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Raiders have a chance to be great, but they’re running out of time in Oakland

Derek Carr may be the brightest star the Raiders have had since Marcus Allen.

Indianapolis Colts v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The years after Rich Gannon’s late-career revival weren’t kind to the Raiders offense. Oakland cycled through a long list of failed quarterbacks like JaMarcus Russell, Andrew Walter, and Terrelle Pryor as eight wins became the high-water mark for one of the league’s proudest franchises.

After nearly a decade of wandering through the AFC West’s desert, Derek Carr has led the Raiders to the AFC’s promised land just in time to give Oakland fans a glimmer of hope before departing for the browner pastures of Las Vegas. With an MVP-candidate presence behind center, Jack Del Rio’s team rocketed to the upper tier of the NFL. When Carr’s season was cut short by a broken leg in Week 16, his absence was enough to sink the team’s postseason aspirations.

The Raiders scored 27.3 points per game with Carr in the lineup. When he sat, that number dropped to 10. Carr’s passer rating of 96.7 ranked eighth in the league. His replacements, Matt McGloin and Connor Cook, combined for a 73.8 — a mark that would have ranked 29th.

A healthy Carr puts Oakland in position for its first AFC West title since 2002. The franchise is investing heavily to ensure he’s got everything he needs — at least on offense.

Marshawn Lynch leads a trio of offensive signings who could fall flat

The Raiders have given their young quarterback some extra ammunition for 2017, though their additions are not foolproof. The big-ticket acquisition was Marshawn Lynch, a five-time Pro Bowler and bonafide superstar who can add a bruising presence to Oakland’s running platoon. He’s also 31 years old, coming off a one-year retirement, and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry his last active season.

But a return to his hometown could be the motivator he lacked as his tenure in Seattle came to a close. He told reporters playing for the Raiders was “a dream come true.” He made it clear there’s a new energy flowing through his veins in the Bay Area.

“I got the whole town riding with me,” Lynch said. “So that's good what they've got going on. All that good shit you just said. But I got a whole new Oakland behind me. The way we feel just about where we're from and why we represent where we're from so hard is because we know what the struggle is and how we get down.”

Lynch will be joined by All-Pro Cordarrelle Patterson, a gifted kick returner whose receiving skills have never found a way to match his special teams contributions. The club also added Jared Cook, who used one tremendous postseason reception to erase an underwhelming 2016 season with Green Bay. All three bring value to the lineup, though none may be a significant upgrade over the team’s current skill players.

But each could thrive with fresh starts thanks to Carr and one of the league’s top offensive lines. No team protected its passer like the Raiders last fall. Carr was sacked on only 3.17 percent of his dropbacks — less than any other starter in the league. As a result, 60 percent of that unit — Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele, and Rodney Hudson — earned Pro Bowl nods. Osemele was also named a first-team All-Pro for his work keeping Carr’s jersey clean.

That rock-solid foundation is the rising tide that lifts the rest of this team’s offense. Lynch goes from the overgrown World War I trench the Seahawks used to protect Russell Wilson to one who cleared room for the NFL’s sixth-ranked rushing offense last fall. Patterson and Cook will have extra time to create space downfield with Carr safe in the pocket. They’ll also have a new offensive coordinator in place: Todd Downing, the quarterbacks coach who helped Carr develop into an MVP-caliber passer, is now running things as offensive coordinator.

The Raiders offense will build on an already successful foundation

We can already see the effect that’s had on one of the league’s deadliest wideout pairings. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree combined for 172 catches, 2,156 yards, and 13 touchdowns last season as a pick-your-poison duo. Cooper’s sophomore season demanded double-teams, allowing Crabtree to have a renaissance performance working against cornerbacks on an island; 2016 marked his first 1,000-yard season since 2012.

When teams focused on stopping Cooper and Crabtree, Oakland doubled down on its offensive line strength to find a way to win. That was never more apparent than in Week 9, when Denver’s no-fly-zone secondary limited Carr to just 184 passing yards. Instead, Latavius Murray stepped up to score three touchdowns, and the team’s tailback platoon combined for 211 rushing yards in a 30-20 beatdown.

Murray won’t be around in 2017 — he signed with the Vikings this offseason — but Lynch’s presence ensures the Raiders will have a deep and dominant offense. Murray’s platoon mates, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, remain on the roster in case Beast Mode fails to return to his former All-Pro form.

After the first day of minicamp, Washington said he thinks the offense is “dangerous.”

“I mean, you look on paper, it’s crazy the amount of talent we got,” the second-year back told the Raiders’ website. “But, we still have to put the work in first and foremost. We definitely feel like we can score and play with anybody in this league. We got the personnel, the coaches, so it’s just about going out and making it happen at this point.”

Now, the focus will shift on a defense eager to prove it’s more than a one-man show.

The Raiders defense needs to step up

Khalil Mack made the jump from young prospect to superstar in 2016, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors in the process. However, his presence alone couldn’t keep Oakland from ranking 20th in the league in points allowed and 26th in yardage allowed. In fact, in the past 14 seasons, the Raiders have finished better than 20th in scoring defense just once.

Mack was flanked by Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson, but the rest of the team’s unit came up lacking. Oakland gave up 24 points or more in 11 of its 17 games last season, including a 27-point performance to open last year’s playoffs. That final performance wound up a moot point — Connor Cook completed only 18 of his 45 passes in a Wild Card loss to the Texans — but it pointed out the team’s fatal flaw. A healthy Carr would have to win a series of shootouts to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Even Nelson, who will be 34 this season, can’t be relied on to continue his late-career renaissance. Recent free agent acquisitions like Sean Smith, Aldon Smith, Bruce Irvin, and Dan Williams have produced anonymous-to-middling returns. The same goes for high-profile draft picks like Karl Joseph, Mario Edwards, Shilique Calhoun, and Jihad Ward. While that latter group still has time to develop into above-average starters, it’s clear the team needs extra help to jump from intriguing winners to true contenders.

Oakland doubled down on its defense during the draft

The Raiders chose the draft rather than free agency to replenish their defensive ranks. The team’s first three selections — and five of its first six — were defenders. Oakland was able to select a top-10 talent at the end of the first round when a sexual assault claim caused Ohio State’s Gareon Conley to drop to the 24th pick of the 2017 NFL draft. The franchise issued its own polygraph to Conley and was satisfied with the results before rolling the dice on him. But questions will likely follow him through the early stages of his career — the investigation into the alleged assault is still ongoing.

The team’s next two picks were players with big-time potential and plenty to prove. Second-rounder Obi Melifonwu stood out as the most athletic player at the NFL Combine, but he’ll have to find a way to apply his enviable talent into a coverage role in the Raiders secondary. Eddie Vanderdoes was a five-star high school recruit who never really lived up to the hype at UCLA but remains an untapped well of power in the trenches.

Conley, Melifonwu, and Vanderdoes all add value at positions of need for an underwhelming defense — if they can acclimate early.

Oakland needs more than just Beast Mode to be a Super Bowl threat

The Raiders haven’t tasted postseason success since 2002, and they’re running out of time in the Bay Area. They only have two seasons left in Oakland before a mystery bridge year (location to be determined) and a 2020 opening season in Las Vegas. With Carr behind center, the team has a reasonably long window of Super Bowl contention ahead of it — but only 16 more regular season games in front of the fervent crowds who suffered through a litany of losing seasons to get here.

Those are the fans for whom Lynch returned. He’ll have to prove he’s recharged and able to return to his 2014 form to lead a deep platoon for one of the NFL’s budding offenses.

The Raiders have the kind of offense to compete and a slipshod defense that will ensure the final, sewage-filled days of Coliseum’s football hosting will be exciting. Carr is a franchise cornerstone who will be surrounded by playmaking personalities like Lynch, Cooper, and Crabtree — the perfect antidote for an AFC West schedule featuring Denver’s and Kansas City’s fearsome defenses. However, the team’s inability to craft a second front-seven star to complement Mack’s disruptive play is a major caveat for anyone picking Oakland as a world champion.

Del Rio’s Raiders could be better than they’ve ever been in 2017. An offseason focus on adding offensive help will ensure the team wins its share of firefight. But even best-case production from new additions won’t matter if the Raiders can’t ground the explosive rosters of the Patriots and Steelers in the postseason.

Mack can’t do it alone. Unless other young players on the defense live up to the hype, Oakland fans could be stuck waiting for a Super Bowl parade until Raiders ownership gets fed up with its Vegas lease in 2035.