The Oakland Raiders earned fewer wins in the last three seasons than their division rival Denver Broncos earned in 2014 alone. In Reggie McKenzie's first three seasons with the Raiders, the team compiled an 11-37 record, which was the second worst over that span, ahead of only the 9-39 Jacksonville Jaguars.
Meanwhile, the Broncos cruised to a 38-10 record over that span and three AFC West titles, while the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs did just enough to keep things interesting into December, but never enough to pose a serious threat.
While the Broncos are off to yet another good start, the team looks as vulnerable as it ever has since Peyton Manning arrived, and another team is quietly building something that looks good. But it couldn't possibly be the silver and black, could it?
McKenzie was patient in his rebuild approach
Step one for McKenzie's tall task of rebuilding the Raiders was to clear the team of contracts that choked away its ability to go after playmakers. Ridding the roster of players like Richard Seymour, Carson Palmer, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Huff, Rolando McClain, and Tommy Kelly left the team with copious amounts of dead money that couldn't go toward the roster in 2013, but eventually became usable cap space in 2014 and 2015.
The Raiders encountered some bad luck when safety Nate Allen, who was brought in on a four-year, $23 million deal, was injured in Week 1, but others additions like center Rodney Hudson and defensive tackle Dan Williams have already made an immediate impact.
Donald Penn has also contributed in a big way after signing a two-year, $9.6 million deal in 2014. So to has defensive end Justin Tuck who received a two-year, $11 million deal.
The Raiders may have struck NFL Draft gold in top 5
NFL teams are generally built around a few premium positions that are much more likely to warrant top 10 NFL Draft picks. That's why tight ends rarely draw top 10 picks, while offensive tackles and pass rushers generally go early and often.
The Raiders signed both of their offensive tackles in free agency, but appear to have nailed it in the NFL Draft on a few top 10 picks.
Three games into his NFL career, Cooper already has 20 receptions for 290 yards and a touchdown. Only seven players have more receiving yards in 2015 and it's a who's who of NFL stars, including Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald and Rob Gronkowski. The next closest rookie is Phillip Dorsett of the Indianapolis Colts with 113 yards. No other rookie has more than 75.
One year before adding Cooper, the Raiders selected Khalil Mack, who finished third in the 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year award voting behind Aaron Donald and C.J. Mosley. In a 27-20 win against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Mack recorded two sacks.
It all goes through Derek Carr
While the additions of Cooper and Mack are key, nothing will aid a turnaround more than a good quarterback and it remains to be seen if Derek Carr can be that for the Raiders. There's plenty of evidence to be optimistic that he will be.
With Cooper and Michael Crabtree at his disposal, Carr already has five touchdowns and only one interception to lead the Raiders to a 2-1 start. After finishing his rookie season with a 76.6 passer rating, a jump was expected in his second year, but a 102.4 rating through three games certainly qualifies as overachieving.
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Before the Raiders unfurl a "mission accomplished" banner for the rebuild, it's going to take more than a 2-1 start. Plenty of quarterbacks have started seasons strong and then turned around that momentum and went into a tailspin.
The reality is that back-to-back wins against the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns were not flukes, though. The Raiders have legitimate, young talent and have leaned on that talent to win games.
With a Week 4 game against the self-destructing Chicago Bears on the way, the Raiders may enter a Week 5 game against the incumbent kings of the AFC West, the Broncos with a 3-1 record and a chance to establish themselves as a legitimate contender.
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