Making the secondary a primary concern
A half hour after the Raiders' fourth training camp practice in Napa, Calif., Sean Smith sits back in his chair under a tent, taking pulls on a sports drink. A cooling breeze rolls off the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. "Mid-70s, no humidity," says Smith with a smile, soaking in his new surroundings. "I've seen worse."
He is clearly happy to be here, but not as happy as Oakland fans are to have him. This off-season the Raiders signed Smith away from the Chiefs for four years and $38 million, acquiring not only a true shutdown corner but also an emphatic solution to the team's biggest weakness. Oakland had the league's seventh-worst pass defense in 2015, allowing 258.8 yards per game. A large part of the problem was '13 first-round pick D.J. Hayden, one of the NFL's most frequently burned corners last season. In fact, the team's best cornerback, by far, was David Amerson, who arrived in Week 3 after being cut by the Redskins.
At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Smith fits comfortably into Oakland's tradition of long, physical bump-and-run corners. The eight-year veteran's physique is so solid that at certain angles he resembles an outside linebacker. "He has such a wide radius and such long arms," says defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson. "If he gets his hands on you, he's got a chance to take you out of the play because most quarterbacks won't wait to see if [the smothered receiver] can win. They've got that clock in their head." That clock will only get faster with budding superstar Khalil Mack (15 sacks last year) and former Seahawk Bruce Irvin coming off the edges.
Based on what Smith had heard before he got to Oakland, he assumed his new team "must not be that good in the secondary." Upon arriving, he realized, he says, that "this [secondary] is loaded with talent. It's just that they were inexperienced." To ease those pains, the 29-year-old Smith has shared "some simple things that can make life so much easier."
Such as? "Well, wide receiver splits—where a guy lines up in relation to the numbers," he says. "If a receiver has a plus-three-yard split outside the numbers, he can't run every route on the route tree. When he's out that wide, you can erase half the routes. If he's condensed, now you're thinking these routes. You don't have to cover the whole route tree, so stop stressing."
GM Reggie McKenzie also filled both safety spots in the off-season by signing 10-year veteran Reggie Nelson, who is coming off an eight-interception, Pro Bowl season with the Bengals, and drafting Karl Joseph out of West Virginia with the No. 14 pick. Joseph ran with the first team throughout the preseason and will start on Day One. Serious, sober people have already started comparing him with Earl Thomas, Seattle's three-time All-Pro. Hayden, meanwhile, will move to slot corner. Early reviews on him there were guarded, but good.
Between their youthful core and veteran additions such as Smith, the Raiders have their swag back and are a stylish pick to challenge for the division title. Simmer down, everyone, says play-by-play man Greg Papa: "This is still a young team." Talented as he is, third-year quarterback Derek Carr needs to take better care of the ball in crunch time—"needs to know when to be O.K. with a par and not go for birdie," Papa says.
At least if this group needs more time, they'll get it: Owner Mark Davis is far more patient than his late, swashbuckling father. In late July he signed McKenzie to a four-year extension. But the club should have its first winning record in 14 years. Whether the team makes the postseason or not, Oakland fans will easily be able to say, We've seen worse.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
When the Raiders shelled out $25.4 million guaranteed in free agency in March for Kelechi Osemele(left), many thought they would try to maximize their return on investment by moving him from left guard to the more valued position of left tackle. Late last season the injury-depleted Ravens actually had to play the 6'5", 330-pound Osemele at that tackle spot, and he wasn't bad. Still, Oakland smartly understood that it was better off keeping him inside, where he is utterly dominant. Osemele is phenomenal blocking on the move, and he gives the Raiders an interior offensive line that is second only to the Cowboys' in mobility. Center Rodney Hudson is quick. Oakland's other guard, Gabe Jackson, is not, but he moves efficiently at 335 pounds. Having three mobile blockers up the middle will be of great help to Latavius Murray, a running back who must have his rushing lanes clearly defined.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 9--7
2015 Record: 7--9
SEPT. 11 atNO
SEPT. 18 vs.ATL [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atTEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 atBAL
OCT. 9 vs.SD [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 vs.KC [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atJAX
OCT. 30 atTB [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 vs.DEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 21 vs.HOU
MON., MEXICO CITY
NOV. 27 vs.CAR [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 vs.BUF
DEC. 8 atKC
DEC. 18 atSD [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 vs.IND [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atDEN
= PREDICTED WINNER