After an impressive 30-20 win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, the Oakland Raiders are beginning to turn heads.
In an NFL season that’s largely been a malaise because of a lack of true contenders, the 7-2 Raiders are beginning to look like a real postseason threat.
Their offence is elite, having gained the second most total yards and third most total points, but in Week 9, it was their to-date, unimpressive defence, that set the tone, forcing four straight Denver three-and-outs to open the game.
For the Raiders, this rapid ascendance, from a 7-9 record in 2015, comes, in part, from a 2014 draft that is looking more and more successful.
The Raiders took Khalil Mack with the fifth overall pick, and since, he’s been arguably the best player from that first round. Mack has already posted seven sacks and two forced fumbles this season after posting 15 sacks and two forced fumbles last year. He’s the second-highest-graded linebacker on Pro Football Focus, and he showed why on Sunday, coming up with a huge strip sack on Trevor Siemian in the fourth quarter. The fumble led to the Raiders’ game-sealing touchdown.
The Raiders defence has largely been abysmal this season, but with Mack, there’s potential. Mack can beat many offensive linemen one on one, and if he gets double-teamed, he opens up opportunities for other defenders. Similarly, the pressure he can put on a quarterback should, theoretically, take pressure of the Raiders secondary, which has, thus far, had a disappointing season. They looked different in Week 9. As Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote on Monday, watching the Raiders shut down the Broncos’ offence gave hope that this team can win playoff games should the offence “sputter.”
However, the offence has rarely sputtered under Derek Carr this season. Carr has become the star that few in the NFL world saw coming. Taken with the 36th overall pick, Carr was drafted behind quarterbacks like Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater. After a solid second season in 2015, Carr has exploded this year and entered himself in the MVP conversation for 2016.
Through nine games, Carr is fifth in passing yards (2,505) and touchdowns (17), sixth in passer rating (99.1), and has thrown just three interceptions, fewest of any quarterback to throw at least 250 passes this season. Carr is looking increasingly like the best quarterback of the 2014 draft, showing the accuracy, poise, and confidence to become a future star.
Though Carr let the Raiders’ run game take control in Week 9 against the Broncos, in Week 8, Carr lit up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 513 yards (a franchise record), four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 67% completion rate. Carr, with the help of Oakland’s coaches, isn’t afraid to uncork big passes on third downs or late-game situations, as he showed against the Bucs.
Carr and Mack, both of whom are just 25, are the core of this Raiders revival. After the Raiders overtime win over the Bucs, Carr recalled how he and Mack would cope with losses when they were rookies, knowing better days were ahead. He told King:
“When I got to Khalil, we just hugged, and we just laughed. You think of those times a couple years ago, but there was nothing to say. Khalil and I know where we were, and we know where we are now. We just laughed.”
The Raiders receive valuable contributions from receivers like Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, running back Latavius Murray (who had 114 yards and three touchdowns in Week 9), offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, linebacker Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith, safety Reggie Nelson, and many others.
However, solidifying such important roles as quarterback and pass rusher, particularly with young, still-growing players, is an important first step for a franchise going through a rebuild. The Raiders have nailed those two steps, and with the help of the draft and free agency, have been able to address other positions.
The Raiders have a tough schedule ahead, and the win over the Broncos only marks their first over an above-.500 team this season. It’s difficult to know if they will be able to stand up come playoff time, given their relative inexperience. Still, the team is clearly heading in the right direction, showing how important a single draft can be.