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Good times have been few and far between for Oakland Raider fans in recent years. The franchise has had an incredible 15 different starting quarterbacks since 2003, and in that time, have not had a single winning season. Raiders’ fans misery was compounded in 2011, when the franchise traded for quarterback Carson Palmer, giving up their 2012 1st round pick, and 2013 2nd round pick, to land the aging quarterback, a move which delayed the much needed rebuilding of the franchise. Although the Raiders have started the season with a 1-2 record, and their sole victory has come over fellow strugglers, the Jacksonville Jaguars, there are finally reasons to be optimistic if you live on the East side of San Francisco Bay.
The rebuild began in earnest this offseason, as Oakland lost 10 starters from their 2012 season, including former 1st round picks Rolando McClain, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Michael Huff, as well as a number of rotational players. This kind of turnover makes success in the following season almost impossible, but it does allow for a franchise to rebuild, something which has been needed in Oakland for quite a few years now. With this commitment to rebuilding now established, increased pressure will be on the Raiders front office to be successful with their high draft picks, something which has eluded them in recent years.
This scrutiny will begin with their 2013 draft class, which was headlined by D. J. Hayden and Menelik Watson, but also saw Sio Moore, Mychal Rivera, Stacy McGee, and David Bass drafted, amongst others. All six players have the potential to start eventually in the NFL, and the Raiders will need them all to develop into productive players, especially given the deficiency of talent currently in Oakland. The fact that fourth round pick, quarterback Tyler Wilson, has already been cut by the Raiders, just adds to the pressure that GM Reggie McKenzie will be feeling in regards to the success of the rest of the class.
The offensive line, which already boasted some young and talented pieces in Jared Veldheer and Stefen Wisniewski, will be buoyed by the addition of Watson, who can potentially play left or right tackle, or transition inside to guard. His ceiling could be higher than any other lineman coming into the NFL this season, especially when you consider how impressive he was at Florida State, despite having severely limited football experience. If Watson stays at tackle, and flourishes there, the Raiders are arguably only an interior offensive lineman away from having a very formidable unit for the foreseeable future.
Things aren’t quite as fruitful on the other side of the trenches, as the Raiders attempt to rebuild a unit which has been the biggest strength of their team over the last couple of seasons. Defensive end Lamarr Houston is a talented pass rusher, but unless Jack Crawford or Bass develop considerably this season, it is an area Oakland will be looking to strengthen. The Raiders are also struggling for quality and/or depth at the defensive tackle position, and although sixth round pick McGee offers potential, his troubled past will be a worry to Oakland, especially after their recent issues with McClain. Further back, linebackers Miles Burris and Moore look set to lock down their respective positions for years to come, and could both prove to be great mid-round pick ups.
Hopefully injury concerns are a thing of the past for Hayden, not just for the player himself, but also for the Raiders, who turned down the opportunity to draft the talented Shariff Floyd and begin rebuilding their defensive line, and instead boosted their secondary with Hayden. The corner joins Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins and Tyvon Branch in the Raiders secondary, and could form an effective unit for Oakland, particularly if the franchise can develop or acquire another solid pass rusher to compliment Houston.
On the surface, skill positions are where Oakland have really struggled in recent years, but again, there are reasons for their fans to be positive about the current personnel group they have assembled. Young receivers Denarius Moore and Rod Streater have plenty of big play potential, and just need to improve their consistency, something which should improve as they grow and mature in the NFL, whilst rookie tight end Rivera could emerge as a starter before the end of 2013 season, after making an encouraging start to his career in Oakland. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor looks to have potential, and has shown signs he could be an NFL starter, something which the late Al Davis would have been proud to see. There are questions at the running back position however, the most pronounced being whether or not Darren McFadden can remain healthy and stay on the field, and whether or not the Raiders can afford to reward him with a long term contract at the end of this season.
Another important aspect to consider is that Oakland will be in the mix with the likes of the Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. This would theoretically give them a shot at drafting South Caroline defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who would form a formidable pass rushing duo with Houston, or Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, if the Raiders decide that Pryor isn’t the man for them. Further additions to the guard, wide receiver, defensive tackle and safety positions are also required, and would mainly have to be done via the draft, given the amount of ‘dead money’ currently impacting on the Raiders salary cap.
No one is predicting that the Oakland Raiders are going to make a run on the Super Bowl in the next couple of seasons, but a smart 2014 draft, and some inexpensive veteran pickups to help provide leadership on a young and developing team, and the Raiders could be a competitive team as soon as next season.
Image credit: The Oakland Raiders via Facebook