The Oakland Raiders saved their season with a victory over the Miami Dolphins on “Sunday Night Football,” but 4-5 heading into Week 10 is still not an advantageous spot. New England, Kansas City, Dallas and Philadelphia still loom on the schedule, putting this year’s quest to make the playoffs in serious doubt.
As players enjoy their bye this week, here are five things we’ve learned about the Raiders nine games into their season.
1. Amari Cooper may need a sports psychologist
According to Pro Football Focus Elite, Cooper has 10 drops this season, three more than the next closest receiver, while collecting just 38 receptions. Cooper hasn’t lost the skills that made him an NFL commodity in his first two season. His route-running, releases and post-catch ability are as good as they’ve ever been. But Cooper is struggling mightily to catch the football, both in uncontested and contested situations. Not coming down with the simple stuff is frustrating enough, but Cooper also hasn’t managed to be a threat in many battles for the ball, failing to finish through contact and win at the catch point with regularity.
Cooper’s struggles remind me of Nelson Agholor’s last year, when the Eagles’ stud receiver battled through some miserable drops before seeing a sports psychologist. Agholor has been excellent this season with snap-to-snap focus, and Cooper can receive a similar result by following the same method. If the Raiders’ offense is to return to what it can be, he’ll need to be much better.
2. The Raiders need secondary help in the offseason — badly
Sean Smith and David Amerson have been colossal disappointments since arriving in Oakland, and Dexter McDonald hasn’t been much better. With first-round pick Gareon Conley nursing injuries all season long, the Raiders have zero proven talent at cornerback and it is killing their defense. Oakland’s pass defense is currently ranked 22nd in yards allowed, and has yet to come up with its first interception of the season.
The Raiders are currently allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete over 71 percent of their passes for a rating of 110.5, by far the worst marks in the NFL. I do believe Conley will shore up one spot when he’s healthy, but the Raiders should be cutting ties with a couple corners on their roster and looking for new blood in the offseason.
3. Eddie Vanderdoes is a building block
The Raiders’ defense doesn’t have a ton of foundational players, but Khalil Mack, Karl Joseph, Mario Edwards, Conley and Vanderdoes will eventually lead this defense back to its once-dominant ways. Vanderdoes hasn’t been perfect, but he’s shown enough power, hand usage and athleticism to project into a bigger role with more production by next year. He’s capable of playing a number of different techniques, and is a violent and refined pass rusher who isn’t a liability against the pass. I think he’ll be an anchor on Oakland’s interior for years to come if he can stay healthy.
4. Derek Carr is good but needs more help
I think Carr is in the 10-14 range among NFL quarterbacks, good enough to compete in the playoffs, but not great enough to carry a team without more help. He received very little of that this season, with the defense struggling, the offensive line not playing to its typical standard, receivers dropping passes all over the field, and the running game ranked 26th in the league. He and Khalil Mack are the faces of this franchise, and even though there is talent around them, the supporting casts on both sides of the ball haven’t played anywhere close to potential.
If Carr and the Raiders are to reach their peak offensively, a true feature running back and a dynamic slot receiver should be priorities in this year’s draft. They need a sure-handed, chain-moving type that can separate underneath and give Carr a reliable target in the middle of the field. Adding a dynamic running back in a class full of them should be a high priority; Marshawn Lynch hasn’t proven to be much of an upgrade this season.
5. Is Jack Del Rio the answer?
I truly believe the Raiders have the talent to bounce back next season, and potentially even push for a wild card spot in the weak AFC this season, but there should be legitimate questions about Del Rio’s ability to turn around a defense that is a mess for a third straight season. In his three years in Oakland, the Raiders have ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed every year, including the bottom seven each of the past two years. They’ve also finished all three years in the bottom half in points per game, as well as being in the bottom 10 for allowing passing plays of 20 yards or more, dead-last in 2016.
Del Rio may be a great leader and motivator, I honestly don’t know, but the on-field evidence is clear: His defense has struggled mightily during his tenure in Oakland. Unless the rest of the season is a disaster, I don’t know that Oakland will be ready to step away from him, but if the team in general and specifically the defense doesn’t show major improvement next season, Del Rio could be on the hot seat.