OPTIMISM ABOUNDS IN OAKLAND
The Oakland Raiders are getting a lot of love as a challenger in the AFC West. The Raiders are a 5-2 bet to win the division, a number very close to what the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are at. The Raiders have an Over/Under for wins posted at 8.5 - a figure that assumes a winning season as not just a possibility, but a minimum prerequisite for success. There's a lot to like about this Oakland team...yet also reason to think the optimism train is running out of control.
Let's start with the positives. Derek Carr established himself as the quarterback, something a franchise that's gone through years of instability at the position can never overlook. Carr threw 32 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. Latavius Murray provided solid support in the running game, as one of just seven backs that break the 1,000-yard barrier in 2015. There's two excellent wideouts in a rejuvenated Michael Crabtree and up-and-coming Amari Cooper.
Oakland has an offensive line that often plays at a level greater than the sum of its parts. They didn't have any Pro Bowl players in 2015, but a look at the film shows the blocking is steady. And the Raiders made a significant upgrade on the free agent market, adding Kelechi Osemele from Baltimore. Osemele will play guard, but he can be moved to tackle if need be.
We haven't even gotten to Oakland's best player. Linebacker Khalil Mack is not only the Raiders' best player, he's one of the best players - at any position - in the entire league. In fact, we dare say that if Mack and Denver's Von Miller switched teams there would be no noticeable difference - it would likely be Mack sitting with a Super Bowl ring and game MVP trophy. He's that good.
The Raiders used their first-round draft choice for pass defense, adding safety Karl Joseph. He'll augment a unit that already ranked 10th in the NFL in pass yards-per-attempt.
So given all that, what's the problem with presuming a winning season as a minimum baseline for the coming season? Well, there's a few.
For all the progress made last year and for all the potential of individual players, the fact is that Oakland's #10 ranking in pass defense is the only significant statistical area where they ranked in the NFL's top half. They were in the lower half defending the run. They were in the lower half offensively on yards-per-attempt both running and throwing the football.
Translated to individual players, Murray's 4.0 yards-per-attempt was the worst among the 1,000-yard rushers. Carr ranked 23rd among quarterbacks in completion percentage, 26th in yards-per-attempt and 20th in interceptions as a percentage of passes thrown. The touchdown passes are great and if you're talking Fantasy League, it's the end of the story. But we're talking about what it will take to win nine football games and maybe a division title. Carr will not only have to improve, he'll have to improve significantly.
Expecting that improvement is reasonable given where Carr is at in his career and the fact the entire organization is in Year 2 under the coaching regime of Jack Del Rio. But consider the recent history of this franchise. They haven't had a winning season since 2002. They went 7-9 last year, but the three years immediately prior were either 4-12 or 3-13. It's easier for a team to jump from being poor to being mediocre than it is to make the next leap to legitimate playoff team.
If you believe Oakland can make that leap, we won't argue or say that there's no basis for such a belief. What we are saying is that the betting value for the Raiders has been removed in advance of the season. Just because the Raiders haven't won more than they've lost in fourteen years doesn't mean they won't ever do it again. It does mean that doing so shouldn't be the bare minimum prerequisite to meet expectations.
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