The Raiders' rise isn't just an AFC West storyline, either. Let's talk about the big picture, let's talk about the conference race. Here's how I'd rank the top four AFC teams on paper: New England (in a class of its own), followed by Houston, Oakland and Pittsburgh (in that order).
No team in the NFL has enjoyed a better offseason. Oakland brilliantly inked versatile offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele -- and had the savvy to re-sign veteran OT Donald Penn to protect Derek Carr's blind side. The Raiders' O-line is legit. In fact, analytics hub Pro Football Focus believes this could be the league's best offensive line in 2016. On the other side of the ball, Oakland picked up three quality parts in free agency. Bruce Irvin gives the defense another pass rusher to complement (and help free up) All-Pro terror Khalil Mack. Sean Smith was exactly what the secondary needed: a legit, big-bodied, playmaking corner. And on the subject of quality veteran additions to the secondary, new safety Reggie Nelson snatched a league-high eight interceptions last season.
Reggie McKenzie continued to fortify Jack Del Rio's defense in last month's draft. In Round 1, Oakland selected safety Karl Joseph. I already expressed my love of this pick, which significantly softens the blow of Charles Woodson's retirement. On Day 2, the Raiders nabbed Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun. Add those two defensive ends to a pass-rushing group that already includes Mack, Irvin and Mario Edwards Jr., and man, Oakland boasts quite a collection of youthful quarterback hunters.
All of these additions further the Raiders' ascendance. This team is ready for prime time. And it starts with the third-year stud under center.
Last week, Derek Carr came on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and we engaged in a wide-ranging, honest and very optimistic discussion. Carr and I spoke about the offseason genius and the expectations for the 2016 Raiders. I'm beyond buying in. OK, yes, we were having a love fest -- but what's not to love?
Let's start with the electric pitch-and-catch connection of Carr and Amari Cooper. In Cooper's rookie season, these two made sweet music together, as the receiver finished with 72 catches for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns. The pair immediately established an incredible rapport -- and it's only going to get better with time. That's scary for the rest of the league.
"I think he's going to sack the quarterback 30 times."
I laughed. Carr was dead serious.
"Watch the tape. He's held every play. He's like nobody else in the league. He's talented."
Got it. And I don't disagree with the general assessment. Former Raider Justin Tuck told me after Mack's rookie season that he could have a "Lawrence Taylor impact" on the team. This isn't hyperbole. Mack can be that good.
OK, OK -- let's scale back on the immense praise for a second. After all, this team did lose games it should've won in last year's 7-9 campaign. How can a Raiders fan be convinced this year will be different? Did Oakland learn? Carr certainly thinks so.
"It's so weird," the quarterback said. "We had a mix of fourth quarters last year -- fourth quarters where it didn't go our way and fourth quarters against good football teams where we won late against good football teams, with the offense scoring or the defense making a stop or shutting someone down. We learned so much. It's consistency. The games are so close. If you don't do it every game, every practice, the bad things will show up. That's the mindset everyone has. Every rep, every individual -- be the reason we are going to win. The mindset we have is awesome."
It's a tremendous answer from a team leader and a budding star.
You hope RB Latavius Murray stays healthy and evens out his play. Because if he can provide some balance on the ground -- thus taking a bit of pressure off Carr -- this offense is ready to rock. Meanwhile, the defense should be much-improved, factoring in all the additions noted above. And the schedule gives Oakland the opportunity to get off to a great start. In the first eight weeks of the season, the Raiders face one team that made the playoffs last season (Kansas City) and seven teams that finished .500 or worse.
Oakland is ready to take the AFC West for the first time since 2002. There are no excuses. And Denver, winner of the past five division titles, lost a lot.
I still believe John Elway botched the Brock Osweiler situation. Fortunately, the otherwise-great GM was able to save face -- at least to some degree -- by brilliantly trading up in last month's draft to pluck Paxton Lynch. That's a wise move for the long-term future of the Broncos. But will Lynch be ready to start immediately? That's the question. Cause the other option is Mr. Butt Fumble, Mark Sanchez. Do I need to mention his knack for committing big turnovers in the worst possible moments? Sanchez filled in for injured Eagles starter Sam Bradford in three games last season. The Eagles went 0-3, with Sanchez committing five turnovers, including a back-breaking, end-zone interception late in a one-point loss to Miami. There's no way he can steer this ship. Better hope Lynch is advanced beyond his years.
I respect Denver. I love Elway. Completely counting out the Broncos -- with that defense -- would be a major mistake. They feel like a wild-card team, looking up at the Silver & Black.
The pendulum has swung. It's time for the Raiders to seize this opportunity, to take the AFC West and legitimately contend in January.
Enough talk -- it's time for some action. The bar has been raised.
Now, as a wise man once said, "Just win, baby."