Scouting Oakland: Playoffs or Bust, For Real This Time
1. Anything short of a wild-card berth will be disappointing in Oakland this year. This has been said frequently in the past 10 years, but this time it’s valid. The Raiders return all of their skill position players on offense, including a young franchise QB (Derek Carr) and budding superstar wide receiver (Amari Cooper). Those men are assisted by an improved front five. On defense, Oakland’s pass rush is loaded—especially once Aldon Smith returns from suspension (November, maybe?). And the secondary looks much better. Strong overall pass defense—that’s the ticket in today’s NFL.
2. Part of Oakland’s step forward to the playoffs will involve Carr becoming more consistent. His meager 59.6 career completion rate is illustrative of a lively armed thrower who can get sloppy and make poor decisions. That’s not unexpected from someone who turned 25 this past March, and it probably won’t be a concern much longer. The Raiders clearly think Carr is smart and trustworthy. If they didn’t, play-caller Bill Musgrave would not have featured the NFL’s widest array of formations, personnel packages and play designs like he did last year. From condensed heavy groupings and smashmouth runs to finesse four-receiver spread finesse sets, there was no brand of football the Raiders didn’t try in 2015.
3. We could debate how practical it is to feature such a smorgasbord of offensive concepts. On the one hand, you’re versatile and hard to prepare for. On the other, you’re specialized in few areas and therefore imposing in none. If Musgrave and head coach Jack Del Rio believe they need to carve out a more specific identity for this team, then without question, a finesse spread approach is the way to go. This fits Carr’s quick release and harkens back to his experience at Fresno State. It also sets up the wide receiver screen and quick-strike game that cater so well to Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
4. If the Raiders feature more spread sets, they still need to consider a gap scheme running game. Runs that involve double-teams and pull-blockers. Tailback Latavius Murray needs to be chaperoned. Though he’s 225 pounds, Murray does not look to initiate contact or finish runs with authority. That wouldn’t be a problem except that he’s also not loose in the hips. And so he needs space created for him. That’s when he shows his downhill burst.
5. With Murray’s running style in mind, it makes all the sense in the world to sign pricey free agent guard Kelechi Osemele. He’s a proficient on-the-move blocker, be it on outside zone (which he ran in Baltimore) or pull blocks. Osemele gives the Raiders something few teams have: two difference-making pull-blockers at guard. The other, of course, is Gabe Jackson. He’s not as rangy as Osemele, but he’s bigger. The question with Jackson is, when he’s on the move, can he gather himself well enough to land blocks against moving targets? When he does connect, he’s shown he can seal those targets back against the grain. That’s dominant. Amplifying these guards’ impact is the presence of center Rodney Hudson, who is one of the game’s most mobile centers.
6. The Raiders invested in more talent on defense, signing edge ’backer Bruce Irvin, safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Sean Smith, re-signing edge stud Aldon Smith and drafting safety Karl Joseph in the first round. All were necessary moves, not so much because this defense needed a huge infusion of talent—a modest-sized one would do—but because Del Rio last season chose to employ a lot of very basic coverage concepts. Those concepts were varied nicely between man and zone, but within them, everything was straightforward and mostly undisguised. This is the antithesis of how the previous staff, headed by Dennis Allen, chose to play. Neither approach is right nor wrong. The upside to Del Rio’s approach is its simplicity, which allows for faster play. But if you’re going to be basic and hope to out-execute (rather than out-scheme) opponents, then your men need to be talented.
7. No Raider is more talented than Khalil Mack. That’s obvious. As good as Mack was as a speed-to-power pass rusher—15 sacks in 2015, 10 of which came in Weeks 12-15—his best contributions come against the run. He sets the edge and also works down the line of scrimmage as effectively as anyone in the game.
8. Safety Charles Woodson will be missed. Replacement Reggie Nelson is a savvy veteran who still has range, but few centerfielders ever have had Woodson’s instincts. Plus, Woodson, being a former cornerback, could drop down and man the slot from time to time.
9. It will be interesting to see how Denico Autry and Mario Edwards do on passing downs. Both offered glimpses of promise in 2015. Autry can be a sneaky athlete inside. Edwards is best employed as a bull rusher. Much hinges on whether he can develop the suppleness to run stunts and twists.
10. If linebacker Ben Heeney plays like he did last December, the Raiders won’t have to worry about whether they’re deep enough at safety to continue using a big dime package (three corner, three safety, one linebacker) on passing downs. Their two-linebacker nickel package will often suffice. Heeney has excellent speed as a blitzer and lateral range as a zone reactor. Paired with the sprightly Malcolm Smith, Oakland could have the resources to cover backs and tight ends in most situations.
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