Darren McFadden averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry last season. (John W. McDonough/SI)
With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
When new general manager Reggie McKenzie and first-year head coach Dennis Allen took control of an old, expensive roster last season, they made a concerted effort to drag this franchise through something late Raiders owner Al Davis would have never considered. They tore everything down, initiating a full-fledged rebuild for a franchise that, under Davis, operated under the mantra, “The Raiders Don’t Rebuild, They Only Reload.”
What McKenzie did this offseason, stripping his roster of almost every big contract of note, and signing veterans and younger players alike to cheap, one-year deals, certainly qualifies as the former. The Raiders needed to un-build the clunkily assembled roster they had used over the past few seasons before building this team back up, and 2013 will serve as the ugly intermediary phase of that process. The Raiders are going to lose a lot of games in 2013, but McKenzie’s plan, despite lip service to the contrary, was not to win right away, but to chop this roster down to its skeletal foundation, casting off big-money players along the way, and start anew with a completely fresh slate, a lot of cap room and an almost entirely new set of young players.
This was never supposed to be an instant turnaround; Oakland will take its lumps this season.
• Biggest storyline: Reestablishing Darren McFadden.
Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp installed a zone blocking scheme last season that was a bad fit from the start. The results, especially for McFadden, were unmistakably bad. After averaging 5.2 and 5.4 yards per carry in 2010 and '11, respectively, McFadden dropped to 3.3 last season, and never looked comfortable running behind a less-than-stout offensive line in a system that failed to accentuate his power, speed and downhill running ability.
This season, Knapp is out, Greg Olson is in as offensive coordinator, and with him the power-run scheme McFadden thrived in over the previous two years of his career. The question with McFadden, as it has been since he entered the league in 2008, is whether he can stay healthy over the course of the season. He has yet to play a year without missing at least three games, and missed four last season. Entering a pivotal contract year, McFadden could earn a huge sum on the free-agent market this offseason if he a) stays on the field, b) rediscovers his Pro-Bowl form in a blocking scheme with which he’s more comfortable.
Despite Wednesday's brutal revelation that left tackle Jared Veldheer would be put on IR with a torn triceps muscle, McFadden has an opportunity to lead this rushing attack back to its 2010 heights, when it ranked second in the league at 155.9 yards per game.
• Most intriguing position battle: Cornerback.
One position group where Oakland can expect immediate improvement is the secondary. The only holdover from last season’s unit is strong safety Tyvon Branch, who should retain his starting job in 2013. Next to him will be veteran import Charles Woodson, who should provide stability and leadership to an position group (and entire team, honestly) in desperate need of both.
The safety situation is more settled than both cornerback spots, which could go to two of any of the five following competitors: Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins, D.J. Hayden, Joselio Hanson and Philip Adams. Porter and Jenkins should be the starters entering Week 1, but if Hayden develops more quickly than expected this preseason, he could push for playing time.
There is plenty of solid depth here, which is something you can’t say about most of Oakland’s position groups. The secondary, with plenty of capable corners and a veteran safety tandem in place, is well positioned to avoid the general early growing pains most of this roster will face the first few weeks of the season.
• New face, new place: Matt Flynn, quarterback.
The coincidence made for the laziest of name-related jokes: After getting beat out by Russell Wilson in Seattle last season, Matt Flynn entered training camp for the second straight year as the likely starter, engaged in apparent “competition” with another player named “Wilson.” So far, though, Arkansas rookie Tyler Wilson hasn’t proven he’s anywhere near starter material, while Flynn seems to have solidified his hold on the starting job. The backup quarterback spot, believe it or not, could fall to Penn State product Matt McGloin (who impressed in Friday's preseason win against Dallas) or former supplemental pick Terrelle Pryor, who by all accounts has made significant strides as a passer, and could, if pressed into action, give the Raiders the mobile playmaking ability their other signal-callers lack. Some have even suggested Pryor could be used in a specialty package as a change of pace to Flynn's more conventional pocket-passing style.
Even so, expect to see Flynn running the first-team offense all preseason -- even as doubts creep up about his ability to make deep throws -- and taking the field with the starters Week 1. With only three starts under his belt, he is -- baffling though it may sound -- Oakland’s most experienced quarterback. It’s his job to lose at this point.
• Impact rookie: Sio Moore, linebacker.
Oakland’s linebacking corps underwent a complete makeover this offseason, as McKenzie jettisoned first-round bust Rolando McClain, watched Philip Wheeler walk in free agency and brought in a host of low-cost replacements. Kevin Burnett and Nick Roach appear to have taken control of the weakside and middle linebacker positions, and the strongside spot might well fall to Moore, a third-round pick out of UConn.
An All-Big East First Team selection in 2012, Moore led the Huskies with 15.5 tackles for loss, finished the season with eight sacks and 72 total tackles and offers excellent instinctual playmaking ability and above-average athleticism. He’s an excellent fit for coordinator Jason Tarver’s 4-3 scheme, and could slide in at strongside or weakside linebacker. If he doesn’t win a starting job in the preseason, Moore will be Oakland’s most valuable reserve asset, and a promising defensive building block for the future.
• Looking at the schedule: Could be worse.
The new-look defense will not have the comfort of an easy opening schedule. Oakland travels to Indianapolis and Denver, and hosts Washington and San Diego before their Week 7 bye, after which begins a brutal four-week stretch featuring Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Giants and Houston.
The Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas is one of two nationally televised highlights; Oakland also plays at the Broncos on Monday night in Week 3.
Playoff considerations are pretty much off the table in 2013; Oakland is undergoing a classic transition year. Avoiding double-digit losses would be a huge feat, and the schedule offers reason to believe the Raiders might be able to clear that bar.
More importantly, McKenzie and Allen will use this season to evaluate the roster, and see which low-cost parts are worth keeping around as this franchise trudges forward under new management and a different player development philosophy. Wins and losses are less important.