We’re a quarter of the way through the season, and Raiders fans are struggling to find much to be excited about. Dennis Allen is already gone, which all but guarantees that the rest of the staff will be gone next year as well. The Raiders don’t have a Hue Jackson lying in wait who might be able to take over as head coach in 2015, so get ready for a lot of chatter about Jon Gruden or Jim Harbaugh. General manager Reggie McKenzie showed he is capable of breaking a team down, but hasn’t shown that he can build one up.
Once you turn your eyes away from the front office and coaching staff, things don’t look a whole lot better. The free agent class looks like an across-the-board disaster, save for a strong performance from left tackle Donald Penn. Injuries dot the roster. However, there is some hope for the future in the form of four young players who look like they could be producing in big ways for the Raiders for years to come.
We’ll get the least exciting position out of the way first, even if it’s also the most guaranteed to be successful. King is the third-year punter who replaced Raider great Shane Lechler. In 2013, his first year as the starter, King led the league in gross yardage for punts. His improvement has continued in 2014, which is a good thing considering how often the Raiders call on him.
In Sunday’s loss to the Miami Dolphins, King landed four of his six punts inside the 10-yard line. He has also improved his hang time this season and leads the league in fair catches. Sadly, King is the Raiders’ best weapon in the field possession game. The Raiders have a long history of great kickers, starting with the first Hall of Fame punter in Ray Guy. When Lechler left, there was concern that the quality at punter would drop, but instead the Raiders have a guy who looks ready to be as good if not better than Lechler was when he was in his prime.
Third round pick Gabe Jackson has stepped in at guard for the Raiders and done very well. He represents a massive upgrade over former starter Lucas Nix and could help anchor the Raiders offensive line for years. He has played very well in pass protection and has been improving in his run blocking skills as time goes on. At 336 pounds, Jackson should be able to get the run blocking down soon enough.
He has had four penalties (one declined) but has by no means been a liability in that regard. Otherwise, he has done nothing but show that he can be a big part of this team’s future. With Stefen Wisniewski already in place as a solid center, the Raiders have two of the five offensive line positions secured with young talented players. Guard may not be the most important position on the offensive line, but having a really good player anywhere on a line will make everyone else play better. Jackson looks to be that kind of player.
When Khalil Mack fell to No. 5 in this year’s draft, it seemed like the Raiders could not have been any luckier. A guy who most thought of as the second-best defensive player in the draft and a top-three player overall available at the fifth pick is not the kind of thing that happens to the Raiders. It almost seemed too good to be true. Then Mack struggled a little bit in training camp and was almost completely invisible in the preseason. Suddenly it looked as if the Raiders might have another one of the epic busts they’ve come to be known for.
But once the season started, you could see Mack getting better with almost ever snap. Coming from a small school, there was a steep learning curve for Mack, which showed at first. As time has gone on, you can see the game slowing down for Mack as he makes more and more plays. What’s interesting is that while Mack was drafted for his pass rush abilities, he’s currently the highest ranked linebacker in the NFL in run defense according to Pro Football Focus. That includes inside linebackers, 4-3 outside linebackers and 3-4 inside linebackers — Mack’s position is the latter.
Mack has already shown that he belongs in the NFL and is starting to show that he can be a playmaker in the run game. Once he improves his pass rush abilities the Raiders will have an impact player on the defense for the first time in years. Mack has the ability to be the kind of player who is the foundation of a defense. While the rest of the defense is, well, terrible this season, Mack has been one of the only bright spots and will continue to be all year.
It’s the single most important position in the NFL, and the Raiders have gone through more than 15 different starting quarterbacks since Rich Gannon retired. The team was let down by the man that was given the reigns to the team 15 straight times, but the Raiders are extremely hopeful that they’ve finally found their man in Carr.
The young signal caller has not had a breakout game, but he has impressed in many ways. He has shown more poise in the pocket than one would expect from a rookie playing for the worst team in the NFL. There was never a question about his arm strength, but since being in the NFL, it has become abundantly clear that he has special arm talent by any standard. He has also shown himself to be a leader with teammates during his post game speeches.
Quarterback is the one position that can change the future of a franchise. It is far too early to tell if Carr will be that guy for the Raiders, but it sure is fun to watch him try.