Oakland Raiders

Here’s why the Raiders’ days as an NFL punching bag are about to end

Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper, right, celebrates with quarterback Derek Carr, left, after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tennessee Titans Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, in Oakland.
Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper, right, celebrates with quarterback Derek Carr, left, after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tennessee Titans Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, in Oakland. The Associated Press

George W. Bush was midway through his first term as president, gas was $1.35 a gallon, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a year away from hitting movie theaters, and Shrek and Spongebob were still considered the new animated kids on the block in 2002.

Much has changed since the last time the Oakland Raiders experienced a winning season.

But after 13 years in the NFL's abyss, and without a winning season, there is finally reason for optimism by the Bay.

Here are 7 reasons (because not every list has to be at least 10 deep) why Oakland will return to NFL prominence in 2016:

1. Derek Carr

The former Fresno State standout took a major step forward during his sophomore NFL season in 2015, passing for 3,987 yards and 32 touchdowns while compiling a 91.1% quarterback rating en route to earning his first Pro Bowl berth. Carr can throw the deep ball with the best of 'em and is a good bet to make the jump from good to great.

2. Khalil Mack

Mack, the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft, announced his presence with authority last season, finishing second in the NFL with 15 sacks while causing countless hours of lost sleep for opposing quarterbacks and lineman. As disruptive a defensive force as exists in the league today, Mack is just getting started.

3. Amari Cooper

As a rookie last season, Cooper became the first Oakland wide receiver to top the 1,000-yard mark since Randy Moss in 2005, finishing with 1,070 on 72 catches, including six for touchdowns – numbers he should have no problem eclipsing as Carr's go-to man in a what figures to be a high-octane attack.

4. Latavius Murray

Murray enjoyed a solid debut season as Oakland's featured running back in 2015, rushing for 1,066 yards and six touchdowns while catching 41 passes for another 232 yards. Injuries slowed Murray late in the season, and there were issues catching the ball out of the backfield, but a healthy Murray will again be a chore for defenses to corral.

5. Michael Crabtree

While Cooper was the Raiders’ breakout offensive performer last season, the veteran Crabtree was Oakland's most consistent player while serving as Carr's security blanket in the passing game. Crabtree's 85 catches and nine touchdowns led all Raiders receivers, and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that he could approach similar numbers in 2016.

6. Offensive line

Once a glaring weakness, Oakland's offensive line has become a source of strength. Center Rodney Hudson and tackle Donald Penn have both been to Pro Bowls, and guards Gabe Jackson and Kelechi Osemele could easily find themselves in Honolulu at season’s end. This unit is as big and strong as any in the NFL.

7. Defense

Gone is future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, but a strong unit remains. With Mack in perpetual motion and massive defensive tackles Justin Ellis and Dan Williams moving bodies and piles at the line of scrimmage, there won't be many holes up front. Cornerback David Amerson was a revelation after joining Oakland last season off the NFL scrap heap, while the offseason acquisitions of Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson from Cincinnati, Super Bowl champion linebacker Bruce Irvin from Seattle and veteran cornerback Sean Smith from Miami more than addressed serious needs.

Compiled by Stu Rosenberg

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