ALAMEDA, Calif. — After 13 straight seasons without a winning record, playoff berth or even much hope most years, the Oakland Raiders head into training camp this year with an unfamiliar burden: expectations.
Two strong draft classes that brought in core players such as quarterback Derek Carr, pass rusher Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper followed by a productive free agent shopping spree have put the Raiders into position to contend for the first time in years.
“It’s a great thing that people are talking about us in that light because when I first got here, they weren’t,” Carr said.
“So it’s a credit to where we’ve come from and that’s about it. It’s a credit to what we’ve done. Last year on the field was improvement, it was better than my rookie year, obviously. As a team, we were better. That’s the same kind of thing we want this year. We need to be better than 7-9.”
The Raiders more than doubled their win total last season in the first year under coach Jack Del Rio, improving from 3-13 to 7-9.
Now they will try to ignore all the praise and make that even harder next step from mediocrity to legitimate contender.
“It’s easy to get caught in that trap,” Mack said. “That’s not what we’re about. We’re about the grind. We’re about working hard, committing ourselves to excellence and going out and winning. That’s what it’s really all about.”
To help make that move, general manager Reggie McKenzie made some key additions this offseason, adding one of the top available offensive linemen on the market in power-blocking guard Kelechi Osemele, top-flight cornerback Sean Smith, pass rusher Bruce Irvin and playmaking safety Reggie Nelson.
But the Raiders’ fortunes will rest on the performances of Carr, Mack and Cooper.
Carr took a big step forward in year two, throwing for 32 touchdowns and 3,987 yards. The addition of Cooper played a big part in that as Oakland had a 1,000-yard receiver for the first time in a decade.
Mack led the way on the defensive side with 15 sacks to become a first-team All Pro at both linebacker and defensive end.
Here are some things to watch for the Raiders this season:
STOUT LINE: McKenzie has made it a priority to build his team from the trenches and the move to sign Osemele fits into that strategy. The addition of another top inside blocker to go with last year’s big acquisition at center in Rodney Hudson and the third-year starter Gabe Jackson should boost the running game. Donald Penn is back as a capable blindside protector and Austin Howard will compete with Menelik Watson for the right tackle spot on what looks like one of the top lines in the league.
“It’s a big physical group,” Del Rio said. “They kind of lead the way, create some running room, create a nice pocket for Derek. ... It all starts with our guys up front.”
PASS RUSH DUO: Mack emerged as a star last season with 15 sacks to along with the stout run defense he showed the previous year as a rookie. Now he should have some help on the other side with the signing of Irvin, who had 22 sacks in four seasons with Seattle. The Raiders plan to use Irvin even more as a pass rusher than the Seahawks did.
BACKUP BACK: Latavius Murray ran for 1,066 yards in his first season as a starter. But he slumped late in games, averaging 2.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, and late in the season, with his average carry dropping from 4.8 yards in the first half to 3.3 in the final eight games. No other running back had more than 25 carries or 110 yards. That led to the addition of fifth-round pick DeAndre Washington, who is being counted on to give Murray needed support.
STEPPED UP SECONDARY: Waiver-wire pickup David Amerson gave the Raiders a big boost at cornerback in the second half of last season after struggling in Washington. He will have some needed help on the other side with the addition of Smith and what had been a position of weakness for years now might be a strength. Oakland hopes former first-round pick DJ Hayden can fill the slot cornerback role.
LOOKING FOR LEADERS: With the retirements of Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck, the Raiders have a void in leadership that they hope will be filled by a combination of the playoff-tested veterans added in free agency and the young core led by Carr and Mack.