ALAMEDA — After consecutive 4-12 seasons, any improvement might mark a successful 2014 campaign for the Oakland Raiders.
If that’s the standard, the Silver and Black have a decent shot.
Realistically, though, even four Raiders wins are hardly a guarantee, with eight games against tough AFC West opposition and four more against the NFC West, the NFL’s best division in 2013.
According to ESPN, the Raiders have the most difficult schedule in 2014 based on winning percentages from last year. Even metrics that adjust for offseason changes place Oakland in the Top 10.
Still unclear is whether the Raiders’ 2014 roster is a marked improvement over last year’s meddling 4-12 squad.
General Manager Reggie McKenzie was forced to spend to exceed the salary floor, and the Raiders spent high on aging veterans Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, Carlos Rogers, Donald Penn and Maurice Jones-Drew, to name a few.
The bold change at quarterback from Matt Schaub to Derek Carr has brought the Raiders some much-needed excitement. But Carr’s preseason ascension should be tempered by the track record of second-round quarterbacks succeeding as NFL starters.
Along with fifth-overall pick Khalil Mack, McKenzie has the potential for his first impact draft class since he took over as GM in 2012 with the franchise in catastrophic shape.
The Raiders still have question marks at nearly every position. While their upside is undoubtedly higher, another last-place AFC West finish is not out of the question.
Raider Nation is still steaming about the departure of Terrelle Pryor, so the trade for Matt “Matty Yikes” Schaub — coming off a disastrous year with Houston — wasn’t met with overwhelming support.
Schaub’s uninspiring preseason play didn’t help his cause, and essentially a single impressive outing from second-round rookie Derek Carr won the Raiders’ starting quarterback job.
Going with young Carr is a low-risk decision for Allen with a monster jackpot. Carr’s prospects as a long-term option may in fact decide the fate of McKenzie and Allen, not to mention the Raiders franchise going forward.
Protection for Carr will be paramount for his development, something his brother David learned the hard way in Houston. The elder Carr never recovered after being sacked an NFL-record 76 times in his rookie season.
Allen and the Raiders staff have preached about the new stability of the offensive line — after fielding the most starting-five combinations in the NFL during 2013. On August 20 Allen told the media:
“I think that group is beginning to jell together as a unit. They’re playing with confidence, [the o-line] is going to be one of the strengths of our football team.”
But just a week later, Oakland made a significant change, benching second-year man Menelik Watson at right tackle in favor of Khalif Barnes, who himself is moving from left guard after being unseated by rookie Gabe Jackson.
Add to that two new acquisitions in Donald Penn and Austin Howard, and this unit may take more time to jell than the Raiders are letting on.
Stable wouldn’t be the best way to describe the Raiders’ situation at halfback either, as neither Maurice Jones-Drew or Darren McFadden have proven they can stay on the field in recent years.
The running game remains probably the strongest facet of the Oakland offense, however, and FB/RB/TE Marcel Reece — the team’s only Pro Bowler — will drive defenses crazy with his backfield versatility.
The NFL is a quarterback’s league.
Few things are more important on the defensive side of the ball than the ability to create pressure. The New York Giants have two rings to prove it.
First-round pick Khalil Mack was a defensive force at the University of Buffalo, and his proclivity to get in the offensive backfield was eclipsed only by superfreak Jadeveon Clowney.
Mack’s ability to stop the run may rival his potential impact as a pass rusher. Mack will be asked to do a lot for Oakland this season, including marking opposing tight ends in coverage, something he showed flashes of in the preseason.
Aside from Mack and last year’s third-round pick Sio Moore, the Raiders defense is an old group. Eight of the likely starters are 28 or older, and four are over 30.
That’s not to say they are washed up. Tuck is still a Top 10 4-3 defensive end coming off a 12-sack season, while Woodley last year recorded sacks in four consecutive games, albeit after a forgettable 2012.
Antonio Smith is far from a complete defensive tackle, but he is one of the best pass rushers at his position, recording five sacks for Houston last year.
With Smith and Tuck up the middle and Mack and Woodley on the outside, Oakland has the potential to be a real threat against opposing quarterbacks.
Stopping the ball once it’s released may be a different story. Raiders fans expecting the Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown of 2012 should be prepared for a letdown.
Rogers lost his starting job halfway through last season in San Francisco, relegated to nickel formations. Brown is still capable, but he regressed in 2013 and is part of a far less-talented defensive unit.
Dennis Allen has led non-competitive Raiders squads to eight wins in two years as an NFL head coach.
The youngest coach in the NFL couldn’t have inherited a tougher job when he took over in 2012. Years of wasted drafts and atrocious contracts shackled Allen and McKenzie with hopeless odds of success.
What appears to be the first decent draft class in years — and a roster chock full of new acquisitions — will need to sniff .500 to help Allen keep his job.
Best Case Scenario
Carr gives the Raiders their most consistent quarterback play since Rich Gannon. Khalil Mack’s athleticism translates to the pros, making him one of the most versatile young linebackers in the NFL.
The pass rush improves, MJD and McFadden stay healthy. The offensive line shows the consistency it lacked in 2013. Oakland goes 8-8 and moves forward with two promising young talents on either side of the ball.
Worst Case Scenario
The O-line is unable to protect Carr, who gets injured in Week 6 after being choke-slammed by Dwight Freeney. Carr is replaced by Schaub, who breaks his own record by throwing 16 pick-sixes in the remaining 10 weeks.
Veterans show their age on defense. Mack is forced to carry an unreasonable load as an all-everything linebacker.
Neither MJD or McFadden stay healthy. Mark Davis moves his team to San Antonio under cover of darkness after an earthquake reduces the thankfully-empty Coliseum to a steaming pile of raw sewage and rubble. The Raiders go 3-13, dooming Allen and McKenzie to a plank walked by many.