With the likes of quarterback Derek Carr, running back Latavius Murray, wide receiver Amari Cooper, tight end Clive Walford and the entire Oakland Raiders pass rush, now is the time for role players to step up. Players like wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts and running back Deandre Washington will supplement a growing offense and keep a ferocious defense fresh late in games. There are key positions that desperately need to improve in order to make the playoffs.
Cornerbacks T.J. Carrie, DJ Hayden and Neiko Thorpe all entrenched in a three-way battle for the starting slot cornerback spot. Hayden has the most athletic ability based off being the 12th overall pick from the 2013 NFL Draft, but his inconsistent play and constant injuries caused the Raiders to decline his fifth-year option. The former seventh-round pick in Carrie has played much better and has proven to much more valuable since being drafted. He played very efficiently in the slot as a rookie, excelled as a gunner on special teams and is in the running to start as a punt returner. Thorpe went undrafted out of Auburn but has earned a spot on special teams but has played above average when put in the slot role as Carrie was converted to safety during the season. Carrie is the favorite to win but all three must push one another to new heights as free agent signing Sean Smith and breakout stud David Amerson will hold down the starting spots.
Pardon the pun but the right tackle spot is the Achilles heel of the offensive line. Menelik Watson ruptured his Achilles tendon in the preseason last year, and right tackle Austin Howard has spent this offseason recovering from a knee injury. Howard had a resurgent 2015 season and if the former second-round pick in Watson can reach his level of play before he was hurt and continue progressing, the right side of the offensive line could become elite. Right guard Gabe Jackson is going into his third year at a position he’s never played before due to the acquisition of free agent left guard Kelechi Osemele. Jackson is a blossoming talent and can anchor down the right side. Center Rodney Hudson is the perfect center to strength the interior of the offensive line. Whoever wins the right tackle job just has to hold down their end because left tackle Donald Penn has had the best seasons of his life since coming to the Raiders.
Oustide linebacker Malcolm Smith stepped in to play middle linebacker last year and had a career year while the Raiders brought along Ben Heeney. His aggressive style is a plus for Ken Norton Jr’s defense but he needs to continue to improve and show he can be a dominant run stopper and shut down the middle of the field in coverage and against flex tight ends. Smith is the better option and with the likes of linebacker Bruce Irvin and all-world defensive end/linebacker Khalil Mack the middle of this defense is the weakest point which is a problem since the mike linebacker is the heart and soul of the defense. One of these players must continue to progress with the reality that the Raiders defense is fully shifting to a hybrid 3-4 defense that must be solid in coverage. Smith has the advantage there but if Heeney can keep developing, the blitz packages that this defense will have are endless with their special depth of pass rushers.
With the drafting of former West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, the only option the Raiders have is injury-prone and underwhelming safety Nate Allen. Allen is more of a free safety than a strong safety but he can be a stop gap until the 14th overall pick in this years draft is fully recovered from his torn ACL. Reggie Nelson and former cornerback Keith McGill are slated at free safety but McGill might get the call at strong safety based off the fact that he was a junior college All-American at safety and can help tremendously in run support with his 6’3″, 200lb frame. All this will become null and void if Joseph can become
Kick and Punt Returner
Running back Taiwan Jones, Washington, undrafted free agent wide receivers Marvin Hall, Jayden Mickens, Joe Hansley and the aforementioned Carrie are in the running to be kick and punt returners. Jones averaged 26.3 yards per return on 829 yards an a career long return of 70 yards. Hall and Mickens were great returners at the University of Washington. If Carrie wins the third cornerback slot then players like Hall, Mickens, Hansley, Jones or even Washington would be great candidates to return punts. The last time the Raiders had a truly dynamic punt returner was truthfully Johnnie Lee Higgins in 2008. He had 570 punt return yards for 13 yards per return with three touchdowns, the longest being 93 yards.