Ailene Voisin

Biggest threat to Raiders’ Super Bowl dreams? Answer isn’t as clear as it was on Christmas

The Oakland Raiders are no longer mired in mediocrity thanks to 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack (52) and quarterback Derek Carr, who has newfound security in both a shiny $125 million contract and in unretired running back Marshawn Lynch with him in the backfield.
The Oakland Raiders are no longer mired in mediocrity thanks to 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack (52) and quarterback Derek Carr, who has newfound security in both a shiny $125 million contract and in unretired running back Marshawn Lynch with him in the backfield. AP file

Bee columnist Ailene Voisin’s predictions for the Raiders’ season:

Best-case scenario

The Raiders begin the season with at least one question finally answered: the Coliseum is just keeping a seat warm until construction of their new home in Las Vegas is completed sometime within the next few years. In the meantime, the Raiders want to believe their fans will follow them anywhere, especially if they fulfill and perhaps even exceed expectations.

A year ago they finished 12-4 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002. If quarterback Derek Carr had not fractured his right leg in the Christmas Eve game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Raiders would have been a dangerous, if notably flawed (poor defense) threat entering the postseason. An offense that ranked among the league’s elite last season is even more lethal, with the addition of veteran running back Marshawn Lynch, wideout/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson, and Carr healthy and ready to continue his ascension as one of the game’s best young players.

Assuming Lynch shakes off the rust of a one-year retirement and at least somewhat resembles his old Seattle Seahawk self, the offense figures to be more prolific than a year ago and capable of carrying the defense on its back, at least as far as the playoffs. If the preseason proves to be a mirage, and the defense is better than it showed, the Raiders could finish 11-5 – one fewer victory than last year only because the schedule is brutal in the closing weeks.

Worst-case scenario

Just think back to Christmas Eve, and the worst case scenario sits right there. Carr already is a poised, confident leader, and is easily the Raiders best quarterback since Rich Gannon. Lose him to another freak injury and that effectively ends the season. Since Carr seems fine, the defense remains the primary concern. Make that a major concern. Ken Norton Jr.’s unit finished 29th in total defense, 24th against the pass and last in sacks (25) last season. It doesn’t appear that much has changed.

Throughout training camp, the Raiders have been unable to apply pressure, have struggled to contain the run, and watched Dak Prescott and backup Cooper Rush connect on 23 of 27 passes Saturday for three touchdowns and no interceptions. The weakness at middle linebacker is particularly glaring, leading NFL announcer Matt Millen to suggest the Raiders grab someone from the waiver wires after cutdown day. In other words, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack can’t do it alone. Norton, who received considerable heat a year ago, must be hearing footsteps. Jack Del Rio brought in John Pagano as his assistant head coach and put him in charge of the defense. With a tougher schedule, unless Pagano works wonders, the Raiders could drop to 8-8 and dash those Super Bowl dreams.

Breakout player

Patterson, the two-time All-Pro, led the NFL in kickoff return average the last two seasons and adds another explosive element to special teams. He also provides Carr with another speedy target at wide receiver, which is important because of Seth Roberts’ inconsistency.

Hot seat

Cornerback Sean Smith, the nine-year veteran who was benched during last season’s opener against New Orleans, has had to fight off a challenge in camp from TJ Carrie. Del Rio has experimented with Smith at linebacker in nickel coverage, but is noncommittal. Smith’s arrest last month on charges of assaulting his sister’s boyfriend further erodes his standing within the organization. Some clarity should be provided after his Sept. 29 court date.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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