crabtree and linebacker Malcolm Smith, who have paid off marvelously. He even grabbed cornerback David Amerson off waivers after the Washington Redskins cut him; Amerson turned in a fine season and just signed a four-year extension worth as much as $38 million. When you look at McKenzie’s body of work, it seems like one day he was utterly incapable of doing his job (D.J. Hayden, yikes), and the next day he woke up and could do no wrong.

The Raiders are coming. I don’t know if they’re going to arrive this season, but it wouldn’t surprise me. After they went into Denver and beat the Broncos last season, then followed that up with a tremendous offseason, I’m not ruling out a major improvement. I believe the Raiders will be a Super Bowl contender in a couple years. After so many years in NFL purgatory, the turnaround for one of the sport’s most storied franchises is pretty cool.

Khalil Mack is coming off a season in which he made All-Pro at two positions (AP)
Khalil Mack is coming off a season in which he made All-Pro at two positions (AP)

I like a team that has a plan and doesn’t just sign players with no rhyme or reason. The Raiders needed another cornerback and got Sean Smith. They needed one more piece for the offensive line, and landed Kelechi Osemele. Understanding that Khalil Mack will be the focal point of every opposing offensive coordinator going forward, the Raiders signed Bruce Irvin (just imagine a Mack-Irvin-Aldon Smith pass rush late in the season if Smith returns from suspension). Knowing safety was a major issue, the Raiders signed Reggie Nelson and drafted Karl Joseph in the first round. They also added to the defensive front by picking Jihad Ward in the second round and Shilique Calhoun in the third. The upgraded roster is without any horrendous flaw, though running back and inside linebacker are a little thin. Grade: A

Just look at the roster. There are players to like at every level of the offense and defense. The Raiders have a young, Pro Bowl quarterback and a future NFL defensive player of the year. What’s not to like?

NFL teams can make astounding improvements in a short time, but it’s still asking a lot. Like the Jaguars, the Raiders still have a lot of ground to make up (though not as much as Jacksonville; the Raiders were a much better team last season). The Raiders haven’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 2002. It’s a little scary to go against that recent history.

If I’m allowed to start my franchise with any young quarterback who came into the league since the 2012 draft (so we’re excluding Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson), I’d take Carr. I’d take him over Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater or anyone else selected in the last four drafts. I like everything about Carr. He has a strong arm, good movement in the pocket, he understands how to play quarterback and, for lack of a better term, he just gets it. Let’s put it this way: It’s obvious that his brother spent a lot of time grooming him to be an NFL quarterback. Carr is a future star and it wouldn’t surprise me if he won an MVP award some day. He’s that good.

In this section I usually try to pick someone other than the obvious superstar, because we generally know what we’re getting from the top-tier players. But I’m still going with Khalil Mack here. Mack had a good rookie season but the numbers didn’t back it up. That changed in 2015. Mack had 15 sacks and was an All-Pro pick at defensive end and linebacker, in part because of his hybrid position and mostly because he’s a great player. I think he’s a top-10 defensive player right now, maybe top five, and if J.J. Watt ever lets anyone else have a chance I think Mack will win defensive player of the year at least once. Mack is one of those players who can lift his entire team to a new level.

Cosell: “Derek Carr has a very, very strong arm and a snap delivery. There are times where his delivery can look somewhat like Aaron Rodgers, just with the quickness of the delivery. I thought as a rookie he was very much a checkdown quarterback because when you come out of college and you play in a spread and then you get to the NFL — and I’ve had this conversation with young quarterbacks — they’ll say at times it looks like there are 15 defenders out there … I thought last year the offensive staff did a really good job designing some things and creating some throws for him at the intermediate and deeper levels. I think when he sees it really clearly, he’ll turn it loose. There’s not much not to like about Derek Carr.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Raiders and the rest of the AFC West.]

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Michael Crabtree gets no respect. Maybe it’s a well-known fact that I’m unaware of, but does Crabtree have cooties or something far more infectious? It’s stunning how many early fantasy drafters are keeping their distance from the veteran, an unjustifiable reaction.

“Off a laudable 85-922-9 campaign, an effort that ranked No. 20 at the position in standard and PPR leagues, the Rodney Dangerfield All-Star should be a sought after WR3, at a minimum, especially with defenses focused on Amari Cooper and given Derek Carr’s emergence. Instead he’s plummeted in drafts falling into the mid-60s overall (66.7 ADP, WR35).

“Yes, his various catch rates leave much to be desired, but he should again generate at least 130 targets, roughly 12-15 of those coming in the red-zone. Wake up and smell the stats! Crabtree is a grossly undervalued receiver who should again penetrate the WR top-30.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The Raiders put a lot on Amari Cooper’s plate even though he was a rookie, and he was very good. He also had some really quiet games late in the season, putting up 4-, 0-, 10- and 20-yard games in the last seven weeks of the season. He was dealing with a foot injury, and probably a bit of a battle with the rookie wall. I’ll give him a pass for being ineffective down the stretch, look at his five 100-yard games last season and assume he blows past the 1,070 yards he put up last season.

IS THE RAIDERS’ RUNNING GAME GOOD ENOUGH?

The Raiders were linked to some free-agent running backs, but didn’t land anyone. That might be for the best, considering the success rate of free-agent running backs. Still, it leaves the Raiders a bit short at the position.

Latavius Murray isn’t bad. He had 1,066 yards and a 4-yard average last season, though he wore down late. He’s serviceable, but ideally the Raiders would probably like to pair him with a committee back, preferably one who can contribute more than Murray does in the passing game. The Raiders might not have anyone good enough for that role. The best option is probably DeAndre Washington, but you don’t want to rely on a fifth-round rookie to play much. Murray isn’t a terrible starter, but if he misses time it’s not clear what the Raiders would do.

I think the Raiders, if everything goes right, can win the AFC West. Their history for most of this century kept me from picking them, as did the fact they play in the same division as the Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. But I look at the roster and see a top-10 team. The Raiders should shoot for a division title and be thrilled if they end up grabbing a wild-card spot. If you look at the roster, there’s more than enough talent to be a playoff team.

For the first time in a while, the Raiders’ floor is pretty high. Sure, Carr could get hurt and then the bottom falls out, but you can say that about 25 or so NFL teams. Assuming normal health for all their key players, the Raiders aren’t going to slip back to some three- or four-win team. But I suppose, because they have been at that level recently, that is the nightmare scenario. If for some weird reason the Raiders end up 4-12 and have to reevaluate their rebuilding progress, it would be absolutely devastating to the franchise and the fan base.

I’d love to pick the Raiders to make the playoffs, and I might change my mind and do it by early September. The AFC is tough though. You don’t want to get in that wild-card war and I’m not sure the Raiders are ready to win the AFC West. But I like the Raiders a lot. Every year some team improves a ton and crashes the playoff party, and the Raiders could be that team. I’m higher on the Raiders’ core than any other NFL team’s young foundation. Things are looking up in Oakland (or Las Vegas, but that’s a story for another day).

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens

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

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