The NFL playoffs are going to see some new faces in 2016. It happens every year.
Four new teams -- Kansas City, Houston, Washington and Minnesota -- went to the playoffs in 2015. Five new teams went in 2014, and five new clubs went in 2013. In fact, going back to the 1990's, turnover amongst the NFL's 12-team playoff field has pushed 50 percent. Parity.
So, which teams are going to make that push and surprise next year? I have a few in mind, but the Oakland Raiders stand out at the top of that list. It hasn't happened overnight. After being hired as GM in 2012, Reggie McKenzie spent his first two years digging out from under the legacy of the Carson Palmer trade and a stack of bad contracts. But after three very good offseasons, he's built a team on the cusp of breaking out, thanks to solid drafting, key free agent acquisitions and lots of patience. If this year's draft goes the right way, Oakland will have the foundation they need to be AFC West contenders for years to come.
Maybe the most important development for Oakland, as a franchise, is that ...
They've got a quarterback
Fans of teams without one will understand this more acutely than fans of teams that have enjoyed having a franchise quarterback for years. You take it for granted. Every now and again, a team with a dominant defense will make a run, and even more rarely, they'll win a Super Bowl (like the Broncos in February), but the fact is, it's damn hard to win in the NFL with sub-par quarterback play.
The Raiders found their quarterback in Derek Carr in the second round of the 2014 draft. He plays with the confidence and swagger that makes you believe he's going to develop into a superstar.
Carr threw for 3,987 yards with a 61 percent completion rate in his second season as a starter, tossing 32 touchdowns to 13 picks and a 91.1 rating. Those 32 touchdown passes put him at seventh on the list among quarterbacks last year, he was 13th in yards, and he finished just outside the top 10 in both of Football Outsiders main metrics, DVOA (13th) and DYAR (12th). ESPN's QBR wasn't as kind (26th), and his 91.1 rating was middling in a year with a lot of great quarterback performances, but as Carr's supporting cast improves, so will his numbers.
That's where Reggie McKenzie's savvy dealings come in.
Building out depth and talent
McKenzie is definitely developing his own modus operandi with respect to roster building. He's ventured into free agency far more than his mentor Ted Thompson ever has.
Before I get to the Raiders' big splash in this year's free agency shopping spree, there are a few moves that Oakland made last year that are important to the big picture. The additions of receiver Michael Crabtree, center Rodney Hudson, nose tackle Dan Williams and linebacker Malcolm Smith paid dividends on the field and helped make Oakland a destination that more free agents would want to go to. Hitting on one free agent in an offseason is impressive enough -- but four?
Hudson and Williams are both solid soldiers in Oakland's trenches, Crabtree emerged as a very solid No. 2 option next to top rookie Amari Cooper, catching 85 passes for 922 yards and nine touchdowns, and Malcolm Smith led the Raiders in tackles last year (122). Not shabby for a rotational backup the year before. Credit to defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. for identifying one of his former players in Smith as a guy that could produce in his system in Oakland.
Incredibly though, this year's Raider free agent class could end up being even better.
The 2016 free agency bonanza
Oakland's first big splash was going out and grabbing the top-rated lineman on the market in Keleche Osemele, who they signed to a five year, $58.5 million contract. In a coup, they also managed to re-sign solid veteran left tackle Donald Penn to a two-year deal. These two moves add to last year's signing of Hudson and the selection of Gabe Jackson in the 2014 draft. If 2013 second-rounder Menelik Watson can return from a season-stealing injury last year to play to his potential at right tackle, the Raiders could seriously have one of the most dominant lines in the NFL in 2016.
This is a team that, on paper, could build an offensive identity on similar to that of Dallas, where a controlling offensive line opens up lanes for Latavius Murray while allowing Carr to sit back in the pocket and pick apart defenses.
The offense isn't the only priority for McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio. There's still work to be done on the defensive side of the ball, but signing Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson look like three shrewd deals for a team looking for more veteran presence with the loss of Charles Woodson.
Irvin has yet to live up to his first-round selection and billing as a pass rusher, but Oakland's scheme is going to give him more chances to get after the quarterback. Being used across from Khalil Mack means Irvin's going to get a lot of one-on-one blocking situations. At worst, he's a really solid strong-side linebacker and nickel pass-rusher, and at best, he's just coming into his own as a sack-maker.
At some point next year the Raiders will have Aldon Smith to bolster their pass rush, after re-signing him on Monday. Smith is serving a one-year suspension but has managed to find a home in Oakland that seems to suit him. If he can stay out of trouble and get on the field in November, he'll boost an already potent looking pass rush group, and give the Raiders a shot at replicating some of what the Broncos did to teams in 2015. Telling Mack, Smith and Irvin to pin their ears back on third downs could be a a nightmare scenario for opposing quarterbacks.
Adding to that is the potential that Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson bring to the secondary. Strong coverage on an opponent's No. 1 receiver is an underrated piece to a pass rush equation -- it wasn't just Von Miller's explosive first step or DeMarcus Ware's spin move that helped the Broncos wreck havoc on opposing teams -- it was sticky blanket coverage in the secondary by Denver's trio of talented cornerbacks that forced quarterbacks to hold on to the ball that extra half-beat or two. That turns pressures into sacks.
Smith isn't a shutdown corner on the level of Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman, but he has the length and physicality to re-direct routes and disrupt timing, which is key for a team whose front can create quick pressure. Similarly, Nelson provides a ball-hawking presence in the middle, and his league-leading eight picks in 2015 will give quarterbacks pause in attacking in his area.
The plan is coming together.
Oakland still has some potential up and comers
Amari Cooper (72 catches, 1,070 yards, six touchdowns) and Khalil Mack (15.0 sacks) have already "emerged" for the Raiders, but should continue to improve and increase their impact. There's a few other young players on the roster that could do the same in 2016.
How the starting lineup in the defensive secondary shakes out might be one of the most interesting position groups for the Raiders next year. Sean Smith is a surefire starter. Opposite him, we could see any combination of D.J. Hayden, David Amerson, Travis Carrie and/or Keith McGill. All have had chances to grab starting spots, but the competition likely remains open. Amerson looked solid in starts at corner last year, replacing the disappointing Hayden. Carrie and McGill could feature at safety. It's still up in the air, but those are some names to watch. All have talent, but all continue to have question marks. If a player or two could emerge from this spot, it'd be enormous for Oakland.
Up front, there's the question of what the Raiders will get from defensive end Mario Edwards this year. His rookie campaign ended with a neck injury in Week 14 and there's still no clear prognosis for this season. If he can get healthy, he'll have a chance to build on a solid first season and with some of the ammo that Oakland's adding to their front seven, he could end up being a key piece to it.
On offense, the team seems really high on tight end Clive Walford, a second-year pro out of Miami that caught 28 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie. Ideally, he'll develop some chemistry with Carr to become his safety blanket over the middle and a big weapon in the red zone.
Seth Roberts is another name to watch. The former undrafted free agent sprung onto the scene last year and finished third on the team in receiving with 32 catches for 480 yards and five touchdowns. With Cooper and Crabtree hogging the focus of opposing defenses, Roberts will have the opportunity to make some plays next year in single coverage.
What to do in the NFL Draft this year
Not only do the Raiders stand to benefit greatly from their free agency haul and stable of up-and-coming players, but they have some solid ammo in the upcoming draft. The Raiders have eight picks -- starting with the 14th overall -- and the direction they go with that pick remains a pretty hotly debated subject.
Even with some of the developing players in Oakland's system at the cornerback spot, that position remains a popular choice among mock drafts. The two most frequent players analysts are sending there are Ohio State's Eli Apple and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander. I'm of the mind that at team really cannot have enough depth at cornerback and in the pass rush, so if I'm a Raiders fan and one of those two players falls to 14, I wouldn't be disappointed with a selection. Of course, the Raiders selected D.J. Hayden with the 12th overall pick three years ago, so not only is that memory still fresh enough, it's a potential argument against investing so heavily in that spot again.
If cornerback's not an option, the other popular choice is inside linebacker. Alabama's Reggie Ragland would be a solid fit, as would Ohio State's Darron Lee. Perhaps a dark horse here would be Jaylon Smith, whose talent can't be questioned, but is looking to overcome a serious, potentially career-ending knee injury. It'd be a risk, but Smith is the type of talent that could've gone first overall if not for the injury.
Safety remains a need for the Raiders even with the signing of Reggie Nelson, so don't be surprised if they look at West Virginia's Karl Joseph, Ohio State's Vonn Bell, Florida's Keanu Neal or Southern Utah's Miles Killebrew in the early rounds.
As I said earlier, you can't have enough pass rush, so it wouldn't surprise me if they look to add some depth on the front-seven, especially in the form of developmental pass rushers. There's some pretty interesting running backs in the mid rounds, as well, so don't be shocked if Oakland adds another somewhere around there.
Which makes me think -- you really have to wonder what the Raiders would do if Ezekiel Elliot falls to 14, too. Latavius Murray isn't bad, but with the upgrades that the Raiders have made on the offensive line the past two or three years, putting Elliot behind those road-graders is a pretty scintillating prospect. Especially when defenses have to fear Derek Carr's arm.
A team on the up-and-up
It's always tough to gauge these things in the middle of the offseason, but on paper the Raiders look like one of the more intriguing teams going into 2016, and that could increase with another solid draft.
They finished 2015 at 7-9 but played some good teams really close down the stretch -- including a Week 14 win over the eventual Super Bowl Champions. Oakland won't have it easy next season playing in the same division as the Chiefs and Broncos, but with key additions to their offensive line, defensive line and secondary -- plus eight more picks in the upcoming draft -- they look primed to make things interesting in the AFC West.
McKenzie and his coaching staff have definitely shed some of the stigma around their early failures in the personnel department, and suddenly look like one of the more intelligently run clubs in the league.
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