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Why Curtis Lofton Is Oakland Raiders’ Most Important New Starter

A lot of things went wrong for the Oakland Raiders defense in 2014. But of all of those things, the worst one occurred before the season even started.

The Oakland defense looked to be set at linebacker. With two stud playmakers on the outside and a steadying presence in the middle in the form of Nick Roach, the linebackers were primed to be the defense’s strongest unit.

But a season-ending head injury to Roach in the preseason stopped this unit from reaching its potential. The entire defense—not just the linebackersnever recovered from this loss.

The Raiders tried using a few different players to fill the gaping hole left in the defense, but nothing worked. The most notable of these potential solutions came in the form of Miles Burris, who turned into a popular scapegoat for the defense’s all-around poor performance.

Burris, a natural weak-side linebacker, isn’t a great player, but he’s also not as bad as he looked while playing out of position in the middle. His struggles were a sign of both how difficult it is to play middle linebacker in the NFL and how important the position is to the performance of the defense overall.

Oakland addressed this issue by adding veteran Curtis Lofton this offseason. He’s an experienced and proven middle linebacker, which means he understands what it takes to be successful at the position.

 

Experience

Including the playoffs, Lofton hasn’t missed a single game since entering the league in 2008, having played in a total of 117 games. That experience is invaluable, especially for an Oakland linebacking corps that is still very young.

When it comes to the linebacker position, the Raiders are set on the outside. Sio Moore is an excellent all-around linebacker, and Khalil Mack is very close to turning into a legitimate superstar. They’re both very good, but they’re also both young and still learning the NFL game.

Mack and Moore are playmakers, but they still need direction while on the field. They need someone that can get them in the right position in order to maximize their impact on every play. What was missing for the linebackers last season wasn’t desire. It wasn’t drive. It certainly wasn’t talent. It was experience, and Lofton single-handedly solves that problem.

Defensively, Oakland’s biggest strength in 2014 was at outside linebacker. Unfortunately, Mack and Moore were unable to get the most out of their abilities, in large part because they were essentially out on the field playing on their own. The success they had was mostly the result of natural ability.

Now that Oakland has added a leader like Lofton, the success of these two young players will see major growth. This will not only make these two players better, but it’ll also make the entire defense a much more dangerous and productive unit.

 

Proven Production

Lofton’s experience is a great addition, but that wouldn’t do the team much good if he wasn’t capable of pulling his own weight.

That was a major problem last season. The entire defense had to constantly cover for the shortcomings of whoever was playing in the middle. This had a domino effect: The production of every other player on the defense suffered as they regularly had to try and cover for the middle linebacker.

That won’t be an issue in 2015. Lofton has a proven track record of production, which means that Oakland knows exactly what to expect from him over the course of the season.

This will be especially important for the rest of the defense. The players around Lofton won’t have to worry about what he’s going to do on any given play. They won’t have to worry about whether or not he’ll be in position. They won’t have to keep peeking out of the corner of their eyes just in case they have to come over and help.

He’ll be a reliable, steadying presence, which means everyone else will only have to worry about doing their job at the highest level possible.

 

Leadership

It’s often said that the middle linebacker is the quarterback (i.e. leader) of the defense. If you’re one of the people that thinks this, you’re right. And if you watched the Raiders play last season, you know this means that the defense played without a leader all year.

The middle linebacker is the one who receives the defensive plays and call audibles. He’s the one that makes sure everyone is in the right position. Without him, the defense is left directionless.

Lofton’s presence alone is going to make a huge difference. He’s not going to be so easily tricked by opposing offenses. There’s not much that he hasn’t already seen during his time in the NFL.

With him on the field, the Oakland defense will be able to step on the field with the confidence of knowing that no matter what an offense throws at them, they’ll be ready. And they’ll be ready because the experienced Lofton will make sure that they are.

The leadership of a middle linebacker is one of those things that nobody mentions until it’s missing. You’ll never see a middle linebacker making the right call on a list of top plays. But it’s one of the most important aspects of playing the position, and it’s something that Oakland was completely missing last season.

That won’t be the case in 2015. With Lofton on the field, everyone else will be able to focus solely on making plays. That’ll go a long way for an Oakland defense that suddenly finds itself with a lot of talent at almost every defensive position.

Lofton will lead. Now all the playmakers will have to worry about is making plays.

 

Conclusion

The Raiders have added several new starters this offseason, but Lofton is the most important because his addition isn’t just going to make one position better. It’s going to make the entire defense better.

The most important aspect of Lofton’s addition can be easily overlooked. Simply put, he’s a true, natural middle linebacker, which means he understands all of the nuances that come with playing the position.

On top of that, he’s a proven producer, so he’ll certainly do his part when it comes to making the entire Oakland defense a productive unit.

Lofton won’t be the most popular new starter on the Raiders’ roster. Over the course of this upcoming season, the headlines will be dominated by names like Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Latavius Murray. Players like Dan Williams, Clive Walford and Mario Edwards Jr. will also be mentioned ahead of the veteran middle linebacker.

But while he’s not the biggest name the team added, Lofton will prove to be Oakland’s most important new starter in 2015.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL.com.

Who do you think is the Raiders’ most important new starter? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.

Read more Oakland Raiders news on BleacherReport.com


Oakland Raiders: Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis at Defensive End

The Oakland Raiders defensive ends are essential in providing help for a young, inexperienced secondary.

For the Raiders, quarterback pressure becomes a vital tool in defeating quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning, who are accurate pocket-passing statues.

Both Manning and Rivers have mastered the art of getting rid of the football quickly behind stout offensive lines built to stifle the pass rush.

Unfortunately, the Raiders’ starting defensive ends lack the willpower to dominate rival offensive lines. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. must use clever schemes to create mismatches in efforts to win battles in the trenches.

What’s the outlook of this position in both the short and long term? Let’s start with veteran defensive end Justin Tuck.

 

What Does Tuck Have in the Tank?


The good news is Tuck enters another contract year and needs to perform at optimum levels to secure another solid deal in the offseason. Tuck’s last contract year, 2013, was by far his best year in recent memory.

Tuck’s non-contract years are worrisome. His snaps and sacks on the quarterback take a significant dip. Yes, he may revert back to his hungrier days with the New York Giants in short stints, but the Raiders face major problems going forward if his replacement isn’t poised to takeover. Can Tuck replicate his performance from 2013?

From a coaching perspective, snap count versus development becomes an interesting dilemma. Should Norton give Tuck 800-plus snaps in the hopes of reaping the benefits of his last hurrah, or should he alternate the younger defensive ends at a higher frequency to develop talent during the season?

Don’t expect another double-digit sack season from the 10-year veteran. In 2015, mentoring the incoming rookies may be his most valuable asset. Tuck should contribute a handful of sacks, but Oakland must consider developing its rookies for long-term production at the position.

 

Rookie Impact?

Ironically, worries about the rookies concern second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr. as opposed to sixth-round pick Max Valles. In fact, Valles should develop into a better pass-rusher than Edwards in the NFL.

Here’s some film study breaking down both defensive ends, starting with Edwards:

Edwards disappeared for the majority of the game against Florida. Spoiler alert, you’ll have to fast forward this tape until about nine minutes to witness Edwards make a play on the ball.

The Raiders cannot afford to miss with a second-round pick who disappears against a subpar team facing a tough matchup. Edwards was ultimately shutdown by No. 70 D.J. Humphries, who was drafted in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals.

Yes, many players struggle against first-round talent, but the AFC West is packed with high-end offensive tackles. The Raiders must square off against Kansas City Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher (No. 1 overall pick in 2013), San Diego Chargers tackle D.J. Fluker (No. 11 overall pick in 2013) and, though he’s out for the forthcoming season, Denver Broncos tackle Ryan Clady (No. 12 overall pick in 2008) twice a year.

Edwards is slated to play on the right side of the defensive line, which means he’ll likely matchup against Fluker. Matchups against top-tier talent are frequent occurrences in the NFL, so Edwards must show signs of productivity.

In the sample below, Edwards was burned by tight end Clay Burton in coverage. This play resulted in Burton’s first and only touchdown of his collegiate career:

In the following sample view, it seems as though Edwards froze up in pursuit. Defensive ends don’t have the luxury of second-guessing themselves when shooting the gap or coming off the edge:

These weren’t isolated blips within this particular game, which was a microcosm of Edwards’ season. He played a lackluster junior year and admitted he played poorly, relayed by CSN Bay Area reporter Scott Bair. Nonetheless, Norton won’t hesitate to get in Edwards’ face if he underperforms.

As a power rusher, Edwards won’t beat offensive tackles with speed. Secondly, he’s more familiar in a 3-4 alignment rather than the 4-3. That adjustment could hinder his effectiveness.

On the other hand, Raider Nation should be encouraged by Max Valles’ film breakdown. Unlike Edwards, he flashed on plays from beginning to end. His arms were often up to bat down passes—he was successful in knocking down a few. He can play with his hand in the dirt and managed to force a turnover in coverage:

Valles’ athleticism and versatility changed the game. That’s the difference between making ordinary tackles and making plays to alter possessions or the scoreboard. This particular game against Pittsburgh wasn’t just a fluke for the Virginia defensive end. He led the Cavaliers defensive line with nine sacks in 2014:

One year isn’t the be-all and end-all for this pair of defensive ends, but Valles clearly played with more intensity and hunger than Edwards for the duration of their college careers. Valles won’t play extended snaps until he proves his worth, but he has a chance, per head coach Jack Del Rio via SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t Raiders.com)

We have Khalil Mack. We know he’s an impactful guy, and then we have to develop the other guys. We have Benson [Mayowa] on one side. We have some opportunities. We took a guy late, Max Valles, that had nine sacks last year in college. We’ll give these guys an opportunity to compete and to give us that element coming off the other edge.

I know having two guys really makes it good, and ideally you’d like to have two guys that are premium guys rushing the quarterback, and we feel like we have one in Khalil Mack and we’re going to have to develop that second guy.

In 2015, Valles will work on further developing his technique in garbage time and on the practice field, which renders him a non-factor for much of the 2015 season, barring injuries.

On a brighter note, Valles’ ascension as a premier pass-rusher shouldn’t surprise anyone in the organization. Oakland should expedite his development to bolster the pass rush sooner rather than later.

 

Depth at Defensive End

As previously noted, Del Rio’s search for a second pass-rusher behind outside linebacker Khalil Mack begins on Day 1. Interestingly, he didn’t mention Edwards in that quote, which may indicate his role as a run-stopper more than a pass-rusher. Instead, Del Rio mentioned Benson Mayowa as a potential source for quarterback pressure.

According to Pro Football Focus, Mayowa played 370 snaps in 2014. He’ll likely alternate with Edwards on passing downs in a 4-3 base defense.

The former Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman should also draw interest from Norton as an athletic 6’3”, 252-pound hybrid linebacker. Mayowa is the X-factor on the Raiders defensive line as a potential impact player in sacks and quarterback hurries.

C.J. Wilson played five seasons as a defensive end, four of them with the Green Bay Packers, before signing with the Raiders in 2014. After re-signing with Oakland on a two-year $4.35 million deal, his 300-pound frame puts him in the same category as Edwards as a run-stopping defensive end.

In fairness to Edwards, he’s down to about 280 pounds. Wilson will be confined to playing inside in 3-4 sub-packages. He’s not as versatile as Edwards and will likely see the least amount of snaps among the defensive ends on the depth chart.

The Raiders’ high selection on an uninspired talent puts immense pressure on Tuck to turn the clock back on his sack production and Valles’ progression during the offseason.

Mack should lead the team in sacks as an outside linebacker, but he cannot propel Oakland’s pass rush to respectable levels alone. Mayowa has the tools to step into a bigger role until Valles takes over as the Raiders’ second-best pass-rusher in the near future.

Are you concerned with Oakland’s defensive ends? You can follow Maurice Moton on Twitter and give your opinion!

 

Statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference.comSports-Reference.com and Pro Football Focus.

Player measurements courtesy of Raiders.com

Player contract details courtesy of Spotrac.com.

Read more Oakland Raiders news on BleacherReport.com

Oakland Raiders’ 2013 Draft Class Under Pressure in Make-or-Break Season

The time is now for the Oakland Raiders‘ 2013 draft class, and the pressures of the upcoming season could furnish diamonds or deliver a blow to the team’s season outlook.

The 2013 draftees were general manager Reggie McKenzie’s first full draft class. For his own sake, he’s hoping for a batch of gems to make an impact in 2015. 

The rapid development of the 2014 draft class, which includes five or six starters for the upcoming season, only adds to the pressure on some of the three-year veterans handpicked by McKenzie. How will these players in the hot seat respond?

Projected Starters 

Former sixth-round pick Latavius Murray carries the loftiest expectations of the 2013 group. JustBlogBaby.com writer Patrick Fouhy expects 1,300 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns from the Central Florida product. Those markers are steep at a position that’ll likely include two other running backs taking a portion of the carries.

Murray should break 1,000 yards, but only four running backs managed to crack 1,300 yards in 2014.

Each of those four running backs took the vast majority of their team’s carries last year with the exception of Marshawn Lynch, who shares rushing attempts with dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson. Trent Richardson and Roy Helu should command around 40 percent of the combined carries in a committee approach, and the question marks on the right side of the offensive line, especially at guard, could hurt Murray’s numbers.

On a brighter note, 1,000 yards isn’t a marker to dismiss. Murray should become the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Raiders since Darren McFadden in 2010.

Outside linebacker Sio Moore must overcome hip surgery, per SilverandBlackPride.com writer Levi Damien, and competition from a linebacker corps that is stocked with talent. Ray-Ray Armstrong made a strong impression during OTAs and likely forced his way into a rotation that may affect Moore’s snap count, per San Francisco Chronicle writer Vic Tafur:

Moore played well in his first two seasons as a starter and provides an ability to rush the quarterback. He’s accumulated 7.5 sacks in 26 games, which increases his value on a roster lacking a young proven pass-rusher. It was encouraging to see Moore’s recovery lead to light field practice during mandatory minicamp, per ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson:

Murray enters the 2015 season with the highest expectations, but cornerback D.J. Hayden carries the most pressure. Unlike the running back, Hayden gets a third tryout to fulfill his role as a full 16-game starter. We all know about his injury history; it’s old news. The upcoming season must yield a no-excuses attitude for the three-year starter.  

According to SBNation.com writer James Brady, the conclusion to Hayden’s 2014 season wasn’t overly impressive:

Hayden established himself as a starter by the end of 2014. By Week 9 last season, Hayden was playing most defensive snaps each game, and he did have some good outings. Still, overall he graded out poorly (61st-best CB in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus), and while he was playing well, he wasn’t making many game-changing plays.

The cornerback’s struggles were likely the precursor to an intense competition that favors cornerback Keith McGill, according to Williamson (via NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling). He went sp far as to say McGill should be favored in taking over as the starter. 

“Williamson stresses that it’s a ‘fluid situation,’ but McGill will have the edge entering training camp,” Wesseling wrote.

Whether Hayden begins the season as the No. 2 or No. 3 cornerback matters less than his overall performance. McGill’s 6’3″, 211-pound stature is an advantage over Hayden (5’11″, 190 pounds) in a league with larger, more athletic wide receivers.

At this juncture, playing a full season and performing well should top the list of Hayden’s goals. Assuming Hayden remains healthy, he’s a solid cornerback. However, he isn’t the Raiders’ No. 1 pass defender.

Offensive tackle Menelik Watson’s overall sample size doesn’t warrant a make-or-break season, but he turns 27 in December. He played at Saddleback Junior College before stepping onto Florida State’s campus, starting for a year and then declaring for the 2013 NFL draft.

Watson’s limited football experience doesn’t bode well for a rapid development during an intense competition with Austin Howard at right tackle. He has played 17 career games and likely needs an additional season to indicate whether he’s fit to be an NFL starter.

Unfortunately, the Raiders need Watson to step up or they’ll likely move on with Howard, who’s in the second year of his five-year, $30 million contract.

 

Rotational Players 

Tight end Mychal Rivera will likely transition into a rotational role with rookie Clive Walford and possibly Marcel Reece, but he’s still expected to contribute as a solid receiver.

Rivera drew comparisons to former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez coming out of Tennessee in 2013, per Damien: ”His blocking is suspect but he draws comparisons to the Patriots Aaron Hernandez so obviously, if used properly, he could be valuable.”

The Raiders hope their two-tight end sets resemble the Patriots’ setup, with Walford playing the role of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Despite the lack of dynamic play at the position, Rivera won’t disappear within the offense.

Quarterback Derek Carr completed 58 passes to Rivera in 2014, which equates to one-sixth of his total completions. The two have established a solid rapport that should keep Rivera viable, especially as a red-zone threat in the upcoming season.

Both wide receiver Brice Butler and defensive tackle Stacy McGee face a different type of pressure heading into the 2015 season.

Butler is competing for a roster spot with the influx of talent at wide receiver. He failed to impress with a lack of talent at the position last year, recording just 21 catches for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

It’s hard to envision him improving on those numbers as the No. 5 or No. 6 receiving option. He was sidelined with a minor injury as wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins impressed the coaching staff during mandatory minicamps, per Damien. Butler teeters on the roster bubble heading into training camp. 

McGee started five games in his rookie campaign, but assumed a rotational role in 2014. The former Oklahoma product will compete with Ricky Lumpkin and a heavier C.J. Wilson (300 lbs) for snaps behind Dan Williams and Justin Ellis. McGee will continue to rotate in at defensive tackle as a fringe contributor in run defense if he makes the roster.

 

2013 Draft Outlook 

Overall, McKenzie’s 2013 draft class should turn out moderate production while under the microscope. The Raiders have a potential 1,000-yard ball-carrier, a solid outside linebacker capable of chipping in as a pass-rusher and a red-zone threat at tight end.

Hayden won’t live up to first-round expectations, but he’s capable of defending the slot. According to Williamson, Watson leads the competition at right tackle, but Howard, a five-year NFL veteran, holds the advantage in circumstance and experience. Butler and McGee add depth, but are nothing extraordinary.

The 2013 draft class isn’t a total loss, but it’s not going to pan out as a slam dunk after the 2015 season. Murray and Moore should pan out as gems. Hayden and Watson are major question marks that could tip the assessment of the class from mediocre to slightly above average based on their performances.

What do you expect from the 2013 draft class? You can follow Maurice Moton on Twitter and give your input!

Statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference.comSports-Reference.com and ESPN.comPlayer measurements courtesy of Raiders.comPlayer contract details courtesy of Spotrac.com.

Read more Oakland Raiders news on BleacherReport.com

3 Forgotten Factors That Could Help Raiders Shock the NFL World

The Oakland Raiders have made plenty of impressive offseason moves, including the hiring of Jack Del Rio as their new head coach. 

Why will the Raiders succeed in 2015? What should fans expect this upcoming season?

Watch as Adam Lefkoe and Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Chris Simms discuss the Raiders’ offseason in the video above. 

Read more Oakland Raiders news on BleacherReport.com

Why Derek Carr Can Be a Super Sophomore with the Oakland Raiders

The Oakland Raiders have good reason to believe second-year quarterback Derek Carr will become a franchise quarterback, but there are still lingering concerns about his play. The concerns are due in large part to the lack of talent around him in 2014 and normal rookie growing pains.

Skeptics will point to his ultra-low yards per attempt and completion percentage numbers in 2014 as reasons Carr will slump as a sophomore, but there are many more reasons why he’ll be a super sophomore for the Raiders. Vastly improved talent will make a huge difference for Carr, but history is also on his side.

We already know Carr is a leader with a good work ethic that has been around the game for a long time. We also know he has a strong arm, and he’s mobile. He looks the part, but maybe even more so after 599 pass attempts as a rookie.

 

The Derek Carr Experience

Since 1920, only Andrew Luck has attempted more passes as a rookie than Carr. Luck’s completion percentage was lower, he took 17 more sacks and threw six more interceptions than Carr did his rookie season. He also threw two more touchdowns with more yards per attempt.

Sam Bradford is the only player since 1920 to complete more passes than Carr as a rookie. He finished with a slightly better completion percentage, three fewer touchdowns, three more interceptions and 10 more sacks than Carr did.  

The general idea is that for 599 pass attempts, Carr did just fine. Luck has kept getting better, and injuries derailed Bradford’s career, but he also improved when he was on the field. An overly conservative offensive coordinator and virtually no running game alone adequately explain Carr’s low yards per attempt.

If it didn’t, his performance in the red zone would be tough to explain other than to dismiss it entirely as a small sample. If you think about it, it makes little sense Carr would mysteriously get a lot better in the red zone where defenses condense and passing typically gets more difficult.

Carr was actually among the best quarterbacks in the league in the red zone. His rookie season stands out to a significant degree in this area.

In the red zone, Carr completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 185 yards and 18 touchdowns, one interception and one sack. On a minimum of 25 attempts, Carr trailed only Tony Romo and Kirk Cousins in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A) statistic and only Romo on a minimum of 30 attempts in the red zone.

Carr’s performance in the red zone compares favorably with Russell Wilson’s rookie season. It’s also better than Aaron Rodgers’ first year as a starter. Carr’s red-zone stats, like his counting stats, don’t seem to make any sense in context of averaging just 5.5 per attempt.

Yes, it’s a small sample, but it’s still a noteworthy one. Not including Carr, the top seven quarterbacks in red-zone ANY/A over the last five years are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Rodgers and Romo (minimum 50 attempts).

Rodgers, Manning, Romo, Brees and Wilson also top the list of best quarterbacks in overall yards per attempt over the last five years (minimum 300 attempts) along with Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers.

Now also consider the Raiders had a horrendous running game between the 20s. On the ground between the 20s, the Raiders ran the ball 251 times, had 44 rushing first downs, fumbled 11 times for a turnover percentage of 4.4 percent and averaged just 3.37 yards per attempt.

All five stats were last in the entire league. That’s right, all of them.

Coupled with a defense that fell behind early with great regularity, Carr was usually in a terrible position. The Raiders fell behind by seven or more points by the end of the first quarter in seven games and by the end of the first half in 12 games, both most in the league.

 

New Weapons

Now consider the weapons Carr had at his disposal last season. One of his best wide receivers was James Jones, who was released this offseason and remains unemployed. His other best receiver was Andre Holmes, who the Raiders gave the low restricted free-agent tender to this offseason. Holmes is also at best the No. 4 receiver now.

Wide receiver Rod Streater got hurt early in the season and so was never able to build on his 2013 season. Simply put, Carr didn’t have a single playmaker with speed or run-after-the-catch ability. Some of his best options were move tight end Mychal Rivera and a fullback Marcel Reece.

Trying to use the short passing game as the running game was a disaster for Carr’s averages. The Raiders struggled to push the ball deep as well, which is an area Carr can legitimately improve, so the defense sat on the underneath passing game.

Look no further than Carr’s red-zone incompletions to get a sense of his struggles. Of his 19 incomplete passes in the red zone, one was to Kenbrell Thompkins, two to Darren McFadden, three to Denarius Moore and four to Brice Butler. Collectively, the four were 2-for-12 and accounted for more than half of his incomplete passes in the red zone.

Carr was 30-of-39 with 17 touchdowns to Jones, Holmes, Rivera, Reece and others. Moore and McFadden are gone. Butler and Thompkins will be battling for a roster spot.

By drafting wide receiver Amari Cooper at No. 4 overall and tight end Clive Walford in the third round, the Raiders have two young weapons to go with the signing of veteran receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Roy Helu Jr. Getting a healthy Streater back will also be significant.

 

The Super Sophomore

Based on how things were stacked against Carr last year, it’s a lot more reasonable to believe the Raiders will get more red-zone Carr in 2015 and less between-the-20s Carr. If he also takes a step forward in his own development, that could be a winning recipe for the Raiders.

What we know is that sophomore slumps are a myth. In fact, sophomore quarterbacks typically get a little better or stay the same on average, per research by Scott Kacsmar for Cold Hard Football Facts. Since 1981, sophomore quarterbacks have increased their attempts per game, completion percentage, yards per game, yards per attempt and reduced their interception percentage.

As Kacsmar summed it up:

There is no sophomore slump. This is the year you take it to the next level, because that is what you are supposed to do.

A poor statistical season is not enough evidence to suggest Carr can’t improve significantly. Many quarterbacks do improve as sophomores. Per Gil Brandt of NFL.com, Manning, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, Sammy Baugh and John Hadl are just a few of the names that turned things around after struggling as rookies.

Here are some of the best sophomore quarterbacks in NFL history, per Kacsmar for Bleacher Report. Included on the list is a player like Roethlisberger, who attempted fewer passes in his first two seasons than Carr attempted in his rookie season alone.

With all the added support, Carr is poised to be a super sophomore for the Oakland Raiders. 

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.

Read more Oakland Raiders news on BleacherReport.com

Setting Realistic Expectations for Each Oakland Raiders Rookie

The excitement behind the Oakland Raiders incoming rookie class can take expectations to a new level.

Most fans are innately optimistic about the fresh talent with the utmost faith in their team’s general manager and coaching staff to make the best choices to improve the team. However, coaches and general managers are fired every year for poor personnel decisions, and sometimes rookies don’t pan out.

The Raiders drafted 10 rookies in hopes of elevating this franchise out of a rut and overturn the team’s struggling ways. Oakland continued to pick up talented, undrafted players to add depth and fill in some roster gaps.

As Raider Nation hopes for the best in the upcoming season, we’ll discuss the best and worse possibilities for the 2015 rookie class, with the addition of two undrafted rookies who stand a good chance of making the 53-man roster.

Wide receiver Andre Debose was waived during organized team activities, per ESPN’s Bill Williamson and therefore omitted from this listing.

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5 Players Who Might Find Themselves on Oakland Raiders’ Practice Squad in 2015

The Oakland Raiders have several developing talents worthy of future opportunities but not quite ready to take the field during the 2015 season.

The Raiders would benefit from stashing these talents on the practice squad for at least a year before activating them as part of the 53-man roster.

Practice squads serve as the breeding grounds for NFL rosters when in need of re-enforcements due to injury or subpar talent on the active roster. SBNation.com writer Matt Verderame outlines the guidelines and requirements for practice squads across the league.

Who should the Raiders harvest in the practice unit? Which players have the talent to become starters, but need some work on fine mechanics? Some of these talents play at positions already stacked with depth but have too much upside to release before the regular season.

We’ll discuss some young players with high potential worthy of keeping around the breeding grounds of Alameda.

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Predicting the Last 5 In, Last 5 out for Oakland Raiders’ Final 53-Man Roster

The Oakland Raiders have a young and talented team, which leads to difficult cuts when trimming a 90-man roster down to 53 active players.

The Raiders’ roster bubble should resemble the size of a hot air balloon, and we’ll explore some potential keeps and cuts to place the best talent on the field.

The determining factors concerning who’s saved and who’s released hinge upon the following: skill set duplication at the position, need for depth or lack thereof and projection of impact as an active player during the regular season.

We’ll focus on the last five to make the active 53-man roster and the last five to get sent packing.

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How Oakland Raiders’ Offense, Defense Compare to Rest of AFC West

The Oakland Raiders have had a very busy offseason. The team brought in a lot of talent both through free agency and the draft. Add to that a brand new coaching staff, and hopes are understandably high in the East Bay.

The ultimate goal for the Raiders is to once again be one of the top teams in the NFL. But a rebuilding team such as this can’t look too far ahead. The process of returning to relevance has to begin with smaller, more manageable steps.

For the Raiders, the first step is to be competitive and successful in the AFC West.

Oakland finds itself in a very difficult position. It’s the one rebuilding team in an otherwise strong division. Every team in the AFC West beside Oakland is a legitimate playoff contender, and two of them—Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers—could make a Super Bowl run if things go right.

The Raiders, in the midst of a rebuild, are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

However, with the moves the team made this offseason, the gap has been substantially closed. In fact, the Raiders are in position to make a major move up the AFC West standings.

 

Raiders vs. AFC West in 2014

Oakland has struggled against the AFC West in recent years, and 2014 was no exception, as the team went on to finish with a 1-5 record within the division.

While the Raiders fared very poorly against their divisional rivals, the numbers should be taken in the proper context.

Yes, Oakland lost by an average of more than two touchdowns. But what should be noted is the most damage was done by the Broncos, who beat the Raiders by an average of 28.5 points per game.

The Raiders did much better against Kansas City and San Diego, two teams against whom Oakland lost by an average of just five points.

Still, a loss is a loss. However, there is a silver lining for the Silver and Black. Aside from the two games against Denver, the Raiders played much better against divisional opponents than the final record indicates. They picked up a a win against Kansas City, and the two losses against San Diego could’ve gone the other way if Oakland could’ve made another play or two.

Oakland finished last in the AFC West in 2014, though it was not by as wide a margin as some might think. The Raiders were a few plays and a couple of players away from finishing with a much better record in the division.

The Raiders needed to add those players and those plays this offseason. It’s still early, but it looks like they did just that.

 

The Offense in ’15

The Raiders were bad on both sides of the ball last year, but the offense was arguably the worst unit of all. The organization was aware of this and addressed the issue by bringing in some major contributors.

*For a complete list of additions, visit Raiders.com

There are different opinions as to why the Oakland offense struggled so much last season. But one thing most agree on is that the offense had a major shortage of playmakers at the skill positions.

This was particularly true in the passing game. Therefore, the front office made it a point to get Derek Carr more weapons.

The most telling sign of the team’s desire to fix this problem was when it used the fourth overall pick in the draft to select Amari Cooper. However, he wasn’t the only addition. Oakland also added Michael Crabtree, Clive Walford and Roy Helu Jr., all players who join the team with track records of being effective pass-catchers.

As bad as the passing game was, the running game was even worse. However, the Raiders took a different approach here. Only Trent Richardson was added to compete for the starting job against Latavius Murray, last season’s surprise breakout performer.

One of the most frustrating things last season was watching the Raiders struggle to consistently pick up first downs. The offense’s inability to stay on the field led to fewer points, and it also led to the defense having to spend too much time on the field.

The offense is close to fixing this. Cooper is a threat all over the field, Crabtree’s veteran savvy and Helu’s ability to come out of the backfield will improve the unit’s third-down efficiency. The addition of Walford also gives the offense a legitimate, consistent, every-down threat over the middle.

The two keys for the offense will be how much better Carr is in his second season and whether or not the team can establish a consistently effective running game.

*Overall NFL rankings in parentheses

Carr will play better, especially with the additional weapons he now has. However, the overall passing game will experience growing pains throughout the year, and it won’t be until later in the season when the passing attack finally begins to establish consistent, reliable production.

Passing against AFC West defenses represents a daunting task under ideal circumstances. For an offense such as Oakland’s, with a young quarterback and a rebuilt, still-finding-its-identity wide receiving corps, the task is even tougher.

The deciding factor will ultimately be the running game. While the division is very tough against the pass, it can be had on the ground. It’s not a coincidence that Oakland’s first win in 2014 came against Kansas City, which was also the first time the offense did any real damage on the ground.

Within the division, the passing attack has to figure out a way to be efficient, but it’ll be up to the running backs to do most of the damage. How effective the running game is will determine how effective the offense is overall.

 

The Defense in ’15

The defense didn’t have a good season by any stretch, but it frequently showed flashes that it was given credit for. There were several games Oakland could’ve, and should’ve, won based on the performance of the defense. Now, the unit has been reinforced and should continue to grow.

*For a complete list of additions, visit Raiders.com

The Raiders discovered they have some foundational players on defense in Khalil Mack, Sio Moore and Justin Ellis. Moore has continued to improve, and Mack looks like he’s well on his way to being an All-Pro.

Even the unheralded Ellis has received some recognition. When Bleacher Report’s Adam Lefkoe asked Bleacher Report NFL analyst Chris Simms to predict Oakland’s unsung hero for next season, he had this to say:

Oakland is very solid along the defensive line. Although he’s on the downside of his career, Justin Tuck can still be productive. Up the middle, the Raiders are going to extremely tough to run against with Ellis and Dan Williams, who combine for a little over 660 pounds, clogging up the running lanes.

It remains to be seen what the team will do with rookie Mario Edwards Jr., who’s listed on the official team roster as a defensive end. This will likely be his featured role, although it won’t be a surprise to see him step inside on passing downs.

At linebacker, Oakland suddenly finds itself with what could be one of the better units in the league. Mack, Moore and Curtis Lofton are collectively strong in the pass rush, against the run and in coverage. The unit still has work to do. But if all goes well, this could turn into a three-headed terror for opposing offenses.

For all the potential Oakland has on defense, the one glaring unknown remains the secondary, particularly the cornerback position.

The Raiders were surprisingly inactive at cornerback, instead opting to go with the highly talented but unproven trio of D.J. Hayden, T.J. Carrie and Keith McGill. At safety, Oakland’s biggest addition was Nate Allen, who’s as likely to make a big mistake as he is to make a big play.

This is a particularly dangerous gamble, given the caliber of quarterbacks the team will face within the division—Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Alex Smith.

Within the division, the Raiders will face three quarterbacks who are excellent at avoiding mistakes. On top of that, Manning and Rivers are a a threat to have a big game every week. Given the questionable makeup of Oakland’s secondary, the pressure to stop them will fall to the front seven.

The Raiders have a front seven build to stop the run. The deciding factor will be whether this same unit can also generate pressure on the opposing quarterback on a consistent basis.

As of now, the players primarily responsible for this will be Tuck, Mack and Edwards, but the entire front seven will share in the responsibility. They have to be able to not only get to the quarterback consistently but actually get him to the ground. This will make or break the fortunes of the defense.

On the other hand, if the front seven can’t sack the quarterback, the secondary will be picked apart in the same way it was last year.

 

Predictions vs. AFC West in 2015

When taking into account all of the roster movement across the division, here’s a look at how the Raiders should do in the AFC West this upcoming season.

*Divisional record, not overall record

With the influx of talent, the continued growth of last year’s top performers and the addition of a new, more experienced coaching staff, the Raiders are in prime position to make a lot of noise in the AFC West.

The Broncos will continue to set the bar in the division. But the competition among the three remaining teams will be very tight.

On offense, the passing game will get most of the attention. But it’s going to be the performance of the running backs that determines whether the unit succeeds or fails.

Defensively, the biggest problem is the secondary, and the solution is up front. It’s all going to come down to quarterback hits, hurries and sacks.

The Raiders have a long shot of finishing second in the division. More realistically, the team should make finishing third its minimum goal. Being competitive in every game and earning three victories within the division are very attainable targets for this team.

That might not seem like much, but for a team such as Oakland, which is in the process of clawing its way out of the AFC West cellar, it’s a start.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats taken from Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL.com.

Do you think the Raiders have done enough on both sides of the ball to make a major move up in the AFC West standings next season? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.

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Is Oakland Raiders Wide Receiver Austin Willis the Next Wes Welker?

No one knows it yet, but it’s possible the Oakland Raiders signed the next Wes Welker disguised as a fringe player scraping to secure a roster spot.

Yes, you’ve heard of Oakland’s No. 4 pick in the 2015 draft, Amari Cooper, the highly touted and talented wide receiver out of Alabama. Let’s dig beyond the sand and gravel to uncover a true diamond in the rough.

 

Kick Return Ability and Opportunity

Who is Austin Willis?

Willis is exactly who Welker was upon breaking into the league, and he’s going to follow the same route to garner respect from Raider Nation and his opponents. 

In 2004, when Welker broke into the league, Larry Fitzgerald (6’3”), Roy Williams (6’3”) and Reggie Williams (6’3”) were top-10 overall picks. Drafting and starting bigger receivers kept average smaller-framed receivers like the 5’9″ Welker confined to special teams duties.

Welker exclusively returned kicks and punts for the Miami Dolphins in 2004 after the San Diego Chargers released him. Welker was a major factor on special teams before he became known as the human slot machine in reference to his ability to rack up chunks of yards out of the slot position. 

The Raiders are stacked at wide receiver, and it’s evident to Willis that hard work and dedication to the small duties yield bigger opportunities. He’s certainly no stranger to working his way up from the bottom, per SilverandBlackPride.com writer Levi Damien:

He came to Emporia State on a track scholarship. That was how he got his foot in the door to set his sights on his real ambition of playing football.

After making the team, he then had to pay his dues. His first season the undersized athlete played mostly on special teams, catching just one pass on offense. From there he continued to work on his craft and earn a role on the offense.

It’s kind of tough those first couple of years proving yourself and climbing the ladder, but just like anything else, if you’re patient good things will happen,” Willis told the Emporia Gazette following his invitation to Raiders rookie minicamp. “Coach Higgins gave me opportunities here and I took advantage of those. I plan on doing the same thing again out there in Oakland.

The Raiders have a glaring need at kick and punt returner, and though Willis transitioned into a productive wide receiver, he played through humble beginnings on special teams:

The video is a snippet of his elusiveness as a kick returner, but his full body of work already has some writers buzzing about his potential fit in Oakland:

Damien concurs with the high possibility of Willis making the Raiders roster on special teams:

“The Raiders have a great deal of competition at the wide receiver position in this year’s camp. The Raiders are looking for someone to step up as a kick returner, which is something Willis can provide. That could be his key to carving out a roster spot.”

Willis’ clear path into the NFL is eerily similar to Welker’s; both players entered the league with solid receiving skills, but it’s their return ability that proves the most valuable asset in earning a chance on the professional level.

 

Underrated Receiving Skills

Speaking of those solid receiving skills, both players excelled in their junior and senior seasons. Although Willis came from Emporia State, a Division II school, he showed immense talent as a receiver with great hands, speed and field awareness.

Willis was impressive during rookie minicamp in the offseason, per Damien:

Seeing him in rookie mini camp, my first thought was that he doesn’t have the stature or bulk one usually expects from an NFL player. Then watching him, his effortless speed and overall athleticism quickly become apparent. In limited viewing, he showed very clean and developed technique as a receiver.

That assessment might have been used to describe Welker as he broke into NFL camps over a decade ago, but numbers don’t lie:

As Welker’s story continues, the New England Patriots sent a 2007 second- and seventh-round pick to the Dolphins in exchange for the underrated wide receiver and return specialist. 

The Patriots defenders struggled against Welker’s shifty pass routes and sure hands so much that they brought him aboard primarily as a wide receiver. His involvement in special teams greatly diminished—partially because he burned teams week after week in the slot, leading the league in receptions in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

Willis isn’t going to come in and set records, but it also took Welker four years to break out as a premier receiver. Cooper is the only wide receiver entrenched in Oakland’s long-term plans, per Spotrac.com. Michael Crabtree, Rod Streater and Andre Holmes are in contract years. The rest of the wide receiver corps, though talented, is still unproven.

If Willis can secure a spot on special teams, it gives him a long-term outlook as a starter on the roster. Though it’s a minimal role, it increases his chances of earning the trust of the coaching staff and expanding his responsibilities on offense—very Welker-esque.

I know what you’re thinking.

How does this undersized receiver break into a strong Raiders wide receiver stable and make a difference in a league where big receivers lead the box scores?

Well, if you told me a decade ago that Welker, an undersized receiver, would set the record for most receptions by an undrafted free agent, per Denver Post writers Mike Klis, Troy Renck and Irv Moss, while becoming one of the best slot receivers in the game, I’d reply, “Yeah, right,” loaded with sarcasm. No one saw that coming from Welker, but here we are celebrating his greatness a decade later. 

Willis said it best, per Damien: ”I’ve been saying this whole time is that all I’ve needed is one opportunity and one team to take a look at me. I’m getting that chance and I’m planning on taking full advantage of my opportunity.”

When talent, circumstance and opportunity coincide, it usually works out for the best. Raider Nation, say hello to the next Wes Welker.

 

What do you you think of Austin Willis? You can follow Maurice Moton on Twitter and give your input!

Statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference.comSports-reference.com and Esuhornets.com.

Player Measurements courtesy of NFL.com.

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