Around the NFL  


Cinderella candidates: Will Raiders disrupt division?


We peg potential Cinderella candidates based on the progress they've made during the offseason, knowing full well that offseason champions rarely captivate us in January and February. But some teams are being built the right way, which is why we're breaking down the five trendiest Cinderella candidates to determine whether they're worth keeping an eye on in 2016.

Oakland Raiders

2015 record: 7-9

2016 projected record: 9-7

Why we believe

There was a temptation to project the Raiders at 10 wins based on their talent. They are the trendiest offseason team by far given how well Derek Carr and Amari Cooper performed together last year. Khalil Mack took another massive step forward and the Raiders drafted a potential playmaker at safety in the first round (Karl Joseph). The biggest reason for excitement in Oakland, though, might be their offensive line. Kelechi Osemele was at the top of the free-agent market and can stay at his natural position thanks to talented left tackle Donald Penn coming back. Across the board, Oakland might have the second-best offensive line in football on paper, and the team has a Pro Bowl running back coming off his best season in Latavius Murray. The division could also be ripe for the taking with a few teams primed to take a step back. This is the rose-colored version of the Raiders' preseason, of course. The team is picking up on the high, taking jabs at the Denver Broncos on Twitter and flexing some offseason muscle.

Why we still have questions

The defensive line needs help. Oakland will be formidable up front thanks to Khalil Mack, who has J.J. Watt/Aaron Donald type power to command attention. However, Mack and Bruce Irvin won't be as effective as they could be without a strong push. Former first-round pick Dan Williams still has some juice but the combo of Mario Edwards (neck injury) and Justin Ellis leaves something to be desired.

What we need to know

1. What's the latest on Edwards? He might not be completely cleared of neck problems given that general manager Reggie McKenzie described the nature of the issue as genetic, but Edwards recently tweeted about clearance to return to the practice field. Having Edwards back at full speed would be a massive boost for the Raiders given their needs up front on defense.

2. What ends up happening in Denver and San Diego will be the two major wild cards for the Raiders. Each team has the ability to throw a wrench into coach Jack Del Rio's plans, but if Denver's quarterback quandary causes them to sink in the AFC West, the Raiders will have the perfect opportunity to strike. The Kansas City Chiefs are the most stable entity at the moment, but it's also hard to count out a team that has Philip Rivers at quarterback.

3. Where is Derek Carr right now? Carr made strides in terms of ball control last year. His touchdown-to-interception ratio got better even though he threw one more pick then he did as a rookie. The total number -- 13 -- isn't bad all things considered, especially for a second-round pick who had what some considered detrimental footwork issues. Carr checked all the boxes in terms of completion percentage, yards per attempt and passing rating going up. The third year is often a decisive one in the developmental arc of a quarterback. Will his numbers improve markedly in 2016?

4. How great will Amari Cooper become? Cooper was excellent in nearly all aspects last year, but had just three catches for 38 yards (and seven targets) in the red zone. That's some nitpicking on a rookie who had a majority of his catches in pressure situations (when trailing) and caught more than half his targets on both first-and-10 and third-and-10.

5. Can Oakland handle the love? It's a tired question, we know. But there is something real about shifting expectations, especially with a team that has a young core and a coach without a certain pedigree in place.