ALAMEDA, Calif. — Jack Del Rio has some lofty goals for the team he grew up watching as an East Bay kid. Players and coaches visiting his corner office at the Oakland Raiders facility sit beneath framed photos of John Madden and Tom Flores going about the business of winning Super Bowls. “They’re up there,” Del Rio says, “because that’s where we want to be.”
That’s the Big Picture. Here’s the zoomed-in view: To ascend from also-rans in the volatile AFC West to the postseason contenders many expect the Raiders to become in the coming months and years after drafting the bright young offensive duo of QB Derek Carr and WR Amari Cooper, the second-year coach feels the pressing need to run the football at will, not when it’s convenient.
The Raiders ranked 29th in the league in rushing attempts in 2015 and 28th in yards, leaving much of the offensive production to Carr, who responded with 3,987 yards through the air and a glowing 34-14 TD-INT differential.
“We’re at the point with Derek, Khalil [Mack] and Amari that we know what we’re going to get with those guys,” Del Rio says. “Those guys are worker bees. We’d like to get to the point where we can run the ball whenever we want to, and we’re excited with who we’ve added to get that done.”
Consider the amount of cash GM Reggie McKenzie has spent in the past two seasons towards that goal. The Raiders signed guard Kelechi Osemele this offseason to a five-year deal worth more than $58 million, with about $25 million guaranteed; and last year they signed Rodney Hudson, who had quietly become one of the top centers in football, to a five-year deal worth more than $44 million, with $20 million guaranteed. Among NFL teams, the Raiders lead the league in offensive line spending with just above $40 million of their 2016 salary cap dedicated to the offensive line.
Del Rio said he was especially encouraged by the camp performance of the lone bargain starter on that line, right tackle Menelik Watson, whom the team drafted in the second round in 2013. Watson, the longest-tenured line starter, tore his Achilles tendon last August and didn’t play a snap in 2015.
If the 2016 preseason is any indication, this potentially elite group has some work to do as a cohesive unit. The starters were unable to spring running back Latavius Murray for longer than a six-yard gain in the first half of play in Week 2 preseason action against the Packers, whose 2015 defense allowed the fourth-most yards per rushing attempt in the NFL.
Del Rio and the staff are still parsing out the plan at running back, with rookie fifth-rounder Deandre Washington and surprise UDFA Jalen Richard out of Southern Miss pushing returning 16-game starter for camp and preseason reps. The plan at the moment is to have plenty of carries to go around
FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT THE RAIDERS
1. I spent some time after practice last week with all-pro linebacker Khalil Mack, who struck me as not only a domineering physical presence but an intensely cerebral player. I asked him what excited him about this Raiders team in 2016. Mack’s answer: “The thing that excites me this year more than anything is just knowing the work we put in and how confident everyone is. The obvious is known, in the sense that everybody comes back to the sideline and knows everything we did wrong and not having to be told how to correct it. Now it’s about executing and locking in. We fell like the offense can know our play and we’ll still run it and have success. It’s a feeling of ultimate confidence.”
2. After the team signed free-agent cornerback Sean Smith to a four-year, $40 million deal to play opposite David Amerson, former first-round pick D.J. Hayden was left to battle it out with TJ Carrie for the all-important slot cornerback job. Hayden looks to have the edge in a must-perform season for the fourth-year player out of Houston; the Raiders declined to pick up the fifth-year option for Reggie Mckenzie’s first draft pick in Oakland.
3. Bruce Irvin’s role in Oakland will mirror his role in Seattle, where he was asked to set the edge and rush the passer on a majority of snaps and play traditional standup outside linebacker less than half the time. Neither Ben Heeney nor Malcolm Smith were inspiring presences at linebacker last season (2015 fifth-rounder pick Heeney has been elevated to replace Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker), yet the Raiders chose to address the front-seven positions closest to the ball in 2016, signing Irvin and drafting interior lineman Jihad Ward in the second round.
4. If I had to project Reggie McKenzie’s next big splash, be it free agency or the top of the draft, I would anticipate the GM will target a more complete tight end than the two currently fighting for reps in Oakland’s offense. Both Mychal Rivera and Clive Walford have underwhelmed in the preseason, especially as run blockers.
5. I’ve now been on three of these nationwide training camp tours and I’ve only seen a handful of receivers display the kind of hands, fluidity and ease of motion I saw last week in Amari Cooper. Practice hadn’t been going for more than 15 minutes before Cooper cut to the sideline in front of Sean Smith in an 11-on-11 scenario and made a contested grab of a Derek Carr bullet, finishing with a toe tap. Smith looked at the coaches and threw up his hands as if to say, What do you want me to do? The chemistry between Carr and Cooper is obvious, and obviously head and shoulders above Carr’s connection with any other receiver.
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