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Playoffs or bust? Raiders have pieces in place to return to postseason

The Oakland Raiders, with key players like Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, finally have the roster makeup to reach the playoffs in 2016. 

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When Oakland hired Reggie McKenzie as general manager on Jan. 5, 2012, the Raiders were nothing more than a nondescript team boasting a weak roster that hadn’t seen the playoffs in a decade. To top it off, they had just fired Hue Jackson—the one coach who had the potential to take them over the top.

But McKenzie, who came from the Packers’ organization, vowed to build the Raiders in a similar manner to Green Bay: obtaining sustainable success through the draft first and foremost, with free agency as a secondary concern. And over the last four seasons, McKenzie has done just that.

The Raiders appear to be set at most of the important positions—quarterback, running back, number-one receiver, and pass-rusher—and those players all came through the draft. The two upper-tier cornerbacks on the roster now point to the team’s success with certain free-agent ideals. The roster and schemes have the team primed for success over the next few years, and as a result, the Raiders are being picked by many to be the NFL’s next big thing. And it’s not all just hype—when you take a closer look at the makeup of this team heading into 2016, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has worked with young quarterbacks from Byron Leftwich to David Garrard to Matt Ryan to Christian Ponder to Nick Foles, so his role in the development of franchise signal-caller Derek Carr is crucial. Musgrave doesn’t have a specific modus operandi as an offensive coordinator; he draws up everything from power formations to wide spread with X-iso receivers outside of bunch formations. It’s a heavy three- and four-receiver base offense with a lot of shotgun.

As with any young quarterback, it’s now up to Carr to memorize the intricacies and specifics. He has good mobility and the arm to make any throw. Carr is learning to throw with anticipation and work with mechanics on the move, and while he’s improving, there are still times when he throws the ball late into coverage—outside of receiver drops, this is the primary reason for his interception total. He’s better at beating the blitz, though, as he threw 14 touchdowns and just four picks in 2015 when opponents set extra defenders against him.

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Receiver Amari Cooper is unquestionably the top target for Carr, but he needs to cut down on drops. Last season, he led the NFL with 18, and more than one of those drops led to turnovers. Michael Crabtree used to be a projected superstar with the 49ers, but he’s eased very nicely into his new role as the guy who makes the contested catches in Oakland’s offense. The reward for the physical beating he takes? Touchdowns—he led the team with nine last year.

McKenzie has built this team around Carr, Cooper and running back Latavius Murray, but Raiders’ short-term leader will be their once-disastrous offensive line that now could compete for the title of the NFL’s best. Free agent left tackle Donald Penn was one of the worst pass blockers in the league with the Bucs in 2013. But after being signed by Oakland in the offseason, he got himself into animal shape ahead of the ’14 season, and he’s been one of the NFL's most reliable players at his position since. 

Left guard Gabe Jackson, selected in the third round of the 2014 draft out of Mississippi State, has overcome the perception that he didn’t have the power to play inside at this level by becoming a stellar run-blocker. Jackson consistently shows outstanding strength at the point of attack, and he’s improving over time when it comes to pass protection. 

Adding center Rodney Hudson in the 2015 preseason was slightly controversial because of the five-year, $44.5 million contract he received, but he’s proven it was a good move by establishing the interior of the line. Austin Howard and Menelik Watson will likely compete for the right tackle job, but the guard position got a massive influx of talent when McKenzie signed ex-Ravens mauler KelechiOsemele to a five-year, $58.5 million deal. Osemele can play inside very well and can also kick outside to tackle over time.

All of that is good news for lead back Murray, who broke the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his short career in 2015. Murray isn’t a power back per se, but he’s very good at discerning openings from shotgun handoffs, and he has an estimable second gear. He’s a system player, but a very good one, and is also a fine receiver out of the backfield, giving Carr an easy outlet for quick pass plays.

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With this lineup, Murray and his fellow running backs will have more consistent gaps. Carr will have more time to drop, scan and read, and use his mobility to extend plays. It's an unusual gambit in an era when a lot of NFL teams are expressing their frustrations with the decrease in blocking fundamentals among college linemen by assembling their lines on the cheap, but it should set the Raiders on a good path for a long time.

Things are a bit more questionable with the defense. Of course, there’s not much left to do for linebacker Khalil Mack: His 15-sack season was impressive enough on its own, but when you add in at least five quarterback pressures in 12 of his 16 games, his consistency comes into further focus. Mack is also insanely good against the run—the most underrated aspect of his game—and he’s developing as a coverage player.

Oakland signed former Seahawks linebacker/edge rusher Bruce Irvin to complement Mack, which could be a good move if coach Jack Del Rio and his staff put Irvin in a position to allow his athleticism to take over. Through the years, Irvin hasn’t developed a full array of moves as a pass rusher—he’s been content to rely on his speed off the edge, which will get you vaporized at the NFL level. On the line, Dan Williams and Mario Edwards, Jr. are underrated contributors. Edwards, the team’s second-round pick in 2015, was diagnosed late in the season with a genetic condition in his neck, but participated in May OTAs. His future is bright if he can overcome that.

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However the Raiders have a strong need for improvement in the secondary this season. Oakland picked former Washington cornerback David Amerson off waivers in late Sept., and Amerson surprised just about everyone with a stellar season, allowing 58 completions, one touchdown and a 62.7 opponent passer rating on 104 targets. Now, with former Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith to buttress Amerson’s efforts, Oakland should have an above-average cornerback duo. Smith has been one of the better and more aggressive cornerbacks in the NFL over the past few seasons, and his style perfectly fits what the Raiders have always wanted to do: get right up on the opposing receivers and force them to alter their intentions. Smith will be a major improvement over former first-round pick D.J. Hayden, who was never able to put it all together in the pros.

The retirement of Charles Woodson was a blow to Oakland’s deep pass defense, but picking up longtime Bengal Reggie Nelson to patrol the seams and middle was a strong move. Strong safety Karl Joseph, a surprise first-rounder in 2016, will be tasked to live up to that status sooner rather than later. Joseph suffered a non-contact knee injury last November that ended his collegiate career, but the All-Big 12 talent already had five interceptions when he went down injured.

As the Raiders finally come together from a roster standpoint, the rest of the AFC West seems to be in transition. The Broncos have obvious question marks at quarterback, and they lost a ton of talent overall in free agency. The Chargers are still filling holes, especially on defense, and the Chiefs may be upended by their lack of explosive plays in the passing game if there's any regression on defense. It's as good a time as any for the Raiders to post their first winning season and find their first postseason berth since 2002.

More importantly, this could be just the beginning.