Oakland Raiders 2014 Season Review: Finding a Silver Lining
Back in April of last year, I reflected on the moves that Reggie McKenzie had made, most of which were defensive players that were starting to move past their prime years. There was also the pickup of James Jones to mentor and assist the young receiving corp, as well as a trade for Matt Schaub to help the transition of whichever quarterback they drafted. They were all supposed to be smart, veteran pickups to help a team in transition.
However, few of the defensive free agent signees made an impact, Jones was good for a mediocre season, and Schaub was placed on the bench before the regular season even started, handing the reins to Derek Carr. It all led to three wins for the Raiders, their lowest total since 2006.
Is there any hope for the future?
Defense on the Rise
Drafting linebacker Khalil Mack at number-five overall in the 2014 draft was essentially a no-brainer for the Raiders. And it paid off handsomely, as Mack tallied 59 tackles (fourth on the team) and 4 sacks (second), starting every game of the season. With Mack, the Raiders have solidified a young linebacker corp to build the defense around, as Miles Burris and Sio Moore were second and third on the team in tackles.
As we move to the defensive unit as a whole, there were decent gains from last season. In 2013, the Raiders had the 18th-best run defense according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) data, allowing just 2.52 expected points over the course of the season on the ground, just 4.40 expected points less than the average rush defense in 2013. This year, the rush defense played better than average, saving 7.81 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, 3.35 expected points better than the average rush defense in 2014.
Our numbers haven't been kind to the Raiders' pass defense the last few years, but considering the pass defense gave up 101.33 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP in 2013 and 102.99 in 2012, almost any number is an improvement. This year the pass defense only surrendered 77.23 expected points more than they should have through the air, good for 25th best in the league, a jump of four spots from 2013.
Again, the pass defense still has a long way to go, but it's trending more towards an average pass defense now, which is more than the Raiders' offense can say.
Offense Losing Traction
Given historical context for the Raiders, the 2014 offense was one of the worst their fans have seen since the turn of the century according to our Adjusted NEP per play numbers.
The -0.07 expected points per play was the Raiders fourth worst offensive efficiency since 2000. And in the context of the 2014 season, the average team added 0.04 expected points per play. The Raiders finished well under that mark, and only two other teams (the Buccaneers and Jaguars) had worse efficiency than the Raiders.
Granted, the Raiders didn't have the best quarterback situation to start the season, and they had to go with Derek Carr, a rookie, to lead an offense with unimpressive personnel.
Carr's highlights included his Week 6 performance against the Chargers, which was his second-highest weekly Passing NEP (14.14) total, and Week 14 against the 49ers, where he went for his highest Passing NEP total of 16.01. Carr only had three other games above expectation in 2014, but that included a game where he only contributed 0.58 Passing NEP.
So more often than not, Carr hurt the Raiders, costing them nearly two touchdowns in a single game on a few occasions. Our famed (or infamous, if you're a diehard Raiders fan) Editor-In-Chief touched on this the other day -- Carr was in the 10th percentile among high-volume quarterbacks for the 2014 season, and his -40.94 Passing NEP was over 80 points below average this past season for a quarterback. Historically, Carr's numbers rank in the bottom quarter percentile of rookie quarterbacks since 2000 as well.
The running game didn't do much to ease Carr's troubles, as Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden and Latavius Murray combined for 1,054 yards and just 4 touchdowns. Murray was the only Raiders running back to have a positive Rushing NEP (4.09), but that came on just 82 carries. His Rushing NEP was boosted by a 11.08 expected point performance in Week 12 against the Chiefs, and he only had one other game with a contribution that was significantly above expectation.
Lastly, the receiving corp was one of, well, duds. James Jones had 10 games with a positive Target NEP contribution, which judges how a receiver did on all targets (not just receptions), but he never contributed more than 6.65 Target NEP in a game. In fact, Dez Bryant had almost as much Target NEP in one game (16.20 in Week 15) than Jones had all season (16.38). Jones' Reception NEP per target was just 0.48, the lowest of his career, and his Target NEP was the third lowest of his eight-year career.
The leading receiver on the team was someone many fans outside of Oakland never heard of entering the season: Andre Holmes. Holmes was second on the team in touchdowns (4), first on the team in receiving yards (693) and first in Reception NEP (58.30). But leading the team in Reception NEP isn't that much of a trophy when it's the sixth-worst of 44 receivers with at least 99 targets. At least age is on his side, right?
As I mentioned above, the Raiders have a youthful linebacker core, with the oldest starter being 26. Meanwhile, Andre Holmes is just 26 and will be entering his fifth season in the league, while Rod Streater -- who missed most of 2014 -- will be entering his fourth season in the league. Carr and Latavius Murray are both 23 years old and have room to grow together in Oakland.
With a youthful core to continue to build around, the Raiders finally seem to have the foundation in place for a rebuild. It won't be solved overnight in the Bay area, but for now, if the organization continues to add weapons around Carr, they just might have a chance to compete again.