Oakland Raiders Could Be NFL’s 2015 Dark Horse


The NFL Preseason is underway, and the regular season is swiftly approaching. As the season gets closer, many people are predicting how the 2015 season will shake out, including who will be competitive for playoff spots come season’s end. One of the teams projected by many to have yet another poor season is the Oakland Raiders, but the Raiders may just surprise everyone with an above-average season.

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We should start by acknowledging the fact that no, the Raiders are unlikely to be playing in the Super Bowl this year and they will have to have an outstanding season to even be competing for a playoff spot. However, after not finishing above .500 or making the playoffs since 2002, the team doesn’t have to win a championship to far exceed expectations.

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It has been so long since the Raiders were truly competitive in the NFL that around the league most people do not even consider them. Even articles about excitement and energy in Oakland’s camp (like this article by Marcus Thompson in the San Jose Mercury News) tend to speak in very guarded tones, and warn readers against high expectations.

"Never seen coaches so excited,” Oakland tight end Mychal Rivera said, according to Thompson, “Especially watching the defensive coaches. Those guys are loud all day.”"

Thompson then goes on to note how this excitement and energy is “meaningless until it translates to wins.” This is slightly sad for Raiders fans, as they want to believe the best about their team, but it is indicative of the attitudes of many across the league. But the excitement and enthusiasm evident in Raiders training camp could very well be due to something more: a team with real potential for 2015.

The main place the team is searching for improvement is on the offensive side of the ball. They had one of the worst offenses in football last year, finishing near the bottom in almost every main statistical category. Their improvement should be like night and day this year.

Quarterback Derek Carr is entering his second season in the league, after a 2014 which saw him lead all rookies in passing yards (3,270) and touchdowns (21), while throwing only 12 interceptions, the same number as Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, and fellow rookie Teddy Bridgewater, and tied for the 6th fewest of any quarterback who started all least 16 games. He wasn’t bad last season, and should only get better with a full year under his belt.

He struggled with accuracy, completing only 58% of his passes, but if his receivers were to drop only half as many passes this season as they did in 2014 (34) he would automatically move up the rankings, and have a smilier completion percentage to the Colts’ Andrew Luck. That may just happen this year, as his receiving corps is vastly improved.

The Raiders added Michael Crabtree via free agency and used their first round pick on Alabama product Amari Cooper. Rod Streater, who was expected to be the team’s top receiver last season before suffering a season-ending injury in September, is now fighting for a role as Oakland’s third wide-out. Fans and analysts alike are predicting big things in 2015 from Derek Carr and Amari Cooper:

Now, instead of throwing to the likes of Andre Holmes and the aging James Jones, Derek Carr will be targeting two winners of the Fred Biletnikoff award for the best college wide-reciever in Crabtree (2007 & 2008) and Cooper (2014). At tight end, third year player Mychal Rivera and 2015 third round pick Clive Walford will be competing for targets, and this should both make Rivera improve and help Walford transition to the NFL.

The Raiders also look to be improved at running back. They finally moved on from the oft-injured Darren McFadden who was a fixture in Oakland for seven seasons despite only having one year of 1,000+ rushing yards and never running for more than 7 touchdowns in a season.

Now the starter should be Latavius Murray, a back who averaged 95 yards from scrimmage in the final five weeks of 2014, and finished the year with a 5.2 yards per carry average. Oakland also added former Doak Walker award winner Trent Richardson, and former Washington back Roy Helu Jr. this offseason. Richardson has had a disappointing NFL career but has the talent to be a solid player, and Helu hasn’t had much of a chance to  shine to this point in his career after sitting behind Alfred Morris in Washington, but his career 4.4 yards per carry show potential for him as a solid role-player.

On defense, the team is full of young talents with a ton of potential. Khalil Mack should improve on last year’s excellent rookie season, and third year player D.J. Hayden is looking to prove himself as a solid starting corner in the league. On the other side T.J. Carrie looks to be the the second starting corner, and he also hopes to make his name as he begins his second NFL season.

The team drafted First-Team All-ACC defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., and added former Arizona defensive tackle Dan Williams, former New Orleans Saint Curtis Lofton,  and former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith in free agency. Each of these players should contribute in 2015, and fit in alongside some of the league’s all-time greats at their positions in safety Charles Woodson and defensive end Justin Tuck.

The Oakland defense has its fair share of veteran leadership, but is primarily made up of young players who are looking to make their name known in the league. Luckily for the Raiders, even if they can’t put all the pieces together this season, they’ve built a team that should be improving for many years to come. However, they do have the talent to make an impact on the 2015 NFL season.

New head coach Jack Del Rio along with new offensive and defensive coordinators, Bill Musgrave and Ken Norton, should bring a spark of life to the 2015 season in Oakland. Many people are expecting Oakland to struggle once again, but they could conceivably compete for a division title or possible a Wild-Card berth.

Not being talked about much may be just what Oakland needs to take the league by surprise in 2015, so be ready for these Raiders to greatly exceed expectations. Hopefully this young squad can put the pieces together well enough to take the league by storm this season.

Next: How Much Has Raiders Offense Improved?

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