STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Raiders made sweeping changes in the front office and coaching staff in the offseason after a roller coaster 2011 campaign, and with the facelift they will undoubtedly be an enigma in the AFC West in 2012.
The Raiders ended last season on a sour note, as they were upended at home by the Chargers to miss out on a playoff bid. As a result, they finished 8-8 and split with each divisional rival to go 3-3 in AFC West play. Throughout the season there was never a lack of anguish, as the Raiders suffered through a myriad of key injuries, became the most penalized team in NFL history, and grieved the passing of long-time owner Al Davis. That said, the Raiders finished as the ninth-ranked offense in the league despite losing star running back Darren McFadden in the seventh game of the season. After a season-ending injury to Jason Campbell, the front office dealt precious first-round picks for quarterback Carson Palmer, who developed a rapport with Darrius Heyward-Bey to post some nice numbers in the second half.
In the end, however, were the realities of a second straight eight-win season and the subsequent firing of head coach Hue Jackson. In addition, ownership decided to bring in General Manager Reggie McKenzie from the Packers front office. McKenzie quickly appointed new coordinators on each side of the ball and hired defensive-minded Dennis Allen from the rival Broncos as the head coach. The net effect will likely be a balanced offense that employs a zone-blocking scheme in the running game. The defense ranked an atrocious 29th in 2011, employing a 4-3 scheme and racked up an undisciplined 163 penalties. It's safe to say that they'll likely opt for a different approach in 2012, potentially using a 3-4 or multiple-look system. The team will undeniably need some playmakers such as Richard Seymour and Tyvon Branch to step up in order to legitimize this defense.
Meanwhile, management had to slash salary and restructure contracts yet again this offseason to get back under the salary cap, so they did not acquire any impact players on offense and only added change-of-pace back Mike Goodson. Defensively, the Raiders will see many new names and only have a handful of truly unquestioned starters at this point. Their draft picks were limited as well, thanks to the Palmer trade.
Without a doubt, the Raiders are littered with potential, but vast administrative changes and a seemingly different mantra have put them in a category of uncertainty coming into this season. Their divisional foes will sport some new faces as well, so the AFC West looks to be up for grabs. Expect the 2012 Raiders to be competitive, but by no means dominating in a division full of question marks.
Mike Goodson, RB (Panthers)
A potential sleeper, given Darren McFadden's well-documented health issues. He will compete for touches with Taiwan Jones.
Matt Leinart, QB (Texans)
The Raiders will employ a former USC Trojan one-two punch at QB, with Leinart set to back up Carson Palmer.
Mike Brisiel, G (Texans)
Figures to slot in at the left guard spot on the offensive line and is familiar with OC Gregg Knapp's zone-blocking scheme.
Ronald Bartell, CB (Rams)
Did not play much last year due to injury, but could grab a starting job in the Oakland secondary.
Juron Criner,WR, Arizona (Round 5, 168th overall)
Possession-type receiver with size and leaping ability to produce in the red zone. Described as a complete package pass-catcher, minus the breakaway speed.
Michael Bush, RB (Bears)
The bruising back rushed for a career-high 977 yards last season, but is now off to Chicago, essentially replaced by Mike Goodson.
Stanford Routt, CB (Chiefs)
The Raiders lose their top corner for the second straight season.
Kamerion Wimbley, LB (Titans)
Cap issues cost the Raiders their top pass-rusher as well.
CAN Darren McFadden AVOID THE INJURY BUG?
Having missed at least three games in each of his four seasons in the NFL and nine last year due to a foot sprain, McFadden has been a health liability, to say the least. After a productive 2010 season in which he racked up nearly 1,700 total yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns, McFadden picked up where he left off in 2011, averaging 101.7 yards per game and piling up five touchdowns in seven games before succumbing to injury again. This year he's without Michael Bush, but will have ex-Panther Mike Goodson and speedster Taiwan Jones working behind him. In the event that McFadden misses time again, Goodson has the pedigree to handle a decent workload and would likely get the lion's share of touch over Jones. The bottom line though is that McFadden is a beast when he's healthy and could easily finish as a top-five running back, sans injury.
PALMERS YOUTHFUL PASS-CATCHERS
Considering that the oldest wide receiver on the Raiders is just 25, it's a youthful corps with a lot of competition for looks, so QB Carson Palmer will need his receivers to step up in a big way this season.
After Jason Campbell went down last year, the Raiders settled on Palmer as their guy, but he struggled to find comfort in the offense. However, he was often able to find Darrius Heyward-Bey, who emerged as a primary threat in part because the team's other receivers were oft-injured. Rookie Denarius Moore lit up the highlight reel with big plays and is a vertical threat that cannot be ignored. Jacoby Ford battled foot issues and inconsistency, but he is a lightning strike waiting to happen in both the offense and on special teams. Louis Murphy will come into training camp healthy and will be part of the mix as well. Lastly and most interestingly, fifth-round draft pick Juron Criner will compete for playing time after impressing in OTA's. It's by no means an elite group, but it is improving, and with Palmer's big arm throwing the rock, expect Heyward-Bey and Moore to make the biggest fantasy impact in 2012.
CAN CARSON STEADY THE SHIP?
Despite Palmer's two-time Pro Bowl resume, after stepping in midseason for the Raiders last season he showed a lack of consistency, throwing 16 picks and 13 touchdowns. While Palmer was a worthy start during his good games, his bad games were abysmal, and from a fantasy standpoint it will be difficult to rely on him if that continues. However, this year he will have a full offseason to digest the playbook and will start from the get-go, so expect the valleys to level off and a more prepared Palmer emerge.
RISING: Darrius Heyward-Bey stepped up with a team-high 64 catches and 975 receiving yards last season, and a full offseason to work with Carson Palmer can only help.
DECLINING: Jacoby Ford combated nagging injuries that cost him half the season last year and was otherwise unproductive in limited time, so he'll need to earn back his role.
SLEEPER: Considering that Darren McFadden hasn't even sniffed perfect attendance for a full season, look for free agent acquisition Mike Goodson to make a splash at some point.
SUPERSLEEPER: With a young receiving corps, there's ample opportunity for fifth-rounder Juron Criner to work his way up the depth chart and become a possession-type threat in the passing game.
Tyvon Branch, S
His triple-digit tackle potential every year makes him a tantalizing fantasy option.
Rolando McClain, LB
Has had off-the-field concerns, but he'll be given a chance to redeem himself once he gets his legal issues out of the way.
Richard Seymour, DE
The eleven-year veteran should improve upon last year's numbers if he can keep himself healthy.
RotoWire Rank: 22