Team Previews: 2018 Oakland Raiders
Team Previews: 2018 Oakland Raiders

This article is part of our Team Previews series.

THE SKINNY
Prior to last season, the Raiders had high hopes of winning the AFC West for the first time since 2002, but failures across the board cost former head coach Jack Del Rio his job. Oakland is now all in on Jon Gruden, signing him to a lucrative deal to lead the silver and black back to glory.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

COOPER'S NEW COWORKERS
The Raiders have acquired a fresh group of pass catchers – highlighted by Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant – to fill the void behind Amari Cooper left by Michael Crabtree's release. It's certainly not fair to call him a byproduct of Aaron Rodgers' success, but Nelson struggled last season with Packers backup Brett Hundley at the helm, and the 33-year-old's overall health and ability remain in question. Derek Carr is an upgrade over Hundley, but there's uncertainty whether Nelson can return to the same output level that earned him an overall grade of 85.5 or higher from Pro Football Focus for four seasons from 2011 to 2016. Bryant still possesses a rare combination of size and speed that in a best-case scenario would make him a monster on the outside, allowing Cooper and Nelson to interchange their work in the slot and create puzzles for opposing defenses to solve. Speaking of the slot, Oakland traded defensive tackle Jihad Ward to the Cowboys in exchange for the 5-8, 185-pound Ryan Switzer. The 23-year-old profiles as both an offensive gadget player and a return man and likely will serve as Cordarrelle Patterson's replacement. Additionally, 2018 seventh-rounder Marcell Ateman has a legitimate shot to steal Seth Roberts' roster spot and become a red-zone threat thanks to his 6-4, 220-pound frame.

SPIDER 2 Y BANANA
Exchanging the microphone for a sideline headset, Jon Gruden has given up his color analyst role in the Monday Night Football booth to become the Raiders coach for a second time. Gruden, who was lured back by a 10-year, $100 million contract, brought Oakland back to relevance at the turn of the century before eventually leading Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory. Several offseason moves since his hiring point to a desire to engineer a stark change in the team's locker-room culture, from Jack Del Rio's "player's coach" approach to Gruden's old-school agenda. To wit, Gruden reportedly wanted nothing to do with punter Marquette King's personality, even though King consistently graded as one of the league's best special teamers and will now be playing against Oakland twice per year with the Broncos. The Raiders also avoided flashiness during the draft, selecting linemen with their first four picks to add youth in the trenches. Rookie inside pass rushers P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst will provide All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack with additional help in getting to the quarterback, while Gruden has also implemented plenty of turnover in the secondary. The signings of established corners in Rashaan Melvin, Leon Hall and Daryl Worley should boost a previously dreadful pass defense.

CONVALESCING CARR
Derek Carr's health likely had something to do with both his own regression and the Raiders' 6-10 record last year. The team's franchise quarterback saw his 2016 campaign end prematurely due to a broken leg, but he returned to full strength before a back injury ultimately hampered his performance in 2017. The nagging issue only forced him to miss one contest, but Carr wasn't the same player as the one who posted 60 passing touchdowns against just 19 interceptions during his second and third years in the league. It wasn't exactly a protection issue either, as Oakland's offensive line gave up the third-fewest sacks (24) in the league. The 27-year-old completed nearly 63 percent of his throws in 2017 but failed to reach the 3,500-yard mark, while logging an uninspiring 22:13 TD:INT ratio in 15 games. He'll now have a new batch of toys in the form of Jordy Nelson, Martavis Bryant and running back Doug Martin, who represent additional mouths to feed. The bruising Marshawn Lynch projects to lead the backfield once again, and steady veteran Jared Cook continues to line up at tight end. Possibly the most exciting development with regard to the quarterback maximizing his potential could be the arrival of Jon Gruden, whose coaching mind already touched Carr during the production of Gruden's QB Camp on ESPN back in 2014.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Amari Cooper
Aside from an anomalous Week 7 that included 210 yards and two TDs on 11 catches, Cooper notched just one 100- yard effort last season. During a down year, he still managed to snag a career-high seven touchdowns in 14 games, despite hauling in a lowly 48 passes. Tabbed as a potential star, he'll be Derek Carr's go-to weapon in 2018.

BAROMETER
RISING: Amari Cooper
It would be a shock if Cooper is unable to bounce back from his dismal 50 percent catch rate in 2017. With Michael Crabtree out of the picture, more than 100 targets will open up for Cooper to see additional shares.

FALLING: Seth Roberts
Roberts failed to emerge as the Raiders' clear-cut No. 3 WR last season, proving ineffective with one TD on 43 catches to go along with just four red-zone targets. He'll simply be competing for a roster spot at this point.

SLEEPER: Martavis Bryant
Hindered by suspensions as a member of the Steelers, Bryant has been dealt yet another chance to prove he can translate his 6-4 frame and 4.4 speed into consistent production with an adept QB throwing to him.

KEY JOB BATTLE – BACKUP RUNNING BACK
A 32-year-old Marshawn Lynch is undoubtedly set to once again lead the Raiders backfield out of the gate, but uncertainty lies in the roles directly behind the veteran as incoming coach Jon Gruden deploys his hard-nosed and smashmouth approach to the running game. Oakland signed two-time Pro Bowler Doug Martin in free agency this offseason, but the 29-year-old has endured troubles of his own en route to playing in just 19 games the past two seasons with the Buccaneers where he's averaged only 2.9 yards per carry since the start of his 2016 campaign. The Raiders' generally stout offensive line lends an opportunity for Martin to resurrect his career in the black and silver, but a pair of third-year backs in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard stand in his way. The young duo has combined for 2,148 yards from scrimmage to go along with 10 total touchdowns dating back to their rookie seasons in 2016 despite playing behind the likes of Latavius Murray and Lynch, so the potential volume for a solidified backup is evident. The main issue there is the timeshare. Can one of Martin, Washington or Richard emerge behind Lynch to harvest consistent fantasy production in deeper leagues? Or will the backup committee in Oakland simply continue with equality in talent at the position? Training camp will play a key role in identifying Lynch's primary handcuff.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
Jordy Nelson – WR (from Packers)
Caught less than seven TDs last season for the first time since 2010.

Martavis Bryant – WR (from Steelers)
Benefits from change of scenery with a lofty risk/reward outlook.

Doug Martin – RB (from Buccaneers)
Two-time Pro Bowler averaged just 2.9 YPC in both 2016 and 2017.

Tahir Whitehead – LB (from Lions)
Amassed 242 tackles over the past two seasons.

Rashaan Melvin – CB (from Colts)
Slated to start across from Gareon Conley immediately.

Maurice Hurst – DT (Rd. 5, No. 140 - Michigan)
First-round talent slipped in draft due to heart condition.

KEY LOSSES:
Michael Crabtree – WR (to Ravens)
Finds new home in Baltimore as No. 1 option for Ravens' aerial attack.

Sebastian Janikowski – K (to Seahawks)
Moves on after missing last season with a back injury.

THE INJURY FRONT
Amari Cooper, WR – The Raiders' No. 1 receiver was hampered by a minor hamstring issue throughout OTAs, having originally suffered the injury on May 22 before ultimately returning just a couple weeks later in early June. Any potential limitations in late July through early August should essentially be considered as the coaching staff taking a precautionary approach with the gem of their offense if the hamstring flares up again, however, as Cooper's status for Week 1 is set in stone as long as he avoids any setbacks. Cooper projects to be at full health as he attempts to bounce back from a mediocre 2017 campaign in which he hauled in less than 50 passes and under 700 receiving yards in a season for the first time in his young career.

Gareon Conley, CB – The former first-round selection is a breakout candidate for the Raiders defense after appearing in just two games as a rookie throughout his 2017 campaign due to a shin injury, but he'll obviously need to return to full health in order to start across from incoming veteran Rashaan Melvin at cornerback on a weekly basis. With the shin issue seemingly in the rearview mirror, Conley suffered a minor groin strain earlier this summer and was forced to miss the final two days of minicamp in late June. Conley should be full-throttle for the start of training camp as he seeks to avoid earning the dreaded "injury prone" tag under his name this early in his career.

Jordy Nelson, WR – Nelson injured his shoulder during Week 16 of the 2017 regular season and subsequently missed the Packers' finale as a result, but the issue lacked severity and he's since returned to full health during his transition to the black and silver. Question marks remain surrounding his potential output level at 33 years old, but he'll have plenty of chances to prove that his dip in production last year was correlated more so to Brett Hundley's inefficiencies at the helm while Derek Carr presents Nelson with a much more talented arm throwing the rock his way. Nelson caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns as a 31-year-old in 2016, so it's not time to write him off as "over the hill" just yet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryce Danielson
Bryce covers the PGA for RotoWire and provides input on the golf cheat sheet. He also contributes to the coverage for NFL, NBA and other sports.
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