With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Chalk up 2011 as a year of missed opportunities for the Raiders. Despite a flawed roster and a coaching staff led by Hue Jackson that would find itself searching for work after the year ended, Oakland sat at 7-4 at the end of November and was in firm command of the AFC West.
Three straight losses over the next three weeks -- including a crushing 28-27 setback to the Lions, in which Oakland coughed up a 13-point fourth-quarter lead at home -- changed all that. The Raiders still had a shot to steal the AFC West in Week 17, as Denver lost, but they could not get the win they needed against San Diego.
Jackson's out as head coach now and ex-Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is in. As such, this figures to be a year of transition in Oakland, especially since the Raiders franchise is entering its first full season without the late Al Davis overseeing things since 1963.
2011 Record: 8-8 (t-first in AFC East; missed playoffs on tiebreaker)
Key Subtractions: RB Michael Bush, TE Kevin Boss, OL Bruce Campbell, QB Jason Campbell, DT John Henderson, CB Chris Johnson, CB Stanford Routt, C Samson Satele, DE Trevor Scott, DE/LB Kamerion Wimbley
Team Strengths: RB, G, DT, S
Team Weaknesses: WR, TE, CB
Three Things to Watch:
1. Will Carson Palmer take it up a notch?: The 2011 season was an odd one for Palmer, to say the least. After a miserable 2010 that saw the Bengals finish 4-12, Palmer requested a trade and threatened to retire rather than suit up for the Bengals again. So, the Bengals went out and drafted Andy Dalton, who then proceeded to make Palmer irrelevant in Cincinnati.
And yet, in exchange for Carson Palmer, the Bengals still managed to coax a 2012 first-round pick (which turned into CB Dre Kirkpatrick) and a conditional 2013 second-rounder out of Oakland, which found itself in desperate need of a QB after Jason Campbell went down with an injury six weeks into last season.
The returns on Palmer were mixed. He struggled mightily early on, as he was rushed onto the field despite sitting out the start of the season -- and needing to learn an entirely new offense -- and threw six picks in his first two appearances. The Raiders finished 4-3 down the stretch, though, and had that shot in Week 17 to take home the division. Palmer finished the year with 13 touchdown passes, 16 picks and an 80.5 QB rating, good for 19th-best in the league. Oakland needs him to be better in 2012, especially in a division that now features Peyton Manning, in addition to Matt Cassel and Philip Rivers at the QB spots.
It would definitely ease Palmer's job if the Raiders' receiving corps finally took the next step. Darrius Heyward-Bey led the team with 64 catches and 975 yards in 2011, but no other receiver had more than 33 grabs, and the entire unit was inconsistent at best.
2. How will the defense adjust to Dennis Allen's multi-scheme defense?: Rather than install a strict base defense, Allen (and new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver) have promised a varied look with a great deal more blitzing than Oakland has utilized in the past. That's all well and good in theory -- and the use of multiple sets on defense may be more prevalent in the NFL than people are aware -- but the Raiders still have to figure out if they have the personnel to actually pull this off. Last year, as defensive coordinator in Denver, Allen ran a 4-3 defense on 38 percent of snaps and a 3-3-5 nickel package 44 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. Allen and Tarver have talked about mixing the looks even more than that in Oakland, with plans to use both the 3-4 and 4-3, as well as nickel and dime looks.
All that shifting will put the onus on the Raiders defenders to play multiple roles. Richard Seymour, for example, dropped between 10 and 15 pounds in preparation for taking on 3-4 defensive end duties in addition to his usual four-man front defensive tackle role. Oakland also has to figure out which linebacker will join Philip Wheeler, Rolando McClain and Aaron Curry on the field in four-LB sets.
Oh yea, and the Raiders also completely revamped at the cornerback position, jettisoning Chris Johnson and Stanford Routt and replacing them with Shawntae Spencer and Ronald Bartell. Oakland was 27th against the pass last season so some shake-up was necessary, but the secondary will only be as good as the front seven allows.
3. Can Mike Goodson fill Michael Bush's shoes?: The Raiders' run game has thrived in recent years with the 1-2 punch of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. In fact, Oakland finished seventh in the league in rushing in 2011, despite McFadden missing nine games to injury.
That success was due to Bush, who handled 256 carries and produce nearly 1,400 total yards. His departure for Chicago via free agency left a huge hole in Oakland's backfield, which the franchise attempted to fill by dealing offensive lineman Bruce Campbell to Carolina for Mike Goodson. Two problems, though: Goodson had exactly zero carries for Carolina last season, and he's fumbled seven times in just 125 NFL rushing attempts.
If he can't help ease McFadden's load -- or if McFadden struggles through another injury-filled year -- Oakland's ground game could suffer mightily.
Outlook: We saw last year that the AFC West can be a bit of a fickle situation. Because of that, and because we're not quite sure how the Manning-led Broncos will look yet, Oakland should get its opportunities to contend. However, only big years from a number of different players -- Palmer, Heyward-Bey, Goodson, McClain, the cornerbacks, the O-line, etc. -- will get this team over the top. Given the lack of early draft picks last April and the amount of roster turnover, Oakland might have to settle with challenging for a .500 record again this time around and set its sights on a 2013 breakthrough.