THIS JUST MIGHT WORK
He played the game, starring at linebacker for 11 seasons, and he won a Super Bowl ring while coaching his old position in Baltimore. He's coordinated defenses in both conferences—in Carolina in 2002 and in Denver for the past three years. And, of course, he ran the show for 8½ years in Jacksonville (from '03 to '11) and held the Broncos together after John Fox had a cardiac episode during the '13 regular season. So it figures that the Raiders would tap Jack Del Rio as their next coach. With the possible exception of Rex Ryan, there wasn't a more qualified person among this off-season's crop of candidates.
Despite those credentials, it remains unclear just how good a head coach Del Rio actually is. Yes, he presided over a critical four-game stretch while subbing for Fox two years ago in Denver, but that outfit was anchored by Peyton Manning, scored points at a record clip and finished the season in the Super Bowl. The more relevant test for Del Rio was at Jacksonville, a small-market expansion team that had begun to regress after reaching the playoffs four times in their first five years under Tom Coughlin. Under Del Rio the Jaguars made just two playoff appearances, in '05 and '07, and won only one postseason game. In the other seasons they averaged six wins while fielding some of the league's most cringe-worthy offenses. Del Rio's big problem in Jacksonville was finding a quarterback. Byron Leftwich and Blaine Gabbert are two first-round picks that Del Rio would probably like to throw back.
The good news this time around is that Del Rio doesn't have to sweat the quarterback position. He inherits his best prospect ever in Derek Carr, who in 2014 started all 16 games as a rookie and showed himself to be a deft pocket passer with a release like a striking cobra. Those strengths are especially prized by offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who was also Del Rio's chief play caller for his first two seasons in Jacksonville. Back then Musgrave was more of a ground-and-pound, control-the-clock guy, and his Jaguars offenses ranked 25th and 29th. However, he found religion in his '14 stint as Chip Kelly's quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia, where he gained a deeper appreciation for quick-count and no-huddle concepts. These will be a foundational part of the Raiders' offense.
Recent roster upgrades suggest this season will not be the exercise in blooper-making that has defined the Raiders of recent past. Their boldest move this off-season was signing Rodney Hudson, Pro Football Focus's third-highest-rated center, away from the Chiefs, at five years and $44.5 million. The move adds balance to a line that was strongest on the left side, with veteran Pro Bowl tackle Donald Penn and rookie guard Gabe Jackson, and overall a positive; Oakland last year allowed 28 sacks, tied for sixth fewest in the league. The additions of crafty slot receiver Michael Crabtree (late of the 49ers, and signed to a one-year, $3.2 million deal) and the No. 4 pick in the draft, Amari Cooper (Alabama), whose camp catches regularly became shareable content online, add much-needed firepower to an offense that led the league in three-and-out drives (71) and finished behind only the Jaguars in scoring, averaging 15.8 points per game. One possible source of in-house help: third-year running back Latavius Murray, who flashed potential when given playing time late last season.
On defense Del Rio tasked Ken Norton Jr., another outstanding linebacker-turned-coach, with coordinating a defense that hasn't been especially good or aggressive in a decade and that last year allowed a league-worst 28.2 points per game. Norton will continue with the team's 4--3 base, at least to start. He has playmakers at two levels—32-year-old defensive end Justin Tuck and second-year linebacker Khalil Mack. The question is whether Norton will have a third in the secondary. Safety Charles Woodson is 38. Cornerback D.J. Hayden, a top pick in 2013, has shutdown ability but has struggled to stay healthy, playing just 18 of a potential 32 games.
If the pieces line up as projected, Del Rio only has to do what he does best—play CEO. After many, many teardowns, Oakland finally has a solid foundation to work with.
SI'S PREDICTION: 4--12
SI'S ANDY BENOIT ON THE RAIDERS' AMAZING MACK
Rarely have we seen as big a chasm between a pass rusher's stats and his impact on games as we saw last year with rookie end-linebacker Khalil Mack (above). The No. 5 pick was sensational, showing initial burst and bendability that allowed him to quickly turn the corner, and displaying the lateral agility to redirect inside. Despite all this, Mack finished with only four sacks, though he did draw eight offensive holding calls, second in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. Down the stretch, Mack was increasingly lined up in a variety of places. New coach Jack Del Rio, who coordinated Denver's defense, used Von Miller in a similar fashion, but don't expect him to do that with Mack. Del Rio believes in straightforward 4--3 zone defense because its simplicity allows players to hone mechanics and to play fast. Denver's wealth of experienced talent allowed Del Rio to play around with Miller. While Oakland's D has talent with linebacker Sio Moore and promising cornerbacks D.J. Hayden and T.J. Carrie, there's a lack of depth, plus question marks up the middle. Expect Del Rio to keep it basic and deploy Mack in a straight four-man rush. Mack and Oakland's young starters should generate more explosive plays in 2015.
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
QB Derek Carr
DANIEL GLUSKOTER/ICON SPORTSWIRE