A new face will sit atop the AFC West come the end of the 2016-2017 NFL season, and that team is the Oakland Raiders. Yes, you read that correctly; the Oakland Raiders, the team that has been the laughingstock of the NFL for the last decade and a half, a team that hasn’t played in a meaningful January game since 2003, will win the AFC West- in fact, they might even be one of the few teams that actually have a legitimate chance at winning the entire AFC.
Their young stud quarterback Derek Carr had a breakout sophomore year. Week in and week out, Carr performed like one of the select few elite quarterbacks. He improved in all aspects of his game; mobility in the pocket, reading opposing defensive schemes, changing plays at the line of scrimmage, and throwing the ball away rather than take a sack, just to name a few. Carr finished the season as the eighth best quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus’s end of the season rankings. He finished with a higher rating than the likes of Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, and Phillip Rivers. Given the quarterback situations of the three other AFC West teams, the Raiders suddenly find themselves with the best quarterback in the division.
One of Carr’s favorite targets, Amari Cooper had a sensational rookie year. He was the first Raiders’ rookie to finish the season with over 1,000 receiving yards, and the first overall receiver since Randy Moss in 2005. On top of that, Cooper had two stretches of three games, in which he set a rookie record for the most receiving yards during a three game span. Cooper is among the best receivers in the NFL, and it wouldn’t shock me if he finished among the leaders in receptions, yards, and touchdowns next season.
Perhaps their best player is Khalil Mack, who became the only player to be named to the All-Pro team at two different positions (Linebacker and Defensive End). In only his second season, Mack has already established himself as one of the best defensive players in the league. He finished the season with 15.5 sacks, doing so largely without the help of another impactful defensive pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, no defensive edge player had a more impactful season than Mack. And now, Mack has the pieces around him to be even more of a force for opposing offenses to deal with.
The Raiders added Bruce Irvin to play alongside Mack. Similar to Mack, Irvin is prolific at both rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage. No longer will teams be able to double and sometimes triple team Mack, as Irvin will be right there alongside Mack.
In addition to Mack, the Raiders also added Sean Smith, one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. The Raiders’ greatest weakness was at the cornerback position last season. Adding Smith fills that hole, giving the Raiders a shutdown cornerback. Not only did they add Smith to their secondary, but they also added Reggie Nelson, who was among the highest rated safeties per Pro Football Focus.
It’s only April, but I’m all in on the 2016-2017 Oakland Raiders. They will win the AFC West, and they will be among the few teams with a legitimate chance at winning the entire AFC.
Look at the teams around them. Do any of the three other AFC West teams have a better roster than the Raiders? Is Alex Smith going to lead the Chiefs past this Raiders’ team? Is an old, aging Philip Rivers going to drag the often-injured San Diego Chargers’ roster past the Raiders? Are the defending Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos without a quarterback going to beat out the Raiders? The answer is simple; No.
Spark Sports NFL Analyst