The Oakland Raiders are in one of the most interesting divisions in the league, not the best division, but a division where any of the four teams could win on a given year. The Raiders have a good offense and a bad defense, the Broncos have a good defense and a bad offense, the Chiefs have a (probably) downgraded offense and a downgraded defense, with the Chargers rounding out the AFC West with a good offense and a good defense… oh, maybe not everyone has the same chance to win.

With their significantly stronger side of the ball getting weaker, and the best player in their entire team is gone. This season is going to be an interesting one, but let’s take it back a step. What happened last season; what went wrong?

2017 Summary

The Raiders were disappointed last season to finish in third, with an uninspiring 6-10 record. They were .500 on the road, but they went 2-6 away from home. God-forbid if they have to play any games outside of Oakland in the future. Seriously though, coming off the back of a great 12-4 season in 2016, which could very possibly have been a deep playoff run if not for Derek Carr’s broken leg, 2017 was a bitter pill to swallow for fans.

Carr wasn’t fully healthy this season, and Cooper was half-fit too, but no amount of excuses should lead to halving your win-loss from one season to the next. They started 2-0 but then ended up in a rough patch, only winning a single game from week 3 through 8; where even the one victory they claimed was the absolute best game of the season – the fourth quarter comeback to defeat the Chiefs in memorable fashion. Losing to the Bills seemed like a nail in the coffin, but then the Raiders seemed to be looking much better for a stretch, losing only to the Patriots in a 3-1 stretch.

However, when they took a heartbreaking defeat to the Cowboys, it was over. When Derek Carr fumbled that diving attempt to score a TD, and it resulted in a touchback – the Raiders season ended. The formality of the final two games were nothing more than that.

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The disappointing 6-10 was an accurate record for the way they played, but in 2018 things need to change.

Personnel Changes

Just days ago, I would have said the main change of note is the change on the sideline – I’ll still talk about this change first, but it isn’t the biggest change anymore. The Raiders decided to prematurely terminate Jack Del Rio’s contract as Head Coach, just a year after giving him a brand new four-year deal. Jon Gruden serves as the replacement, signed to a colossal ten-year contract. The returning Raider is planning on bring back the gritty ‘grinder’ mentality to the NFL and seeing if an old-school coach can bring a young team back to the top.

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The biggest first changes that Gruden made were to demonstrate his plans for taking absolutely zero drama. He cut both Marquette King and Michael Crabtree; two players who represented the Raiders franchise, they had passion and swagger, and they were good – but Chucky didn’t care. Getting rid of Crabtree has put a huge dent in the wide receiver corps and the offense as a whole, his leaving vacated about 80 receptions and 8-10 Touchdowns in seasons where he plays 16 games. His replacement, Jordy Nelson will get a large quantity of those, and also some will leak over to Amari Cooper, who will now be the only remaining starting receiver with an existing rapport with Derek Carr. Martavis Bryant was added – but then dropped again, leaving Seth Roberts as the WR3, and Cordarelle Patterson left town for New England.

Okay… Let’s stop talking about Jon Gruden and his additions. Why not talk about the reason that I’m re-writing this article on the 3rd of September; the Oakland Raiders have traded Khalil Mack. The best player that the Raiders actually had, the only man keeping the D together, he’s gone. This could get rough. The D Line is now going to go from the strength of our team to a weakness, and it puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the rookies we added, Maurice Hurst (the absolute steal of the draft, in my opinion) and Arden Key.

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In the backfield, Doug Martin was added, but he will remain behind Marshawn Lynch and will be more likely to be fighting Richard for carries than Beast Mode. On defense the Raiders added veteran corner Rashaan Melvin, who was a free agent out of Indianapolis, to fill the pressing need to upgrade in the place of Sean Smith, David Amerson and TJ Carrie. Another straight swap on defense can be found in the addition of veteran Chiefs’ MLB, Derrick Johnson, who will serve in the role that the Raiders’ leading tackler, NaVorro Bowman did in 2017, leading the defense and helping in the run game.

The draft also provided two new Tackles to the O-Line, more notably including Kolton Miller who will potentially be starting in place of Donald Penn this season.

Team Strengths

The Raiders offense can hold its own, as it has a very competent quarterback (who will thrive under Gruden and Olson) and although I believe that the WR1 has been downgraded, the passing game will still remain the greatest strength of the team. People are forgetting how good Amari Cooper is when healthy, he is one of the very select few who came into the league with 1,000 yards and 70+ receptions in their two first campaigns. I personally think that Amari Cooper is going to have an amazing season – especially with the likelihood of the shootout game-flow.

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The Raiders won’t have much of a problem scoring, especially as it has one of the best offensive lines in football. Pro Football Focus rates it as the 8th best in the entire league going into 2018. Rodney Hudson is one of the best centre’s in the whole NFL, only allowing 3 pressures (per PFF) all season, and the unit may have gotten stronger with the aforementioned addition of Kolton Miller, out of UCLA.

Team Weaknesses

Spoiler alert – they didn’t sign him.

Khalil Mack’s departure has made this an incredibly easy section to write.

No matter how good Mack was, our defense wasn’t good enough – so without Mack, the Raiders’ biggest weakness just got worse, a lot worse. Outside of Mack it’s definitely improved its personnel over the last 3 months. Gareon Conley and Reggie Nelson, the two most promising members of the secondary last year, have now got a bit more help from free agent Rashaan Melvin, and the rest of the D-Line was strengthened by the addition of the new rookie DTs, Bruce Irvin will now also be playing as an End, so if they had held on to Mack, the defense actually would have improved; but now they’re going to really struggle.

Another issue that the Raiders had last year was their use of the running backs, Beast Mode needs to be fed, and even if they want to use DeAndre Washington for 3rd downs and Richard for kick returns, Lynch needs to be given the chance to be efficient in the running game. The Raiders only put up 370 rushing attempts last season, which was the third fewest by any team in the entire league – I don’t suspect the Raiders to run it much more than that this year, due to the game-flow issues I mentioned – they are going to be passing it a lot. The key in my opinion is to make sure that when we do run it, we give it to Beast Mode, because he is ready to deliver.

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Best Case Scenario

Scraping the playoffs, properly utilising the running game, whilst letting the passing weapons do the majority of the work. Olson and Gruden bring Carr back to his 2016 form, and they head into the Playoffs with a chip on their shoulder from that season. The loss of the ex-Defensive Player of the Year, Khalil Mack, damages the defense, but they can do just enough so that they can bend but not break. We have a breakout rookie in Maurice Hurst, confirms his place as the steal of the draft, and helps the d-line to not go into complete meltdown. The secondary is able to prevent the random deep bombs from killing them like it has in the past, meaning that the D can just hold its own against average-or-worse teams, leaving DC4 and the offense to do the talking.

Worst Case Scenario

Missing the playoffs, a repeat of 2017. The loss of Khalil Mack hurts, badly – the Defense is insufficient and the Crabtree-less Offense withers and dies, becoming fractionally efficient in the red zone, without his jump-ball prowess. Jordy Nelson is an unworthy replacement, who only pulls in a handful of touchdowns, and Amari Cooper has a second ‘off-year’.

Lynch isn’t utilised properly, and so retires, leaving the Raiders to spend one of their higher picks on a replacement, whilst also taking shots on a couple of rookies who will almost definitely not (even combined) present the value that Khalil Mack represented. Gruden is a laughing stock and the Raiders 2016 looks like a fluke off-the-back of the one year of great quarterback play that they got. Oakland-native fans are sad for two reasons, now, after the season ends.

Prediction

A week ago I’d have said they’d end up somewhere in the middle… Hopefully closer to the former.

But now I can’t see them reaching double digits, I would be pleasantly surprised to make the playoffs, but I’m predicting an 8 win season, where we could make the playoffs behind the Chargers, – but only if we get half of those wins in divisional games against the Chiefs and Broncos. Cooper has a great season due to the massive volume and Jordy, whilst not disappointing anyone, has a very average year. Lynch puts up sufficient numbers to keep the opposition respecting the run, and so Carr gets away with the fact that he, for the first time in a while, has a new member of his starting o-line. No MVP race for the QB, but hopefully the Raiders get a chance to redeem themselves for the unfortunate 2016 postseason – if not, I really hope those two first round picks are successful, because if not – we’re screwed.

Even more screwed…