The AFC is on the verge of being pillaged by a group of young pirates wearing silver and black, and the treasure that is the AFC West is in sight. A a group of 53 men, lead by Jack Del Rio, are ready for their close-up— where talent meets potential, and meshes into greatness. Or so they hope.
The AFC West division and the teams in it, including the world champion Denver Broncos; is on a downward trend. The division crown is very much up for grabs in the upcoming season, and the next team to take the top spot could very well be there for a while. Here’s the current climate: In the case of Denver, shortly after Super Bowl 50 Peyton Manning retired. Since then, Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and the only team he’s ever known are in the middle of a contract beef. Some players on the once stout Denver defense have cashed in on big contracts that naturally get offered after winning the big game, and their second best player is recovering from a gun shot wound to the leg. In San Diego, quarterback Phillip Rivers is a year older, and the defense has a lot of holes. The Chargers run game is still dependent upon the development of young running back, Melvin Gordon, and Tight End Antonio Gates is on the backside of his career. As far as Kansas City goes, they still have a top flight defense; However, the receiving corps is nothing to write home about. Their star running back and best player, Jamal Charles, is coming off of a major knee injury and quarterback Alex Smith is… still Alex Smith. We know what we get from Alex, he’s a game managing aficionado, so he’s not going to beat you with his arm.
Then there’s the Oakland Raiders —The biggest mystery, and wild card in this division.
Almost every year is, “the year we turn it around”, but somehow this feels different—yes I know, that is something that is said every year. This time though, there is actual legitimate hype around the team from The Town—legitimate coverage and legitimate expectations. Question is, will the 2016 Raiders get stage-fright and disappoint for the 14th year in a row? Or, will this young talented bunch take over this division and then take over this conference? It’s not a far fetched thought.
The New England Patriots biggest advantage, and arguably the best quarterback of my generation, Tom Brady, is pushing 40. Meaning, eventually he has to retire, and there will be a new crop of quarterbacks ready to take his place. Only one, Andrew Luck, is considered elite. There are a handful of young guns ready to make the leap into the top tier including, Oakland star, Dereck Carr. At just 25 years of age, Derek Carr has made the kind of strides you expect from an early first round pick. Carr, who was actually picked in the second round (36th overall) has shown signs of being a franchise player, and possibly taking the leap into uncharted territory (being one of the faces of the league) for a Raiders Quarterback. Derek threw for nearly 4,000 yards (3,987) in his sophomore season. More than Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers. The Raiders signal caller also tossed 32 touchdowns. Young Carr has lived up to his Brett Favre Comparisons, and even the old gun slinger likes him too. Things are looking up.
Imagine a Raiders player on national advertisement posters. Imagine a Raiders player on a Campbells Chunky Soup commercial. Now, imagine the Oakland Raiders going from laughing stock to crown jewels; a la Golden State Warriors.
The Raiders have plenty of young talent, an embarrassment of riches if you will. From Derek Carr, to All-Pro LB/DE Khalil Mack, to last years rookie sensation Amari Cooper. There is hope, real hope in the eyes of Raider Nation, and if you take a hard look at this roster, you can see why there is so much hype.
- Cornerback Sean Smith (formerly of the Chiefs), is a significant upgrade over any defensive back not named David Amerson, and makes the cornerback position legit.
- Free Safety Reggie Nelson (formerly of the Bengals), led the NFL with 8 interceptions last season and feels the void (but not the shoes), left by Raiders legend Charles Woodson.
- Safety Karl Joseph was drafted 16th overall in the 2016 draft and from the looks of things, it looks like he’ll be the future of the secondary
- Defensive linemen Jihad Ward drafted second round (44th overall)
- Linebacker Silique Calhoun drafted third round (75 overall)
- Linebacker Bruce Irvin (formerly of Seattle)
Talent. On paper they seem to be loaded with it, but that’s why you play the game right?
Week 1 is in New Orleans vs the Drew Brees and the Saints. New Orleans is coming off of a disappointing 7-9 season, Drew is still putting up huge stat lines, but the Saints have missed the playoffs 3 out of the last 4 years. Looking at the roster, one can argue this is a winnable game for the Raiders, and with the NFC South doesn’t have anything that resembles nor prepares New Orleans for Khalil Mack.
Mack is not only the face of this defense, but I can argue he’s the face of this team.
I’m just grateful the Texans felt Jadeveon Clowney was better or we wouldn’t have the best pass rusher in that draft. Mack finished the season with 15 sacks, 77 tackles (12 for loss) and two forced fumbles—and that was just year 2!
It’s not the new additions to the team that should excite you. It’s who’s returning. Malcolm Smith led the team in tackles (122), David Amerson came out of nowhere and became the teams best defensive back, and ranked second in the NFL in passes defend with 29. Mario Edwards will be back from the neck injury scare, TJ Carrie, Latavius Murray should improve on his impressive performance, Michael Crabtree is all in, and from all the reports, Amari Cooper is primed for a break out season. On a side note, the Raiders, may have the most underrated and talented receiving corps in the league.
There is talent everywhere you look on this roster, and there’s no reason this team shouldn’t make it into the playoffs this year. Yes, I said the “P-word” and I’m calling there shot. Name me a team that can stop them. Only the Raiders can stop the Raiders in 2016. Bet on it.