When the National Football League kicks off the 2016 season, all 32 teams will have 53 men on their active roster. While the big names will get most of the attention, make no mistake, every player matters. Need proof? Back in 2014, there was an undrafted rookie cornerback by the name of Malcolm Butler who only started one game and barely made an impact on the regular season. With 20 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLIX, Butler intercepted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to seal the victory.
Every elite team has a player or two like Butler on their roster. A team can do well with a few face-cards, but you need a full deck to win a championship. The Silver and Black appear to be on the cusp of greatness, but superstars like Derek Carr, Khalil Mack, and Amari Cooper won’t be enough to break through the glass ceiling. Here are a few potential game-breakers for the 2016 Oakland Raiders.
Game-Breakers for the 2016 Oakland Raiders
One of the biggest questions on the Raider defense is the production of the young Ben Heeney. With Oakland moving on from veteran Curtis Lofton, Heeney will be expected to step up into a starting role. Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin, and Aldon Smith will be rotating pass rushers, but it will be up to Heeney and Malcolm Smith to play inside backer. While Smith has played well in the past, even winning a Super Bowl MVP, Heeney has a lot to prove. Despite showing flashes as a rookie, Heeney only registered 38 tackles. If Heeney becomes a liability against the run or pass, it could ruin the defense. The talented secondary and pass rush will suffer if teams can exploit a weakness in the middle.
Mario Edwards Jr.
One of the biggest reasons that people are excited about the 2016 Oakland Raiders is their revamped defense. The additions of Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, and Bruce Irvin, as well as draft picks Karl Joseph, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun, have Raider Nation very excited. A player that hasn’t received a ton of hype is one that was already playing for Oakland. Mario Edwards Jr. became a force on the defensive line last year before a scary neck injury cut his season short.
The Raiders have more pass rushers than they can conceivably put on the field at once, but there’s no way that Edwards can be forgotten. Edwards is useful as a pass rusher and a run stopper, and at the very least, he’ll be needed to set the edges and take pressure off of players like Mack. The biggest issue with Edwards is that he’s a bit injury prone. He’s already going to miss most of the preseason with a hip strain. This injury, paired with that dangerous neck injury threaten to shorten a promising young career.
Much like the defense, there is a dark horse on the Raiders offense. Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and even Clive Walford are the names you know. Seth Roberts however, is not a household name. Wide receiver Seth Roberts is a bit of an enigma. After going undrafted in 2014, Roberts became a member of Oakland’s practice squad. After a strong preseason in 2015, he quickly became the team’s number three receiver.
Roberts had a deceptively productive season as Oakland’s slot receiver. Despite only catching 32 passes, he managed to rack up 480 yards and five touchdowns. Roberts averaged a team high 15 yards per catch, and came up huge in big moments. Against the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and San Diego Chargers, Roberts had huge, game-changing catches. If the Raiders plan to evolve into an elite passing offense in 2016, Roberts has to build on last season’s momentum.
It’s a little strange that the sixth leading rusher from last season ends up on this list, but there’s no question that Latavius Murray has his doubters. When asked who they believed would lead the team in rushing, only 50% of voters said it would be Murray.
The young rushers made an impact last night, but who leads the team in rushing in 2016??
— LWOS Raiders (@LWOS_Raiders) August 13, 2016
While it’s a small sample, almost as many people voted for George Atkinson III and the rookie DeAndre Washington as they did Murray. With an improved offensive line, Murray has to step up in 2016. There are no excuses. Murray was good, but not great last season. If the rest of the backfield begins to challenge Murray for his job, and he doesn’t separate himself from the pack, he’s not the only one who suffers. The Raiders will be leaning on the run game this year, and if it doesn’t improve, the whole team will struggle. Carr and the passing game need pressure relief and the defense needs time to rest. Latavius Murray will need to break out in 2016 if the Raiders want to be successful.