Wondering if and how your NFL team can make the playoffs in the coming season? Adam Rank and Marc Sessler have you covered in this ongoing series, as they provide five reasons why each of the league's 32 teams will make an appearance in the 2018 postseason. Today, Sessler examines the Oakland Raiders.
1) Derek Carr redemption tour
As Adam Rank and I mine our way through the league, explaining why all 32 teams will make the playoffs -- a profound mathematical impossibility -- it's fair to acknowledge that some clubs make this exercise a tad tricky. The Raiders are coming off a vastly disappointing six-win journey that exposed Oakland's roster and resulted in mass firings. The upshot was the hiring of Jon Gruden, a marvelously famous coach with a big-time personality and a reputation for squeezing the most out of his quarterbacks. His return to the NFL was whispered about for eons, but always with one caveat: The team that lured him back was required to house a franchise passer.
The Raiders offer that in Carr, a strong-armed, high-character, tough-spirited signal-caller who emerged as an MVP candidate in 2016 before a broken fibula on Christmas Eve ended his magical campaign. His troubles were just beginning, though, with Carr admitting in January that he was never himself last season due to three broken bones in his back. Finally healthy, the 27-year-old quarterback is the centerpiece of a Gruden offense that will ask him to do more than ever before. The Raiders have holes on both sides of the ball -- last year's record was no fluke -- but asking Carr to play like a top-10 passer isn't merely wishcasting. We've seen him play this way. We've seen his potential turn into production. If he stays upright, Carr has the gifts to raise this Raiders team from the muck of last season.
2) Khalil Mack
Oakland gave up 25-plus points a whopping seven times last season, one reason the team tumbled out to a 3-5 start and never recovered before dropping its final four games of the year. All that ugliness masked another stellar season from Mack. The 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year remains the beating heart of Oakland's defense, operating as a versatile, pass-rushing whirlwind who can be used all over the field. Grading out positively by Pro Football Focus in all but one game last season, Mack's 36.5 sacks over the past three years have come against a flood of double- and triple-teams. Currently engaged in contract talks with their star defender, the Raiders know what Mack really is: The type of player a team can ride into January once he catches fire.
3) Amari Cooper
Oakland's roster is far from complete, but the Raiders have a shot at success for the same reason they did during their 12-win season of 2016: star players. Carr on offense, Mack on defense and -- at his best -- Cooper at the receiver position.
Last year's milquetoast results -- 680 yards and seven scores off 48 grabs -- are concerning, but Cooper is still just 23 years old with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. Besides, Gruden has ultra-faith in the 6-foot-1 pass-catcher, calling Cooper the "main vein" of Oakland's passing game and "the focal point of our offense ... the headliner in our offense."
Drops have been an issue for Cooper -- consistency has been a problematic theme -- but last year's struggles were partly tied to an offensive system that took an autumn-long dirt nap. Cooper's a candidate to author his finest work in 2018.
4) Rookie contributions
The early report on first-round offensive tackle Kolton Miller is promising, with starting bookend Donald Penn saying the rookie has been "great" all offseason, a generous tone shift from the veteran, considering Penn angrily dialed up Gruden after the Raiders selected Miller as an obvious replacement.
Miller figures to start on the right side, bolstering a line that still has plenty of juice in Penn, Kelechi Osemele, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson. On defense, second-round lineman P.J. Hall and third-round edge rusher Arden Key bring a dose of much-needed depth. Key fell in the draft due to a swirl of character issues, but he offers intriguing upside as a pass rusher if he can keep his act together.
5) Gruden mystique bearing fruit
I expected the Gruden hire to blind us all, turning the Raiders into an offseason darling for scribes to crow over. Instead, the veteran coach -- pulled from the bright lights of "Monday Night Football" -- has morphed into something of an easy target.
From a distance, it's hard not to question Oakland's process under the new coach. With McKenzie seemingly shoved into the background, Gruden turned heads by dumping Pro Bowl punter Marquette King before seemingly denouncing the use of analytics with his "throw the game back to 1998" quip. In actuality, the coach emphasized that the Raiders employ "more analytics than probably any [other] team in the league," saying: "We have all the gimmicks and gadgets, and we're going to have a DJ on the practice field. We're going to throw bubble screens and RPOs [run-pass options]. We're going to have all the statistical data that everybody else has."
Time will tell.
In a perfect world, a somewhat mystifying offseason looks brilliant by mid-November: Doug Martin capitalizes on his promising offseason buzz to light up Oakland's backfield; Jordy Nelson reverses the aging process to give Carr a trusty, playmaking target alongside Cooper; and the flood of grizzled, veteran acquisitions gives Oakland a lovable vibe reminiscent of Silver & Black's glory days of old.
Gruden deserves the benefit of the doubt. He's a Super Bowl-winning coach, a master motivator and a football diehard who spent years observing the league from 20,000 miles up. That can be invaluable for a coach, an opportunity most in the profession never experience.
If Gruden learned from all that -- if he's willing to keep adjusting and evolving -- then Oakland's biggest asset might be the guy pulling the strings. Perhaps all the way to the playoffs, if Chucky still has a bit of magic up his sleeve.