by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
In professional sports, we’re always hearing about how "it’s a new era in (city X)." Almost always, this is just a euphemistic way of saying that a team has been bad in recent years and is now hoping that a few personnel changes can fix things. But in the case of the 2012 Oakland Raiders, it really is a new era.
Al Davis now lives only in legacy. Even though we all knew his final day on Earth would come, we were surprised last October when it actually did. From a franchise-building standpoint, Davis couldn’t have picked a better time to go than in the middle of last season. The 2011 Raiders weren’t major contenders in the AFC anyway, and most of the copious tasks that come with reconfiguring an organization –- especially an organization that has been so run almost exclusively by one man –- take place in the offseason. When the 2012 offseason arrived, the new Raiders had received enough time to get their ducks in a row.
Tip your cap to Davis’s son, Mark Davis, for the way he’s looked after his father’s club. The 57-year-old has been involved with the Raiders for most of his life, but he’s not a "football guy" the way his father was. Davis recognized this immediately and delegated responsibilities accordingly.
Seeking advice from trusted members of his dad’s inner circle (most notably Ron Wolf and John Madden), Davis set out to hire a general manager who could serve as the new captain of the Raiders’ ship. His search resulted in the hiring of Reggie McKenzie, a former role player for the Los Angeles Raiders who joined Green Bay as a scout in 1994. McKenzie spent 18 years in Green Bay rising through the ranks of front offices headed by superstar general managers Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson.
Shortly after stepping down as Green Bay’s director of player personnel and taking over in Oakland, McKenzie initiated the Raiders’ drastic reconfiguration by firing head coach Hue Jackson and hiring Dennis Allen. The former Broncos defensive coordinator and first-time head coach is scrapping the man-to-man scheme that has defined Oakland’s defense since the 1970s. In its place will be a modern scheme that Allen has described as "multiple." Offensively, new coordinator Greg Knapp’s finesse zone-blocking West Coast system will be a change from the power-based schemes that Davis always preferred.
McKenzie said in July that the Raiders can be a playoff team in 2012. That’s just summertime buoyancy, though. Deep down, McKenzie almost certainly knows this is likely to be a gradual turnaround process. The philosophical changes bring about a demand for specific types of players –- types of players the Raiders mostly don’t have yet. Previous years of mismanagement compelled McKenzie to turn the roster over. He did have some big decisions to make, but mostly it was just letting Oakland's free agents walk. This, and limited draft picks due to some of Davis’s (and Jackson's) last moves, leave the 2012 Raiders very thin.
But the good news for Raiders fans is, if (or when) their team fails to finish over .500 for a 10th straight year, they won’t have to worry about a slew of knee-jerk reactionary changes next offseason stalling the long-term building plans. For it actually is a new era in Oakland.
We don’t know whether Reggie McKenzie would have traded one first- and one second-round pick for Carson Palmer or not. It doesn’t matter now. What does matter is the new GM is comfortable with the quarterback he inherited. That makes the initial phases of any rebuilding project much easier.
Palmer is not the stud he was in the mid-2000s, when his knees and elbows had not yet been damaged and the only quarterbacks who were clearly better than him were named Brady and Manning. However, he still has one of the game’s stronger arms. It’s an arm he fully trusts, too, which has been both a plus and minus. Palmer’s arm strength allows him to rifle balls in against tight man coverage, something that, on his best day, he does as effectively as any passer in the game. It also inspires too many risky throws into small windows against zone coverage. That’s what led to a handful of the 16 interceptions he threw in his first 10 games wearing silver and black.
Palmer has the aptitude to be a cerebral field general; plenty of coaches have entrusted him to run their offense out of a no-huddle. It’s just a matter of staying cerebral amidst chaos after the snap. That’s what Greg Knapp will need from Palmer, as Knapp’s offense is predicated on controlled progression reads. In fact, you don’t necessarily even need a big arm to run Knapp’s system. That's why Knapp didn't have any qualms bringing along Matt Leinart from Houston. What you do need is accuracy and patience.
Often, when Palmer drifts into impetuousness, it’s because he stops trusting the players around him. That’s understandable, to a certain degree, but it’s something he absolutely must overcome. Because, just like last season, he won’t have the most reliable supporting cast. Oakland’s receiving corps is full of speedsters, but deprived of fundamentally sound technicians. That’s problematic in a West Coast system based on precision and timing.
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Second-year wideout Denarius Moore could be the deciding factor in the passing game. The fifth-round pick has scintillating downfield speed and, at six-feet even, his 194-pound frame will let him become more than just a straight-line runner. Moore must hone his technique so some of that speed can be converted into quickness as a route runner. That’s how he’ll become the consistent intermediate threat that Oakland badly needs. If he doesn’t, the Raiders will have to rely on Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford to give their passing attack multiple dimensions. Heyward-Bey polished his game dramatically last season, but often, defenses had little trouble hindering him when they set their minds to it. It’s doubtful the fourth-year pro will ever blossom into a true No. 1. As for Ford, if he can stay healthy, he can be a nightmarish catch-and-run threat. However, it remains to be seen just how reliable he can be as a featured weapon.
Moore, Heyward-Bey, and Ford have all been sidelined by injuries at some point during the course of their young careers, which is why Oakland’s shoddy receiving depth is so concerning. The only other wideout on the roster who was even drafted is fifth-round rookie Juron Criner, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder who played in a college spread at Arizona. At this point, Criner's pro potential is full of question marks. There aren’t any tight ends for Palmer to fall back on, either. The projected starter is Brandon Myers, a fourth-year pro with insignificant blocking aptitude and all of 32 catches to his name. Behind him are David Ausberry and Richard Gordon, two untested late-round picks from a year ago.
Needless to say, it’s critical that running back Darren McFadden stay healthy for the first time in his five-year career. After missing 10 games over his first three seasons, McFadden, following a torrid first month-and-a-half to start last season, missed nine games with a Lisfranc foot sprain. His upright running style will always make him a little more vulnerable to getting dinged. It’s too late to change that running style now, though, and it’d probably be unwise anyway, given how comfortable McFadden is with it. (It’s not like an upright style guarantees injury.) McFadden is not laterally explosive or shifty enough to change directions on a dime, but he can create his own space just off of sheer speed. He has a burst to turn the corner and devastating acceleration when he reaches the second level.
McFadden’s not just vital because this offense, with its paucity of receiving depth, will have to rely on a strong rushing attack in 2012. He’s also vital because the paucity of receiving depth means the passing game could be feeble without his services. With just three fast-but-shaky wideouts and a bunch of meager tight ends, the Raiders have no short-area receiving threat asides from McFadden. He’s a good route runner and an effective receiver from both the backfield and slot. If McFadden is out of the lineup, defenses will have unlimited freedom playing attack mode against this team.
Besides the departure of Michael Bush, McFadden’s durability issues were the largest inspiration behind Oakland trading for Carolina running back Mike Goodson. Goodson is eager to prove his mettle. The former fourth-round pick flashed potential during his three years in Carolina, but with stars DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart around, there were no touches for him. When Goodson did get extended playing time in 2010, he showed impressive hip swivel and swift fluidity early in his runs. If he solidifies his blocking, he could be a formidable third-down back.
Of course, Goodson ostensibly sees himself as an every down back. Fortunately, that’s how he’ll likely be used here (albeit in a rotation) given that McFadden and last year’s fourth-round pick, speed-and space-oriented Taiwan Jones, both bring value to the passing game. Someone else who brings value to the passing game is fullback Marcel Reece, a former college wide receiver who can stretch the field coming out of the backfield but also clear a path as a lead blocker. Reece’s lead-blocking assignments will require more instincts and awareness this season, as in this new zone-blocking scheme he’ll have to scan and locate defenders rather than just ram through whatever hole the play design calls for.
Zone schemes are perhaps best known for demanding mobility and continuity from offensive linemen. Mobility shouldn’t be much of a problem for any of Oakland’s five starters up front. It’s continuity that’s the concern, given the youth and iffy track records at some spots.
The youth is at left tackle in Jared Veldheer and at center with Stefen Wisniewski. Veldheer is long and athletic, but only approaching his third year in the league and second at his position, as the Raiders moved him all over the line as a rookie. Wisniewski has outstanding initial quickness and the potential to develop great on-the-move dexterity, but he played right guard at Penn State and mostly left guard as a rookie last year. Shoulder surgery this past offseason prevented Wisniewski from getting hands-on experience at his new position in this new scheme, so he may struggle early on. (He also struggled when moonlighting at center last season.)
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The good news is that Wisniewski will be surrounded by two veteran zone-blocking guards in Cooper Carlisle and Mike Brisiel. Neither is dazzling, but both are dependable. With the future in mind, McKenzie also drafted Tony Bergstrom with his first pick as a new general manager, which thanks to those aforementioned Davis and Jackson trades, didn’t come until late in the third round. As a fairly athletic 6-foot-6, 315-pounder, Bergstrom seems built to play tackle on paper. Problem is, he has short arms, which will probably force him to play guard.
The earlier mention of "iffy track record" was a reference to right tackle Khalif Barnes, an eighth-year veteran who has struggled with penalties and mistakes his entire career. The hope is Barnes’s nimbleness can make him a comfortable fit in this scheme. If that doesn’t prove to be the case, he’ll slide back to his swing tackle role, and last year’s third-round pick, Joseph Barksdale, will get a look. Barksdale, a talented player with a reputation for apathy coming out of LSU, will join Bergstrom as the only backup linemen on the roster who were drafted.
Dennis Allen and his defensive coordinator Jason Tarver plan on making the Raiders defense "more multiple." What, exactly, does that mean? In short, it means offenses for the first time in ages won’t know prior to kickoff what defensive look the Raiders will give them on every down. When Al Davis died, so did the Raiders’ unyielding commitment to man-to-man defense.
You’re probably assuming that the Raiders’ new "multiple" defensive scheme will feature a combination of man and zone coverages. That’s correct, but don’t be surprised if the coverages lean more and more toward zone as the season wears on. Allen had great success using press-man coverages behind an array of different front looks as Denver’s defensive coordinator last year, but what he had in Denver that he doesn’t have here were quality veteran cornerbacks. To put it kindly, neither Ron Bartell nor Shawntae Spencer is Champ Bailey. Or even Andre' Goodman, for that matter. Bartell and Spencer are both off-coverage corners. Both can play man, but Bartell, formerly of the Rams, has always run hot-and-cold with his technique. Spencer, who came over from the 49ers, has never been very physical.
Both corners are also coming off seasons in which they barely played. Bartell missed 15 games with a neck injury, while Spencer spent the year being slowed by various injuries and wasn't a favorite of the new Niners coaching staff. In all likelihood, the Raiders will at some point find themselves relying heavily on second-year mid-round corners DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa. Van Dyke played exclusively on the outside as a sub-package defender and fill-in starter last season, while Chekwa missed all but four games with a hamstring injury.
Oakland’s uncertainty at cornerback is concerning, but at least somewhat offset by the depth and versatility at safety. Tyvon Branch, Michael Huff, and Mike Mitchell can all line up in centerfield, in the box, or over the slot. All are capable of playing man coverage. Don’t be surprised if Allen, like last year’s defensive signalcaller, Chuck Bresnahan, regularly uses dime packages in order to get all three safeties on the field. The fluid Huff is a former high-first-round pick, and the hard-hitting Mitchell is a former second-rounder, but it’s former fourth-rounder Branch who has emerged as the star. He’s the most consistent in coverage and, thanks to fierce tackling and innate blitzing instincts, the most artistic in the box. It’s no surprise that Branch was one of the few Raider free agents McKenzie did re-sign.
The safeties will lend a lot of multiplicity to Allen’s defensive schemes -– by necessity as much as anything. Allen doesn’t have enough dynamic talent in the front seven (and particularly at the second level) to rely solely on traditional 4-3 and 3-4 concepts.
Middle linebacker Rolando McClain has not just been disappointing by "former No. 8 overall pick" standards, he’s been disappointing by "NFL starter" standards. McClain is stiff in changing direction and offers a fairly lethargic burst in run defense. It doesn’t help that his football instincts come and go. And it certainly doesn’t help that he’s facing a possible 180-day prison sentence for assault and other charges stemming from a fight in his hometown of Decatur, Alabama.
Regardless of what happens with McClain legally, Oakland will probably look closely at replacing him after this season. In the meantime, he’ll almost certainly be replaced in the dime package, if not the nickel, as well. But by who? Starting weakside linebacker Aaron Curry has never been very comfortable in coverage. New strongside starter Philip Wheeler was always just a body in coverage as a Colt. But unlike McClain, both players move with some tempo and fluidity. Curry, in particular, came alive after being traded from Seattle last season, though recent knee problems could hurt his chances of making an impact. One of these two will likely get the added snaps in sub packages, as the next two options, Nathan Stupar and Travis Goethel, are both callow late-round picks of a year ago. Fourth-round rookie Miles Burris might be a candidate, though if he plays in sub-packages it will most likely be as a pass-rusher.
Which brings us to the other concern up front. The Raiders have a staunch four-man line but no speed off the edge. Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly are phenomenal defensive tackles, but unless you’re the Lions, pass-rushing pressure in the NFL primarily comes from the outside, not inside. For the Raiders, it will likely have to come in the form of a blitz. End Matt Shaughnessy is an athletic run-stopper, as is staunch third-year pro Lamarr Houston. Neither is necessarily quick, though. In fact, new backup Dave Tollefson, who was never more than a back-of-the-rotation player for the Giants, probably has the best first step of all the ends. Tollefson is the only source of depth at the position, too. McKenzie drafted defensive end Jack Crawford in the fifth round, but Crawford’s said to be very raw.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler both still have as much power in their legs as anyone at their respective positions. Their unique abilities will make for some easier in-game decisions for their first-time head coach. In the return game, Denarius Moore has the wheels to scare opponents, but the thinness at wide receiver might make him too valuable to risk on punt returns. Same goes for Jacoby Ford. In response, the Raiders should hope that cornerback Bryan McCann can assume those duties fulltime. His limited action in this role last season was highlighted by a 91-yard kick return against the Chiefs.
There’s probably not a team in football with worse depth than Oakland. That’s especially alarming given the injury history of many important starters. Even if everyone stays healthy, Oakland’s offense and defense will have trouble in the passing game.