Raiders season preview: 5 storylines to follow
One of the most talented rosters in the NFL got even more talented this offseason, and now the Raiders are a Super Bowl contender.
Obviously, with Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, they have an elite quarterback and elite wide receivers. But they still have questions and uncertainties to address, starting in training camp. Here are their top five training camp storylines.
1. Getting to know the new defensive consultant
Despite a record of 12-4 last season, head coach Jack Del Rio fired his offensive coordinator and put defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. on notice with the hiring of former Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano.
Pagano's official title with the Raiders is Assistant Head Coach: Defense. His job description is vague. The team says he will be in charge of communication between the linebackers and the secondary, although he could be in charge of Norton as well.
Norton lacks experience - he has been a defensive coordinator for just two seasons. Last season, his defense ranked 26th in the NFL, gave up many long pass plays and set a league record for most yards allowed during the first two weeks of the season.
It will be interesting to see what effect Pagano has on the Raiders' defense.
If the defense continues to struggle like it did last season, Pagano could replace Norton as the defensive coordinator in 2018.
2. Getting to know the new offensive coordinator
The Raiders' offense was one of the best in the NFL last season, ranking sixth in yards and seventh in points.
But those high rankings may have had more to do with the talent of the players than the quality of the offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, whom the Raiders fired.
Musgrave's offense at times was predictable and his formations were basic. He almost always aligned his receivers in the same places, and he rarely used motion before the snap. The opposition knew where Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper would be, which made it easier to defend them.
Musgrave also relied heavily on the “jump ball,” which is a high, lofted pass toward a receiver who's in single coverage. The receiver's job is to jump over the cornerback who's covering him and make the catch. It's not the most creative play. Anyone could draw that up.
It will be interesting to see how new offensive coordinator Todd Downing will make the Raiders' offense more creative and complex. It also will be interesting to see how he integrates an important new player - future Hall of Fame running back Marshawn Lynch.
3. Integrating Marshawn Lynch into the offense
Last season, the Raiders' offense threw the ball 162 times more than it ran. With the addition of Lynch, the Raiders will attempt to be more balanced between passes and runs.
Lynch didn't play last season - he was retired. So, he should be fresh now. On the other hand, he's 31 years old and he was ineffective in 2015 before retiring. That season, he missed nine games due to injury and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. He seemed worn out.
The Raiders need to keep him healthy for the playoffs in January, so they don't want to work him too hard during training camp. But at the same time, they need to integrate him into the offense - it's his first year with the team and he is the most important new player.
It will be interesting to see how the Raiders manage Lynch's workload during August.
4. Building two running games
While Downing decides how to structure the offense with Lynch in the backfield, he also has to decide how to structure the offense if Lynch gets injured and misses games.
Lynch may not be as durable as he was during his prime. And his backups - DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard - are totally different types of running backs than Lynch. They run different plays.
Lynch is a big, power back who runs up the middle and fights through defenders. Washington and Richard are small, speed backs who avoid defenders. Washington and Richard run draw plays and catch screen passes.
They are not powerful.
It will be interesting to see how Downing builds two separate running games during training camp - one that's powerful with Lynch and one that's finesse with Washington and Richard.
The finesse run game is critical.
If Lynch gets injured during the season, the offense needs to avoid becoming one-dimensional and pass-crazy without him.
5. Improving the secondary and replacing linebackers
The weakest unit on the Raiders and the No. 1 issue holding them back from a Super Bowl appearance is the secondary.
This unit has been weak for years. To improve it, last year the Raiders signed veteran cornerback Sean Smith to a four-year, $38 million contract. But he played horribly in 2016, and now he's 30.
Will Smith and the rest of the secondary improve this season? If Smith doesn't improve - he may not, he's old - the Raiders already have his replacement.
This year they spent their first-round pick on a cornerback - Gareon Conley from Ohio State.
In addition to potentially replacing a corner, the Raiders definitely need to replace a linebacker. They lost starter Malcolm Smith this offseason when he signed a big contract with the 49ers.
The plan is to replace Smith with veteran Jelani Jenkins, whom the Raiders signed away from the Dolphins this offseason.
But Jenkins missed seven games in 2016 due to various injuries and three games in 2015. He may not be reliable.
It will be revealing to see how much they play Jenkins during the preseason and if they allow him to compete for a starting job. Whoever wins the competition, that player will be critical to the Raiders' season.
Coming Sunday: 49ers.