With vets like Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley and Donald Penn joining forces with exciting youngsters like Khalil Mack and possibly Derek Carr at QB, Oakland hopes it has found the right mix to end its 11-year skid of non-winning seasons
It’s the strangest place for a practice field in the NFL: Not 20 yards from the backdoors of the Napa Marriott sits a stunning spread of manicured grass, framed by the rolling auburn Mayacamas Mountains. Raider Nation was in attendance on Day 4 of camp, lacking neither tattoos nor a sense of history. Silver and black jerseys with authentic stitching boasted names like Otto and Stabler—markers of a prosperous past—and others like Culpepper and Sapp, reminders of this lugubrious streak of 11 seasons without a winning record. On a bright, warm day in wine country, was the end in sight?
One vivid memory from watching practice
No. 5 overall draft pick Khalil Mack knifing through Oakland’s first-team offensive line in 11-on-11 drills and putting the hurt on Maurice Jones-Drew. It got the biggest reaction from the crowd, some of whom shelled out $100 for Mack's jersey in a nearby apparel tent. It would be Mack’s brightest moment by far. On Day 2 of full pads, Mack was ineffective in a couple of individual pass-rush reps against Austin Howard and Erle Ladson and largely absent in team pass-rush scenarios. General manager Reggie McKenzie says Mack reminds him of Clay Matthews, yet early in camp, Mack looks like any other rookie trying to keep up.
How this team can go 12–4
Well… It would go a long way if McKenzie could get his hands on the 2009 versions of quarterback Matt Schaub, defensive end Justin Tuck and running back Maurice Jones-Drew. As the roster stands, the Raiders are stocked with young unknowns and players who have thrived elsewhere. How much they have left will translate into wins now, but how much they impart on the next generation can translate into wins later. McKenzie, third-year coach Dennis Allen and his staff may not have time to wait on the latter as owner Mark Davis mulls the direction of the franchise. They certainly won’t go 12-4 if raw rookie second-rounder Derek Carr is elevated over Schaub, though a season of rookie development under center could be the only thing that buys this staff another season.
How this team can go 4–12
For the Raiders to finish 4-12 for the third straight season, this new crop of quarterbacks would have to fail as miserably as the last. It’s difficult to imagine Schaub, the former Pro Bowler for the Texans, not making some semblance of a comeback after being benched and discarded by a team he took to the divisional playoffs just two years ago. At 33, his arm strength is visibly faded, but he appears to have a better handle on the offense at this early stage than Terrelle Pryor did in nine starts last season. Nearly every team in the NFL is a handful of injuries away from 4-12, but the Raiders appear healthy and deep enough along the offensive and defensive lines to avoid embarrassment.
Now, from Fantasyland …
1. Free agent pickup James Jones looks like an early favorite of Schaub; Jones didn’t have a season under 600 yards receiving in the past four with Green Bay. The safer play is probably Rod Streater, the lanky third-year man out of Temple who didn’t seem to care who was throwing the ball last season en route to 888 yards receiving. Among guys who caught 60 balls last season, Streater was 11th in yards per catch, better than Keenan Allen, A.J. Green and Jimmy Graham.
2. At this stage Darren McFadden has the starting edge over Jones-Drew but this should be a committee backfield considering McFadden’s injury history—he’s yet to play a full season in six. Should McFadden miss a start, Jones-Drew could be a great matchup play in light of his receiving ability.
3. Wait to see if Schaub can deliver before you use a roster spot on an Oakland QB. He could end up meriting a play vs. the Dolphins (Week 4) and the Broncos (Weeks 10, 17).
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold italics:
|QB||Matt Schaub/Derek Carr||DE||Lamarr Woodley|
|RB||Darren McFadden/Maurice Jones-Drew||DT||Pat Sims|
|FB||Marcel Reece||DT||Antonio Smith|
|WR||James Jones||DE||Justin Tuck|
|WR||Rod Streater/Denarius Moore||OLB||Khalil Mack|
|TE||David Ausberry/Mychal Rivera||MLB||Nick Roach|
|LT||Donald Penn||OLB||Sio Moore|
|LG||Khalif Barnes||LCB||Tarrell Brown/D.J. Hayden|
|C||Stefen Wisniewski||RCB||Carlos Rogers/ Chimdi Chekwa|
|RG||Kevin Booth||SS||Tyvon Branch|
|RT||Austin Howard/Menelik Watson||FS||Charles Woodson|
|K||Sebastian Janikowski||P||Marquette King|
D.J. Hayden figured to start at corner until he required surgery for a stress fracture in his foot. He now aims for a Week 1 return. Schaub holds an early edge over Carr in the QB race and it appears the rookie would have to blow away the preseason to take it from him. Rivera was a decent enough shallow receiving option at tight end when offseason stud David Ausberry went down with a shoulder injury last season. But the Raiders get as much from Reece so this race will be won with run blocking.
Best new player in camp
Left tackle Donald Penn, late of the Bucs, was the guy protecting Schaub’s backside from young Khalil Mack. Penn, who once started 108 straight games, didn’t yield so much as a pressure in team drills. That bodes well for a team that gave up 44 sacks last season, 10th most in football.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
The Raiders will lead the AFC West in pressures/sacks. For that to happen, they’d have to eclipse Von Miller and company in Denver and the Tamba Hali/Justin Houston barrage in Kansas City. The Bills showed us that a mediocre team can come within three sacks of leading the league (57) if it devotes enough resources to the cause, and the Raiders appear to have done that. Gone is slow-off-the-edge, free-agent departure Lamarr Houston, making room for Tuck (12 sacks for NYG in 2013), Woodley (five sacks in first seven games for Steelers in 2013), and Mack (10.5 sacks in MAC in 2013). Woodson is still good enough in centerfield to allow defensive coordinator Jason Tarver some creativity, but sacks get harder to come by when you’re losing, so my bold prediction could fall apart if this team isn’t competitive on offense.
Something I’ve never seen before
A punter gunning down the sideline with a red beanie on his helmet as a member of the scout kickoff team. Marquette King, who could pass for a cornerback, was actually recruited to Fort Valley State as a wide receiver. Last season at age 25, he led the NFL in yards per punt (48.9) with a long of 66. Said one staffer: “I think he just gets bored of punting.”
What I thought when I walked out of camp
There’s a curious mix of old and new in Napa, and the task of uniting this group in one purpose will prove difficult. Schaub is a guy who can keep this train on the tracks if he’s truly put 2013 behind him.