Are The Raiders Suddenly Going For It?
by Jim Turvey
The Raiders play in a division with three of last year’s AFC playoff teams, including the eventual Super Bowl whipping boys. They finished last year 4-12, five games behind the closest divisional foe. They lost their last six games of 2013, and eight of their last nine. Their GM has said from day one that he is rebuilding through shedding all contracts he can. Within the first hour of this year’s free agency, their two biggest free agents had signed elsewhere, and it seemed as though 4-12 would be optimistic for 2014.
However, with some incredibly shrewd moves, my man Reggie McKenzie (or MMRM as I will now refer to him) has built a sneaky good Raiders team. With a top five pick still upcoming in the draft, the Raiders have a legitimate defense, and an offense that looks to be better than last year.
Let’s start with the defense. With LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith (owner of the best nickname in football, “The Ninja Assassin”), and Justin Tuck all arriving on the defensive line, Jason Tarver will be able to pressure the quarterback with his front four, and when the Raiders were pressuring the quarterback last year is when they did best. The linebacking corps broke out last year, and Sio Moore should be even better this year. D.J. Hayden will have another year of experience, and should learn a lot from Tarell Brown, one of the best signings of the whole offseason. The safety position stays the same as last year, and if Woodson and Branch can stay healthy, they are a dynamic duo. With a little bit of defensive line depth (a run-stopping defensive tackle would be perfect), as well as an extra cornerback or two, the defense begins to look like a top ten, bordering on top five, defensive unit. Top that with the team fitting perfectly with Tarver’s pressure scheme, and the Raiders could really surprise some folks on defense next year.
While the offense isn’t as secure as the defense, bringing in Schaub is a huge step in the right direction. How many quarterbacks have we seen have one down year, only to bounce back, and play well, years beyond their one bad season. Are the Giants planning on giving up Eli Manning for a late-round draft pick, just because he pooped the bed last year? Hell no.
Well, from 2009-2012, Schaub topped Manning in completion percentage, yards per game, quarterback rate, and had 25 less interceptions. Eli topped Schaub in total yards (thanks to not having missed a start since he took over the helm of the Giants), and touchdowns, but the two were quite similar over those four years. Schaub is six months younger, and while he doesn’t come with the same pedigree as Eli Manning (two rings and being a Manning gets you quite a bit of “pedigree”), he may well provide similar statistics as Manning this season.
Schaub won’t have Andre Johnson to throw to this year, but the James Jones signing is huge, and suddenly the Raiders’ receiver corps looks downright solid. Denarius Moore, Rod Streater and Andre Holmes all have shown flashes of strong play, and with a stable number one receiver in Jones, they will only benefit. Mychal Rivera seems like a perfect match for Schaub, and could well produce at the level Owen Daniels did in his years with Schaub as his quarterback.
The offensive line is certainly going to miss Veldheer, but he only played five games last year, and the unit performed well above expectations. Having arguably the best offensive line coach in the NFL will do that, and having Tony Sparano back is way more important than having Veldheer back. The offensive line was arguably weaker in 2013 than it is now (having signed two solid tackles in free agency), and Sparano should work his magic again in 2014.
The running game may be the biggest question mark going into 2014, but the late first round, early second round has proven a strong place to find good, cheap running backs in the last couple of years (Giovani Bernard and Le’Veon Bell in 2013, Doug Martin in 2012, and Jahvid Best in 2010), and the Raiders could well look to take a Tre Mason, Carlos Hyde type player with their second round pick. MJD is also still out on the free agent market, and although a running backs shelf life is limited in the modern NFL, he and McFadden would probably add up to nearly 16 games combined (I’m only half-joking). Of course, Marcel Reece is still around, and giving him more touches is never a bad thing.
Overall, the Raiders and MMRM have put themselves in a great position with free agency winding down, and the draft on its way. It’s an exciting time to be a Raiders’ fan, and the Raiders revival could end up sooner than many thought.