In just two years, Jack Del Rio has turned a 3-13 mess into a team that is worthy of playing in a stadium with the moniker “the Black Hole”. The silver and black are back, and with a swagger and confidence that the team has not displayed in years. The last respectable Raiders season was in 2011, when they went 8-8 in Hue Jackson’s only year as Head Coach. Since, there have been three seasons with four or less wins, one season with seven wins, and finally the current season, where the Raiders are 8-2 and sitting atop the AFC West, a division that is arguably one of the two strongest in football (with the NFC East). Playing with teams such as the Broncos and Chiefs, teams that have had recent success and consistent playoff appearances, made the prospects of a season such as the one they are currently having all the more unlikely. However, after a huge primetime win against the Broncos two weeks ago, the Raiders have announced their presence with authority and can no longer be laughed at with the Browns and Jaguars of the league.
One might wonder, given the recent history of disappointing and underachieving seasons, how the team has recovered so quickly and turned into a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The answer is not simple, but it likely starts in the 2014 offseason, where their leaders on offense and defense, Derek Carr and Khalil Mack, were drafted.
In the first round of the 2014 draft, with the 5th overall pick, the Oakland Raiders selected Khalil Mack, a linebacker out of Buffalo with great numbers, but questionable competition and a much riskier choice than some other players on the board. This pick turned out as well as it could have, as Mack has blossomed into a Pro-Bowl caliber edge rusher who consistently wreaks havoc on opposing quarterbacks. In addition, the second round of the draft brought quarterback Derek Carr, and the third round yielded starting offensive guard Gabe Jackson. Carr was another player with great stats but questionable competition, as he played at Fresno State for his collegiate career. Although being drafted in the second round does not come with all of the scrutiny of a first round NFL draft pick, Carr still held the weight of Raiders nation on his shoulders as they longed for a quarterback to finally lay their trust in for the foreseeable future. Fans were weary after the monumental bust of Jamarcus Russell almost a decade earlier, and could not help but wonder if they were staring at another lump of fool’s gold.
Carr, Mack, and Jackson, along with some smart free agent signings, including left tackle Donald Penn, were the start of the turnaround for the Raiders. The team went 3-13 in 2014, but Carr showed signs of hope and Mack was flashing the skills that made him worthy of a top five pick. In 2015, they nailed their draft again, picking wide receiver Amari Cooper out of Alabama with the fourth overall pick. Later rounds brought Clive Walford, the team’s current number one tight end, and backup defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. However, the main attraction was Cooper, who instantly formed a connection with Carr and has now turned into one of the most dynamic passing duos in the league.
2015 also brought some more key signings, the most important of which could be current coach Jack Del Rio, who has transformed the culture and brought a winning attitude with him from his days in Denver. Players Dan Williams, Rodney Hudson, Michael Crabtree and David Amerson were added via Free Agency, and the roster was starting to take shape. The team went 7-9 in 2015, which was encouraging and important towards setting the tone for the team as something better than the four win seasons they had been used to.
The 2016 offseason brought the whole plan to fruition, as General Manager Reggie McKenzie put together a solid draft and an outstanding free agent class that vaulted the Raiders to the position they are now. Free agency yielded the Raiders starting linebacker Bruce Irvin, cornerback Sean Smith, safety Reggie Nelson, offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, and a new contract for left tackle Donald Penn, The draft netted Karl Joseph in the first round, a safety out of West Virginia, and defensive end Jihad Ward in the second round, from Illinois.
Putting the years from 2014 to 2016 together, you can find 16 of the Raiders 22 current starters either being signed in Free Agency or drafted, a remarkable rebuilding effort that produced results quicker than anyone would have expected. The Raiders now boast one of the most exciting young teams in the league, with an explosive offense that ranks fifth in the league in total offense and features a young quarterback due for an extension in the coming years with a wide receiving duo, highlighted by Pro Bowler Amari Cooper, that has created the trust necessary for Carr to thrive. The interior of the Raiders line, which drew questions for the large contracts handed out to Rodney Hudson and Kelechi Osemele, is one of the top, if not the top, groups of guards and center in the NFL. Left tackle Donald Penn is a top ten left tackle in the league right now, and Menelik Watson is a serviceable right tackle who is young and still improving. On defense, the Raiders, led by Jack Del Rio and his defensive coaching style, do not rank at the top of the league in most defensive categories, but they boast exciting young players and some seasoned veterans that have been able to get the job done in complementing the juggernaut offensive unit that has been assembled. Khalil Mack is tied for eighth in the league in sacks, with 8.0 thus far, and linemen Dan Williams and Jihad Ward have been solid defensive players thus far. Bruce Irvin has been a veteran presence at the linebacker position, bringing consistency and production to a position that the Raiders sorely needed it. In the secondary, David Amerson and Sean Smith have been above average NFL corners, each with two interceptions thus far and a swagger that was passed down by Charles Woodson. Reggie Nelson, the “old man” in the secondary, has three interceptions so far and has had a surprising renaissance season at the age of 33.
The Raiders now stand at 8-2, atop the AFC West, with a young nucleus and a promising future. Their game today against the Panthers will feature them as favorites against the NFC champions from a year ago. The Raiders are back, and with a swagger that will make football in the “Black Hole” exciting and intimidating once again.