The Oakland Raiders report to training camp in Napa, California on Thursday, with the first scheduled practice the very next day. Coming off yet another disappointing season at 4-12, their second consecutive 4-12 campaign, the Raiders will be looking to be competitive in the stout AFC West, where their three divisional rivals are returning playoff-tested rosters.
The Raiders are not likely playoff contenders, but improvement to being at least in contention for a wild-card berth late into the season is probably required for head coach Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie MacKenzie to keep their jobs.
Offensively, training camp will provide early insight into the following three questions.
Is Matt Schaub finally the answer at quarterback?
Matt Schaub is a two-time Pro Bowler who became one of the scapegoats of the Houston Texans’ horrible 2-14 season last year. After losing six-straight games to go 2-6, and with a sudden penchant for tossing interceptions returned for touchdowns, Schaub watched a stretch of the season from the bench.
Last season, Schaub finished with a quarterback rating of only 73, breaking a distinguished streak of five consecutive seasons with a rating of 90 or above, with a career-high of 98.6 in 2009. Most importantly, Schaub led the Texans to the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, the first-ever postseason appearances for the franchise.
How does that compare to Raiders quarterbacks of the recent past? The Raiders haven’t appeared in the playoffs since quarterback Rich Gannon led the team to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2002 season. In the last decade, the highest quarterback rating a Raiders QB has delivered is Carson Palmer’s 85.3 in 2012.
Schaub is only 33, and if he can regain his form of just a couple of years ago, he represents a gigantic upgrade for the Raiders at the position. However, if he falters or goes down with an injury, the Raiders will have to lean on second-year player Matt McGloin, rookie Derek Carr, or veteran journeyman Trent Edwards, and none of those three options will provide Allen and McKenzie any job security.
Who’s the No. 1 running back?
McFadden has the natural gifts to be a superstar, but injuries have kept him off the field for too many games. He returns to the Raiders after a dismal year in 2013, gaining just 379 yards, averaging only 3.3 yards on his 114 carries. In six years as a pro, McFadden has never appeared in more than 13 games in a season, and has only appeared in 29 games the last three seasons. He returns to the Raiders not only seeking redemption, but also knowing the market for oft-injured 27-year-old running backs is almost non-existent in today’s NFL – regardless of athletic ability
Jones-Drew brings a load of proven experience as a productive player and a leader, but he comes to camp with his own questions surrounding him. In 2012, Drew-Jones missed 10 games, and his return last year, albeit with the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars, saw his production go down dramatically, averaging 3.4 yards a carry on his way to only 803 yards, his lowest total for a full season since 2008. Jones-Drew is 29-years-old, perilously close to the age when running backs’ production dips precipitously.
If both runners can stay healthy and be productive, the Raiders have a great running back tandem, capable of big plays in the running and passing game, and an ability to wear down opposing defenses. If injuries slow down even one, however, the Raiders offense will turn one-dimensional in a hurry.
Will a playmaker emerge at wideout?
James Jones joins the Raiders from the Green Bay Packers, where he caught 310 passes in seven years, including career-highs of 64 receptions and 14 touchdowns in 2012. But then again, he had Aaron Rodgers throwing to him. He won’t in Oakland.
Jones joins an undistinguished receiver corps, led by returning leaders Rod Streater and Denarius Moore, who together combined for 106 catches and nine touchdowns last season. Greg Little, a veteran of three years in Cleveland, will also find playing time. After the top four, the pickings get pretty slim, with the rest of the corps filled with rookies and young veterans – like Brice Butler and Juron Criner – with precious little playing experience.
Throughout training camp and the pre-season, Allen and his staff will be looking for 4-5 wideouts who can run precise routes to help Schaub prevent turnovers, who can catch balls and move the chains, keeping the offense on the field and in possession, and who can occasionally stretch the defense with the threat of a big play, assisting the running game. If Allen finds his guys, a key puzzle piece gets put in place.
Of course, Allen’s staff will be busy trying to answer other questions too – no 4-12 team comes to camp without them. The game is won in the trenches, and the Raiders had a rocky start to the offseason in building their offensive line. But if Schaub, McFadden, Jones-Drew and Jones produce at their potential, the Raiders should be a better, more competitive team. And, that might – just might – be enough for Allen and McKenzie to earn a fourth year at the helm.
Photo Credit: Paul Chinn, The San Francisco Chronicle
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