The Sports Xchange
Posted with permission from The Sports Xchange
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- A year ago, the Oakland Raiders were the popular choice as a breakthrough team, having gone from 3-13 to a competitive 7-9 in their first season under head coach Jack Del Rio.
The Raiders made that pick look pretty smart. They went 12-4, earning their first playoff appearance in 14 seasons.
Taking that big step -- and knowing that the Raiders could have conceivably won the division and reached the AFC title game had it not been for a Week 16 broken fibula sustained by quarterback Derek Carr -- big things are expected in 2017.
Anything less than challenging the New England Patriots for AFC and NFL supremacy will be considered a disappointment.
With that as a backdrop, the Raiders report to training camp in Napa on July 28 with their first practice the following day. It's Super Bowl or bust for a home fan base that is hoping for a going-away present before the franchise departs to a new stadium in Las Vegas in 2020.
The schedule is brutal, but there are no excuses -- not with foundation piece players on both sides of the ball. Carr is newly crowned as the NFL's highest paid player (per season) by virtue of a five-year, $125 million contract. Defensive end Khalil Mack is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Del Rio understands the expectations and welcomes them, but his goals will be incremental in training camp and the preseason.
"Just go out there and try and get a little bit better every day," Del Rio said. "You have lofty goals, down-the-road kind of goals, but it's about the work you put in every day. That's the process of becoming a really good football team. That's what we'll be about."
In terms of health, there should be no major concerns as camp opens. Carr played without limitations in the off-season and looks to be at full strength. He promises his outlook won't be any different in terms of daily improvement.
"When we came in here, and our situation wasn't very pretty, all we cared about was busting our tail, outworking everybody, competing our tails off and doing it with class and honor," Carr said. "We respect all our opponents but we fear nobody. It didn't happen overnight. It's something we had to work on.
"Super Bowl teams, all championship teams, have that quiet confidence. Some are less quiet than others, but they definitely have that characteristic.
TOP THREE TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Improve coverage and communication in secondary. Blown coverages were routine as the Raiders gave up an NFL-high 61 pass plays of 20 yards or more and were tied with Tampa Bay with a league-worst 16 plays of 40 yards or more. To fix the problem, the Raiders drafted cornerback Gareon Conley and safety Obi Melifonwu with their first two picks and hired John Pagano as an assistant head coach who will tackle the communication issues.
--Develop an interior pass rush. Despite the presence of Khalil Mack as one of the NFL's premier edge players, the Raiders had only 25 sacks. Eleven came from Mack and seven from strong-side linebacker Bruce Irvin. The Raiders hope Mario Edwards Jr., a base end who slides inside in the nickel, can provide a middle push, and they'll also look to develop third-round pick Eddie Vanderdoes of UCLA.
--Successfully integrate Marshawn Lynch and Jared Cook to the offense. Lynch came out of retirement to join his hometown team and participated in the offseason program to get up to speed. He'll be brought along deliberately as the Raiders look to replace the 788 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns of departed free agent Latavius Murray. Cook, in theory, gives Carr his first legit middle of the field threat as a tight end; getting that combo going will only enhance Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree on the outside.
PROJECTED CAMP DEPTH CHART
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Derek Carr. Backups -- Connor Cook, EJ Manuel.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Marshawn Lynch, FB Jamize Olawale. Backups -- Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, Taiwan Jones, Elijah Hood, John Crockett.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jared Cook. Backups -- Lee Smith, Clive Walford, Gabe Holmes, Pharaoh Brown, Cooper Helfet, Ryan O'Malley.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper. Backups -- Seth Roberts, Cordarrelle Patterson, K.J. Brant, Keon Hatcher, Johnny Holton, Jayden Mickens, Isaac Whitney, Ishmael Zamora.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Donald Penn, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson, RT Gabe Jackson, RT Marshall Newhouse. Backups -- T Austin Howard, G/C Jon Feliciano, T David Sharpe, T Chauncey Briggs, T Jylan Ware, T Ian Silberman, G Denver Kirkland, G Omi Omiole, G Jordan Simmons.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Mario Edwards Jr., LDT Darius Latham, NT Justin Ellis, LDE Khalil Mack. Backups - DE/DT Denico Autry, DE/DT Jihad Ward, DE Branden Jackson, DE Jimmy Bean, DE Fadol Brown, DE Chris Casher, DT Eddie Vanderdoes, DT Paul Boyette, DT Treyvon Hester.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Bruce Irvin, MLB Cory James, WLB Jelani Jenkins. Backups -- OLB Tyrell Adams, OLB Shilique Calhoun, OLB Najee Harris, MLB Ben Heeney, MLB Marquel Lee, OLB LaTroy Lewis, OLB Nicholas Morrow, OLB Brady Sheldon, OLB Xavier Luster-Woodson, OLB/DE James Cowser.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB David Amerson, RCB Sean Smith, SS Karl Joseph, FS Reggie Nelson. Backups -- CB Gareon Conley (nickel), S Obi Melifonwu, CB TJ Carrie, CB Kenneth Durden, CB Antonio Hamilton, CB Chris Humes, CB Dexter McDonald, CB/S Keith McGill, CB Breon Borders, S Anthony Cioffi, S Ricky Jefferson, S Marcus McWilson.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Sebastian Janikowski, K Giorgio Tavecchio, P Marquette King, LS Jon Condo, PR Jalen Richard, KOR Cordarrelle Patterson.