This feels unnatural. The Oakland Raiders are doing the right things, especially on offense. That is a lofty proclamation considering that last season, according to Pro Football Focus' advanced metrics, the Raiders were the second-worst offensive team in the league.
Why the positivity? Look no further than the last two drafts from general manager Reggie McKenzie.
Last year he took outside linebacker Khalil Mack in the first round and quarterback Derek Carr in the second round. While it may be a little premature, Mack and Carr both look like franchise pillars. Carr in particular is the key to the future of the Raiders. He had the rough patches you'd expect as a rookie last season, but looked good at times throwing for 3,270 yards and 21 touchdowns. Those rookie numbers match up well with some of the better young quarterbacks in the league:
|Derek Carr, Raiders||2014||3,279||58.1||21||12|
|Andrew Luck, Colts||2012||4,374||54.1||23||18|
|Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins||2012||3,294||58.3||12||13|
|Cam Newton, Panthers||2011||4,051||60.0||21||17|
Andy Dalton, Bengals
Also consider those numbers with the knowledge that Carr's top receiver was James Jones, a solid veteran who has never had 1,000 yards in a season, and Andre Holmes, a long-term developmental player. That's where this year's draft comes into play.
Despite the insistence of draft nerds, such as myself, that the Raiders should take defensive lineman Leonard Williams with the No. 4 overall pick, McKenzie targeted wide receiver Amari Cooper. The Alabama star is a workhorse. For the Crimson Tide, Cooper was targeted an unbelievable 174 times, or 39.8 percent of all the team's passes. Cooper pulled in 124 of those targets, the most in the nation, and had 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
"I would just say that when you talk about this young man coming in at this level, as a draft prospect that has not played in the NFL yet, it’s unusual when words like ‘polished’ are thrown out, but that’s what you see," Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said after Cooper was picked. "He has been lined up all across the board -- outside, both sides, inside the slot, moving around, even lined up in the backfield some. So he’s been exposed to a lot, been utilized a lot of different ways.
"The repetitions that he’s had playing the position, running the route tree and doing all the things that he’s done to develop himself, makes him a guy that has that label of being polished."
Cooper is as sure of a thing as there was in this year's draft, and that's exactly what Carr and Oakland needed.
"It’s very nice when it goes hand in hand," McKenzie said after the draft about pairing a young quarterback and wide receiver. "You get a chance to get a great player and he fits one of the needs, so it’s great when that falls in place."
The Raiders also took a flier on Michael Crabtree in free agency. He was always miscast in San Francisco as a potential No. 1 receiver, but should fit nicely as Oakland's No. 2 if he's healthy. Add Holmes and young players like Kenbrell Thompkins and Brice Butler and the nucleus is good. Undrafted free agent Josh Harper can be added to that mix as well. As Carr's lead receiver at Fresno State in 2013, Harper had 79 receptions for 1,011 yards and 13 touchdowns. It's a move that satisfies Carr, at least.
"You know strengths and weaknesses and you can help him learn faster," Carr told the Sacramento Bee. "I know how to talk to him. I can relate to him because we’ve been on the same team and we can make jokes. That relationship is already there. We’re already good friends. He’s already been my receiver and I’m his quarterback. That hasn’t changed.
Picking Cooper and adding Harper weren't the only good moves McKenzie made on offense in last week's draft. After taking Cooper at No. 4, he followed it up in the third round with Miami tight end Clive Walford. Regarded as the draft's second-best tight end after Maxx Williams of Minnesota, Walford should find just as much playing time early as Cooper. He's a complete tight end who can block and catch passes.
Even with some dubious quarterback play at Miami last season, Walford still finished the year with 44 receptions for 676 yards and seven touchdowns.
"He’s not only a receiver or a blocker-only type guy," McKenzie said about Walford. "He’s a guy that’s big and strong enough to pound it versus the D-linemen, and he can flex out and run the routes and be that pass receiver. He’s pretty much the total package when you’re looking at a complete tight end. We didn’t think he was one-dimensional."
Walford, along with ascending tight end Mychal Rivera, will give the Raiders' passing offense variety. With two good tight ends the Raiders can run more 12 personnel groupings with both tight ends on the field along with Cooper and Crabtree.
McKenzie also continued improving Oakland's offensive line. After drafting guard Gabe Jackson in the third round last year, he added powerful Miami guard Jon Feliciano in the fourth round this year. He also made one of the biggest splashes in free agency by signing center Rodney Hudson away from the division rival Kansas City Chiefs. Those three players will not only go a long way in helping protect Carr, but will help improve a running game led by promising running back Latavius Murray, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season. McKenzie also made a low-risk move by signing running back Trent Richardson. While Richardson, now on his third team, has unquestionably been a bust, maybe his production will come close to matching his talent.
If Oakland puts it all together on offense, it could continue the same positive momentum that saw the team win two of its last four games of 2014. The Raiders may not be a playoff team in 2015, but now – finally – they seem to be moving in the right direction.
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