The Raiders had a large amount of salary-cap space this offseason and used it to overhaul a roster that clearly needed a massive makeover. Oakland sprinkled in a bevy of veteran players on both sides of the ball to go along with some of the team’s young talent. Whether or not those investments pay dividends remains to be seen. The Raiders still haven’t had a winning season since 2002 and are in a loaded division which saw the other three teams make the playoffs last year.
Here are three keys to the Raiders’ 2014 season:
CONSISTENT QB PLAY
Without even looking at the rest of an NFL roster, it’s pretty hard to compete week in and week out without consistent quarterback play. Ask the Raiders. They found that out once again first-hand last year when Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin took turns struggling behind center.
Veteran quarterback Matt Schaub was brought in from the Houston Texans to try and steady the ship. Schaub has a good resume to his name — multiple 4,000-yard passing seasons and trips to the playoffs — but he is coming off an atrocious year where he made throwing pick-sixes a regular thing.
The Raiders are banking on a change of scenery helping Schaub to regain his pre-2013 form and boost last season’s 24th-ranked passing attack (208.8 yards per game).
Oakland is expected to try and be a run-first team behind the tandem of free-agent addition Maurice Jones-Drew and returning veteran Darren McFadden, so Schaub shouldn’t have to shoulder the load.
The Raiders, however, do need Schaub to be accurate and avoid costly turnovers. Should Schaub start to struggle, don’t be surprised to see coach Dennis Allen, who is on the hot seat, turn to second-round pick Derek Carr to ignite a spark in the offense.
BIG-PLAY THREAT TO EMERGE
As the NFL continues to evolve into a passing league, it’s more important than ever to have playmakers who can do something special once they get the ball in their hands.
While the Raiders’ QB struggles are well-documented, part of the blame has to be placed on the receiving corps. The Raiders haven’t had a dynamic receiving option — either as a wideout, tight end or out of the backfield — that strikes fear into opposing defenses. There hasn’t been someone a defense feels it has to take away.
Receivers Andre Holmes and Denarius Moore are both supremely athletic and have shown glimpses of making spectacular plays. Holmes had 10 plays for 20-plus yards on just 25 catches last season.
Rod Streater led the team with 60 catches last year and new addition James Jones had 14 touchdowns with the Green Bay Packers two years ago.
Tight end Mychal Rivera has looked promising in training camp and fullback Marcel Reece can be a matchup problem for linebackers to cover.
But until any of the receiving options can consistently deliver over 16 games, the Raiders will still be without a go-to guy.
Take a look at the defensive side of the ball for the Raiders and there are questions everywhere. On the defensive line: Do free-agent acquisitions Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley have any gas left in the tank?
At linebacker: Can rookie Khalil Mack become the superstar many think he can be right out of the gate?
In the secondary: Can DJ Hayden stay healthy and produce and can Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown still be productive?
If the Raiders can answer yes to all of those questions at season’s end, Oakland should be a much-improved defense after allowing 28.3 points per game in 2013, the fourth-most in the NFL.
The Raiders need to cut down on the points they allow to opponents because their offense isn’t necessarily built to play catchup.
Tuck and Woodley are arguably the biggest keys to that. Both players have been dominant pass rushers in the past — Tuck had 11 sacks just last season — but are on the downside of their careers. If both can stay healthy — a big if — and find ways to put pressure on quarterbacks, it will have a trickle-down effect that will benefit the linebackers and secondary in coverage as well.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The rookie linebacker out of Buffalo wowed scouts coming out of college with his athleticism and versatility, prompting the Raiders to spend the No. 5 overall pick on him. Mack has been penciled in as a starter for Oakland since he was drafted. Mack has been working overtime in the preseason after the rest of the team’s starters have left the game to try and get up to speed. The Raiders are relying on Mack to deliver from the get-go.
The former De La Salle High School (Concord) running back is finally back home in the East Bay. After being drafted by and spending eight years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, which included three seasons of more than 1,300 yards rushing, the 29-year-old signed with the Raiders in the offseason. Jones-Drew is expected to split carries with the oft-injured Darren McFadden in hopes that both veterans can stay fresh throughout the course of the season.
The starting center will be key to a reworked Raiders offensive line this season. Injuries tore through the O-line last year and Oakland finished the season ranked 28th in the NFL in pass protection. With new faces, including left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Austin Howard, at just about every spot along the offensive line, Wisniewski will be called upon to ensure the unit gels. The line’s success will go a long way in determining the entire offense’s success.