With the Broncos defending their title in the midst of a QB transition and Kansas City stalwarts Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston coming off serious knee injuries, the improving Raiders will look to close the gap on their AFC West foes and potentially compete for the division crown.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
HOW HIGH IS COOPER’S CEILING?
The Raiders took Amari Cooper fourth overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, and he certainly didn’t disappoint in his rookie season, easily outproducing the quintet of wideouts taken after him in the first round, by hauling in 72 passes for 1,070 yards. As Cooper continues to build chemistry with budding franchise QB Derek Carr, he could be in line for a monster campaign in 2016, while continuing to serve as the team’s undisputed top receiving option. Already a strong asset in PPR formats, it’s not hard to imagine Cooper’s touchdown total approaching double-digits if he sees more opportunities in the red zone, an entirely plausible outcome. Cooper managed to find pay dirt six times last season, doing so while recording just three catches for 38 yards on seven targets in the red zone. He’ll continue to work in tandem with fellow starting flanker Michael Crabtree, who snagged a respectable 85 passes last season, but it’s Cooper who clearly boasts the highest ceiling among the Raiders’ pass-catchers, with fellow WRs Andre Holmes and Seth Roberts also in the mix, along with TEs Clive Walford and Mychal Rivera.
MURRAY LEADS THE GROUND GAME
After featuring Darren McFadden in 2014, the Raiders plugged Latavius Murray into their lead back role last season, and he rewarded the team with 1,066 yards on 266 attempts and six touchdowns. Now entrenched as the team’s go-to guy, Murray is in line to handle the vast majority of early-down work in a much-improved offense. At 6-3, 230 pounds, it’s an assignment he’s built to handle. The addition of rookie DeAndre Washington figures to provide added zip to the team’s backfield. The 5-8, 204-pounder can also help out as a returner and should make his mark in third-down and passing situations, serving as an ideal complement to the bruising Murray. Taiwan Jones and Roy Helu Jr. remain on hand as depth options in the team’s backfield, while FB Marcel Reece continues to bring valuable experience and versatility to the table. Murray’s chances of further upward trajectory this season are supported by the fact that he and his backfield mates will be running behind a capable offensive line that was bolstered by the offseason addition of standout G Kelechi Osemele.
ASSESSING THE DEFENSE
Under coordinator Ken Norton Jr., the Raiders also hope to establish an intimidating defense to roll out in conjunction with their improving offense. After recording four sacks in his rookie season, DE Khalil Mack justified his lofty 2014 draft selection by recording 15 sacks last season. Look for him to continue to emerge as a leader on a defense that bid adieu to veteran DB Charles Woodson, but added a pair of key cogs in free agency, CB Sean Smith and LB Bruce Irvin. Meanwhile, the Raiders return their leading tackler in LB Malcolm Smith and also used their first-round choice on Karl Joseph, a hard-hitting safety who should help fill the void created by Woodson’s retirement. Moreover, Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round pick in 2015, has a year under his belt and the defensive end is a player to watch. In addition, the Raiders got better up front when they drafted DEs Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun with their second and third-round picks in April. While not yet a trendy fantasy option, Oakland’s team defense could merit attention on that front as the campaign rolls along.
KEY JOB BATTLE
One of the biggest story lines entering the Raiders’ training camp involves determining who will emerge as the primary backup to Latavius Murray at the running back position. The Raiders drafted DeAndre Washington in the fifth round this spring, and he was very impressive during offseason workouts. Taiwan Jones and Jamize Olawale both return, after showing flashes of talent during different parts of last year. Veteran back Roy Helu is still recovering from hip woes and it’s unlikely that he’ll fall into the top backup role, with making the team not even a lock. Early signs point to Washington as the front-runners, though added depth could be brought in as the summer rolls along.
Carr followed his promising rookie campaign by passing for 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns versus 13 picks in 2015. The Raiders ended up winning seven games on the season and appear poised to continue their ascent in 2016. Aiding Carr’s cause will be the continued presence of rising WR Amari Cooper and playing behind a stout offensive line.
RISING: Amari Cooper
Boasting a skill set few players can, Cooper is only going to get better with a full NFL season under his belt. Elite fantasy status is within reach, as he continues to develop along with QB Derek Carr.
FALLING: Michael Crabtree
Crabtree re-emerged as a Raider, leading the team in catches (85) and TDs (nine) in 2015. After logging 146 targets last year, he’ll likely see that volume decrease as others are incorporated more into the offense.
SLEEPER: Clive Walford
While Walford split time with Mychal Rivera as a rookie, there’s no doubt that the former is the more dynamic option. An uptick in both targets and receptions (50 and 28, respectively, last year) is on tap for Walford.
THE INJURY FRONT
Clive Walford, TE – Walford was nagged by a knee injury throughout his rookie season, and he enters this year’s camp in recovery mode after he suffered a knee laceration during an offsesaon ATV accident. Early signs point to the second-year tight end being at or near full-go as camp progresses, and the Raiders have high hopes for the talented player who should see most of the snaps at his position.
Karl Joseph, S – Joseph was the 14th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, despite the fact that he was recovering from surgery dating back to October for a torn ACL in his knee. The hard-hitting safety is expected to be a full participant near the end of training camp and he should be a nice addition to a much-improved Raiders’ defense.
Roy Helu, RB – Helu missed all of the offseason workouts leading up to training camp, and it’s still unknown as to when he’ll be back on the field after having hip procedures last season. The veteran running back is running out of time and it looks as if he could struggle to make the team after the Raiders drafted DeAndre Washington.
Khalil Mack, DE - After an impressive rookie season in 2014, Khalil Mack recorded 77 tackles and 15 sacks in his sophomore year, which elevated him into the upper-echelon of pass rushers within the NFL. The third-year player will look to improve once again in what should be a stout Raiders’ defense, which added key cogs along the defensive line, including ex-Seahawks’ pass rusher, Bruce Irvin. Look for Mack to be one of the better defensive players in the league in 2016.
Sean Smith, CB – Smith signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the Raiders this offseason after playing his last three years in Kansas City. This will be the cornerback’s eighth season in the league, and he’s basically a shoo-in as the team’s number one cornerback. With a scary pass-rush in front of him, which will put quarterbacks under duress, Smith should see quite a few opportunities to snag picks in 2016, and he could be a sneaky back-end IDP pick.
Malcolm Smith, LB – Smith led the team in tackles in 2015 with 122, to go along with four sacks and an interception. He’s now entering his sixth season in the league, and he should be one of the leaders on the Raiders’ defense. Smith is a very consistent tackler, and his athleticism makes him a solid play against the pass.
DeAndre Washington – RB (Rd. 5, No. 143 – Texas Tech)
Set to work in complementary role behind Latavius Murray.
CONNOR COOK – QB (Rd. 4, No. 100 – Michigan State)
Consistent winner during college career provides depth at QB position.
Bruce Irvin – LB (from Seahawks)
Aggressive linebacker could take Raiders’ pass rush to next level.
Sean Smith – CB (from Chiefs)
Adds valuable experience to very young secondary.
Karl Joseph – S (Rd. 1, No. 14 – West Virginia)
Bouncing back from torn ACL, but a physical safety when healthy.
Charles Woodson – S (retired)
Veteran leadership, 18 years of NFL experience will be missed.
CURTIS LOFTON – LB (FA)
Lasted just one season after inking three-year, $18 million contract.
JUSTIN TUCK – DE (retired)
Retires after two years in Oakland following injury-plagued season.