NFL Team Previews: Oakland Raiders

The Oakland Raiders went from 2003-09 without ever winning more than five games in a season. The past two years they’ve gone 8-8. Each time they’ve rewarded the head coach—first Tom Cable, then Hue Jackson—with the pink slip. And people dare to say this organization has become dysfunctional? Can the Raiders push past the .500 level under yet another new coach, this time Dennis Allen, and make the playoffs for the first time since their AFC championship run of 2002? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Raiders…

OFFENSE: Carson Palmer was brought in last year to give the offense a boost and while he completed 60 percent of his passes, the veteran quarterback threw 16 interceptions against just 13 touchdown passes. I understand the injury to Jason Campbell in the early part of 2011 forced some type of major change, but the Raiders aren’t that much better off with Palmer than they were with Campbell. And the receivers are a liability. Darrius Heyward-Bey is the best of the group and he’s better suited to be a #2 or #3 target? No one else, from Jacoby Ford to Denarius Moore is a threat. Personally, I’d like to see them given rookie Juron Criner some serious playing time.

The offensive line is a mixed bag, with talented 23-year-old center Stefan Wisniewski holding down the middle, but the guards who flank him are a liability. And while Jared Veldheer is solid at left tackle, Kahlif Barnes is a big problem on the other side. This line is good enough to crack the holes for a really good back, but it couldn’t carry an average runner the way top lines can.

Thus, the Raiders need a running back who can make his own holes and ideally be a top receiving target. Enter Darren McFadden, the electrifying back who can do all of the above and can alter a defensive game plan as much as a running back in the league. But the stipulation is he has to be healthy. McFadden suffered nagging injuries throughout last year, the kind that make you think it’s not bad luck in a given year but that his body might not be built to last a 16-game season. With him, Oakland’s offense is at least interesting. Without him it’s mediocre at best, and a potential train wreck in the making.

DEFENSE: The Raiders have a tough physical defense that can play the run well, and that starts up front. The front four has solid talent at each spot, with youth on the edge, in 25-year-old ends Lamarr Houston and vets on the inside with tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. This foursome is backed up by middle linebacker Rolando McClain, the ideal middle man in a 4-3 set. McClain is not a tremendous athlete, but scouts praise his ability to read and react quickly and his pursuit between the tackles is excellent. The defensive backfield, led by strong safety Tyvon Branch and free safety Michael Huff each excel in run support. You won’t be this team up the middle and in the trenches.

But you might beat them on the edge and over the top. The outside linebacking spots are soft. The corners, Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer are both 30-plus in age and neither can lock a receiver down one-on-one. The coverage skills of Branch and Huff do not measure up to their run support abilities. And up front Houston and Shaughnessy combined for only two sacks in a combined 19 games (Shaughnessy had season-ending surgery after three games). That’s a terrible sack rate from ends in a 4-3. They play the run well, but they need to do more if this scheme is to be successful.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 7.5—You can bet the Raiders to hold serve at the eight wins they’ve posted two years running and cash an Over bet. But as the reader can probably tell, I just feel like the team has too many flaws. Is it easier to imagine them going 6-10 or going 10-6? A team that can’t rush the quarterback, play the pass, get the ball downfield and whose biggest impact player is injury prone is highly unlikely to win ten games, but certainly could lose that many. That’s why I like the Under. Come to think of it, 7.5 might also be a good Over/Under number for betting the number of games McFadden misses.