|Carson Palmer wasn't so hot last season but Darrius Heyward-Bey made some strides. (US Presswire)|
The Oakland Raiders were this close to their first winning season since 2002. Then they hit the wall, losing four of their last five games and, eventually, their head coach.
If that didn't signal a change, this did: Former Green Bay executive Reggie McKenzie was hired as the team's new GM. His first move was to fire Hue Jackson. His second was to hire former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen from Denver to replace him. With the overhaul of the coaching staff and front office, the Raiders are headed in a new direction.
The only question: Where?
QB: The Raiders gave up a lot to acquire Carson Palmer, which means somebody believes he's a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately, that somebody is gone. Hue Jackson left the building. Still, Palmer is a proven quarterback with a history of success -- only not much of it. He has been to the playoffs twice and hasn't won there. Nevertheless, the Raiders still believe he's their ticket to January, but he had better improve on last year's play when he threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (13) and was 4-5 as a starter. Of course, that was after he missed nearly half the season, so an offseason of work and training camp could make a difference. With Jason Campbell out of the picture, there is no safety net -- unless you consider Terrelle Pryor and Rhett Bomar reliable backups ... and I don't.
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RB: The ground game always was always the backbone of the Raiders, with the club punishing opponents with a strong, physical attack that featured Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. Well, McFadden is back, but Bush is not. He just signed a four-year deal with Chicago. So that leaves McFadden as the lead back, and that's OK except for one problem: While he's talented, he's also an injury waiting to happen. He hasn't played a complete season in his four years with Oakland and missed 12 of the past 32 games. Behind him is Taiwan Jones, and I'll be honest: I'm not sure what he can do. I suspect Oakland doesn't either. He has 16 carries in his NFL career.
WR: Darrius Heyward-Bey finally started to look like a quality wide receiver, but he's still not a No. 1. Not yet. I know, he produced career numbers last season, but he still scored only four times. Denarius Moore, who wasn't close in catches, had more TDs. And that's the problem here: Nobody is a No. 1. Jacoby Ford has his moments, but they're too few. Heyward-Bey was the club's leading pass-catcher, but the second most productive receiver -- Moore -- had nearly half as many catches (33). There is talent here, with Louis Murphy and Moore, but there's no elite performer, someone Palmer can rely on in clutch situations.
TE: A year ago the Raiders signed Kevin Boss to a four-year, $16 million contract. Now, he's gone, released and signed by the Kansas City Chiefs. Behind him there's not much, with Brandon Myers, David Ausberry and Richard Gordon the best. And to think ... only two years ago the Raiders had Zach Miller at this position. Look for an upgrade here.
OL: With the move of guard Stefan Wisniewski to center to replace Samson Satele, now with the Indianapolis Colts, the Raiders shored up one vacancy. Then they addressed two others with the re-signings of veterans Khalif Barnes and Cooper Carlisle. Carlisle could replace Wisniewski at left guard, especially with the acquisition of Mike Brisiel, who should take over on the right side, and Barnes returns to right tackle. Including left tackle Jared Veldheer, who had breakout season, the Raiders return four of five starters, and that's good for a team that thrives on overwhelming opponents at the point of attack. Still, the club needs to address its depth. Carlisle is 34 and was little better than adequate last season.
DL: Richard Seymour is Oakland's best defensive lineman, but he and defensive end Lamarr Houston need help, which means the Raiders need depth here. They also could use a nose tackle if, as expected, the club goes to the 3-4 -- with Tommy Kelly the logical choice and Desmond Bryant one of two defensive ends. If they stick with the 4-3, Kelly and Seymour man the inside spots, while Bryant and Matt Shaughnessy take over outside. Shaughnessy can rush the passer and is effective with Kelly and Seymour, who combined for 13.5 sacks. All I know is the Raiders need to do a better job rushing the passer and stopping the run. They ranked 27th vs. the run and 19th in sacks per pass play.
LB: With the release of Kamerion Wimbley, there's a need for a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Aaron Curry was supposed to be that guy, and so far, so good. He looked decent after he was traded away from Seattle, using his speed and instincts to make an impact. Shaughnessy was impressive before he was hurt, but he doesn't project all that well in a 3-4 defense. He's much better suited as a defensive end in the 4-3. Rolando McClain is set in the middle, but that's not necessarily good. He struggles to get off blocks and often was caught out of position. In short, he hasn't been the playmaker the Raiders expected and is part of a weak link to the defense. Depth is an issue here, particularly if the Raiders switch alignments. But switching to a 3-4 could help someone like McClain who struggles to hold down the middle.
DB: When you play in a division with Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning, you had better be able to defend the pass, and the Raiders haven't. They ranked 27th vs. the pass last season and surrendered 31 touchdowns, more than all but one team (Minnesota). They released cornerbacks Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, which left Chimdi Chekwa and Demarcus Van Dyke holding the fort, and if that doesn't make Raiders fans nervous, it should. It did Oakland, which went out and signed Shawntae Spencer, Ronald Bartell and Patrick Lee. Tyvon Branch is back at safety, and so is Michael Huff. But the previous administration told Huff he might be better suited at cornerback, and Allen isn't clear where he sees him playing. Stay tuned.