2012 NFL Season Preview

CBSSports.com Staff
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By Clark Judge | Senior NFL Columnist

Offense

The Raiders last year paid a steep price for quarterback Carson Palmer, but they believed he was worth it because he would take them to the playoffs. Well, he didn't, and now his GM, head coach and offensive coordinator -- AKA, Hue Jackson -- are gone. And so is the Al Davis vertical passing attack. Palmer must adapt to new coordinator Greg Knapp's offense that will feature more running and more of Palmer outside the pocket, but that's a minor adjustment compared to what Palmer had to deal with last year when he went from the couch to the Raiders -- joining the team after boycotting the Bengals.

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The guy is a quick study, but Palmer doesn't determine what happens to Oakland; the running game does. Under Knapp, the Texans were the league's second-ranked rushing offense, and he'd like to do with Darren McFadden what he did with Arian Foster. One problem: McFadden has a history of injuries, missing nine games in 2011 with a season-ending Lisfranc setback.

The Raiders are a club in the midst of change, but if there's stability, it's with an offensive line that returns four of five starters. That bodes well for Palmer and the running game. The Raiders allowed only 25 sacks last season and ranked seventh in rushing.

Defense

With a new GM and a new staff comes a new approach to defense. The Raiders no longer rely on the Al Davis approach to football, which means they won't rely on four-man pass rushes and man-to-man coverage. Finally, they're willing to try a new approach, with new coordinator Jason Tarver employing multiple fronts and schemes, zone coverages and blitzes from unexpected places. It's football as the Black Hole hasn't witnessed from the home team, and it should take advantage of the strength of this team, which remains its defensive line.

That means Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, and it means Matt Shaughnessy, too, with Shaughnessy returning from a shoulder injury that shelved him last season. Dave Tollefson was a nice pickup and adds depth to a unit that includes Lamarr Houston and Desmond Bryant. In short, the Raiders are stocked up front and will pressure the pocket with their defensive line.

The secondary is experienced, particularly at safety with Tyvon Branch, Michael Huff, Matt Giordano and Mike Mitchell, and the addition of cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell give Oakland two guys with a combined 137 starts. The question, of course, is: Are they an upgrade? In the AFC West you may only be as good as your pass defense, and the Raiders may be vulnerable at corner, where Pat Lee, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa are battling for the nickel spot.

Key Changes

Roster Additions: QB Matt Leinart; G Mike Brisiel; DT Dave Tollefson; RB Mike Goodson; CB Ron Bartell; LB Phillip Wheeler; CB Shawntae Spencer; CB Pat Lee.

Roster Departures: CB Stanford Routt; QB Jason Campbell; RB Michael Bush; LB Kamerion Wimbley; DT John Henderson; TE Kevin Boss; C Samson Satele; G Cooper Carlisle; WR Chaz Schilens; T Bruce Campbell; LB Quentin Groves; DE Trevor Scott.

Staff: The first move GM Reggie McKenzie made after taking over was firing head coach Hue Jackson and hiring Dennis Allen to replace him. But that was just the beginning. The Raiders have virtually an entirely new staff, including offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp, defensive coordinator Jason Tarver and special-teams coordinator Steve Hoffman.

There's a balance of trade deficit in Oakland, with the Raiders exporting more talent than they imported. But this isn't Al Davis' franchise any longer; it's McKenzie's, and he's making moves to try to straighten out a club that hasn't had a winning season since 2002. So he erased fat contracts. Unwanted veterans were dumped. Philosophies changed. Losing Bush was the biggest setback because he was the ideal safety net for McFadden, and he was productive. Routt was a starter, but the guy was inconsistent, so the Raiders added experience in Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell. Linebacker Phillip Wheeler, who played well at Indianapolis, should replace Kamerion Wimbley.

X-Factor: Darren McFadden

Basically, the question comes down to this: Can the guy stay healthy for most -- if not all -- of a season? So far he hasn't, and that's not just a trend; it's a problem. When he's on the field, McFadden is one of the most productive and elusive backs. But the guy hasn't gone one of his four pro seasons without sitting down because of injury and missed 16 of his last 44 starts. The good news is that he averaged 5.3 yards per carry the past two seasons and produced a career-best 1,664 yards rushing and receiving in 2010. The bad news is that he hasn't run for 614 yards in any of the other three years, and the Raiders' security blanket that covered them when McFadden was out -- running back Michael Bush -- is gone, signing in the offseason with Chicago.

Diminishing returns

Can Carson Palmer be a playoff quarterback again? The guy's looked positively ordinary the last two seasons, and there's a feeling that maybe, just maybe, he's a descending player.

How long can DMC run?

Can Darren McFadden stay healthy? If you play the odds, they tell you no.

Is Allen ready to be a head coach?

The Raiders think so, but this is a club that changes head coaches like most people change socks. Allen is 39 and has never been a head coach before, but that's what makes him a perfect fit for the Raiders.

Insider's Take

Allen has promised to make the Raiders smart and disciplined, and good luck. It hasn't worked for years, with the club annually among the NFL's leaders in penalties. The guy was a promising young assistant, but there's a feeling that he may not be ready for the challenge that Oakland offers. Not only are the Raiders in a suddenly difficult AFC West, but they suffered an exodus of veterans as McKenzie vowed to balance the books and get rid of fat contracts. The good news for the Raiders is that they're right there with the competition, finishing in an 8-8 tie with Denver and San Diego last season. Plus, they haven't had a losing season in two years. The bad? Denver and San Diego got better in the offseason; Oakland did not.

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

The Oakland offense is better than the perception of them by fans and media. The 2011 Raiders were a top-ten offense despite losing their top running back and quarterback after 6 games. Not only were the Raiders 4-2 to start the season with McFadden and Campbell, but they beat teams like Denver and Houston.

Raiders' Rivals: AFC West

2012 Preview • Schedule
Broncos @ Raiders: 12/6 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Raiders @ Broncos: 9/30 (4:05 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Chiefs @ Raiders: 12/16 (4:15 p.m. ET)
Raiders @ Chiefs: 10/28 (4:05 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Chargers @ Raiders: 9/10 (10:15 p.m. ET)
Raiders @ Chargers: 12/30 (4:15 p.m. ET)

The 2012 offense has a chance to be even better than the No. 9 offense in the league last year. They will be a zone run scheme from 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and the coaches expect the same first down run production as they got last year. With four of the five starting lineman returning and a healthy McFadden, Oakland should be able to duplicate the 55-percent run/45-percent pass ratio on first down, with the run averaging 5.37 yards per carry.

If Carson Palmer gets to second down and less than five yards, this offense will be ready to go. Most people feel the west coast offense Greg Knapp is installing requires lots of bootlegs from Palmer, and although contain break plays may not be his strong suit, he will be effective because of the run game. Also, expect Coach Knapp to let Palmer work the pocket pass game more than the contain break pass game.

The Oakland receivers have speed and the vertical game will be very much alive in this west coast system. On the third down situations, Palmer is still looking for a go-to guy. Last year on the money down, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, and Denarius Moore combined for 23 receptions. Palmer will get the time to find an open target, because this Raider offensive line protected him last year and should be better this year. After a shaky start with nine interceptions in two games, Palmer settled down and threw just 10 in the next eight games.

The Raiders' defense has got to get away from the high percentage of press man coverage they played when Al Davis was alive. The zone coverages being installed will reduce the 12 pass interference calls from last year.

The Raider 4-3 defense will be more creative up front this year under the direction of head coach Dennis Allen. Allen worked under Greg Williams at one point in his career and that means pressure calls from everywhere. One big problem with this defense is the availability and the productivity of middle linebacker Rolando McClain. He may be suspended this season, and he struggles against the pass. I do like safeties Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff when it comes to matching up with flex tight ends, even though Antonio Gates caught 10 for 160 last year in two games. This year, this defense has to face Peyton Manning twice, and he will have two athletic tight ends on the field.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

While GM Reggie McKenzie was operating with essentially one hand tied behind his back with the team's first pick not coming until No. 95 overall, the Raiders appeared to enjoy a rather strong draft in McKenzie's first year at the helm. The team expects early contributions from many of its rookies, including former Utah offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom.

Raiders Draft Analysis

Fifth-round wide receiver Juron Criner could wind up as the diamond in the rough of the Raiders' draft class. In an era when the term "possession receiver" seems to have taken on a negative connotation, it wasn't surprising that Criner "slipped" to the late fifth round. After all, he was clocked at 4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine.

Criner's lack of ideal straight-line speed, however, didn't stop him from catching 209 passes for 32 touchdowns over an illustrious career against strong competition in the Pac-12. He is a physical and sharp-cutting route-runner who simply goes up and gets the football, showing the combination of body control, reliable hands and timing on jump-balls to remind Palmer of another "possession receiver" he once threw to in Cincinnati -- T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

The rest of the Raiders' picks:

3rd Round - No. 95 overall - Tony Bergstrom, OL, Utah
4th Round - No. 129 overall - Miles Burris, OLB, San Diego State
5th Round - No. 158 overall - Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State
5th Round - No. 168 overall - Juron Criner, WR, Arizona
6th Round - No. 189 overall - Christo Bilukidi, DE, Georgia State
7th Round - No. 230 overall - Nathan Stupar, OLB, Penn State

 
 
 
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