Many are looking at the Oakland Raiders as a future juggernaut and possibly the team that could unseat New England as the class of the AFC. Who knows, if Derek Carr had been healthy to finish the regular season and into the postseason, maybe last season’s playoffs would have gone far differently.
There is a lot here to get excited about, and Carr leads that list along with young franchise pieces like Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack. Oakland went out of its way in the draft to fortify its secondary and also used last year’s first-round pick on safety Karl Joseph. In a scheme run by Ken Norton Jr. that greatly resembles the one run so well in Seattle, having a talented and physical secondary is extremely important. It might take time, but you would think that the back end of this defense should be strong for quite a while.
The Raiders have also invested quite a bit, mostly in free agency, in their offensive line. Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson are as good of a guard tandem as you will find in the NFL, while Rodney Hudson and Donald Penn are also above-average starters at center and left tackle, respectively.
But right tackle is a starting position of concern, and depth on the offensive line is also troubling. Oakland has Lee Smith, a pure blocking tight end, and the Raiders like to use six offensive linemen more than most teams. Coupled with the overall strength of the other four starting linemen, this allows the Raiders to cover up their right tackle schematically to some degree.
While right tackle is a problem spot, the biggest area of concern with the Raiders is on the second level of their defense, where they have surprisingly done little of late to rectify the problem. As mentioned, this is a Seahawks-like defensive scheme, and there isn’t anyone close to resembling Bobby Wagner, let alone KJ Wright, at linebacker for Oakland.
As the New York Giants have shown for years, if you are very strong in the secondary and especially on the defensive line, getting average play at linebacker and dedicating minimal resources to the position can be a recipe for success. However, even with Mack onboard and the return of Mario Edwards (who was missed last year), by no means are the Raiders, who had the fewest sacks in the NFL last year, an outstanding defensive front in the mold of what New York has featured.
Also, while there are high hopes for a secondary that has a lot of financial and draft capital dedicated to it, it is still a very young and unproven group. Again, don’t expect Oakland’s 2017 secondary to compare to what we saw from the Giants one year ago.
Therefore, linebackers Ben Heeney, Jelani Jenkins, Cory James and fifth-round pick Marquel Lee could be in for a long season. Heeney is the best player of the group and has shown good things at this level, but none of these players, including the 24-year-old Heeney, even logged considerable snaps last year. Not only was Heeney lost for the season early on with an ankle injury, he didn’t have anything close to a firm hold of the starting job when his injury occurred. This position overall is a massive unknown that lacks production, a track record and great upside.
There is a lot to get excited about with the Raiders right now, and much of that is deserved. But the second level of this defense is a massive concern. Do you think other AFC powerhouses will look to attack Oakland’s linebackers with supreme weapons like Rob Gronkowski and Le’Veon Bell? Or even a threat like James White? Come playoff time, weaknesses like the one the Raiders have at linebacker often become painfully exposed.