2016 State of the AFC West: Oakland Raiders

The Oakland Raiders are everybody's trendy pick to win the AFC West in 2016, but hype alone won't get them far in a bruising division.

The Oakland Raiders might not have a winning season since 2002, but if you've happened to turn on ESPN or NFL Network in the past few months, you undoubtedly know that the Raiders have officially won the NFL offseason. They join perennial winners like the Jacksonville JaguarsMiami Dolphins, and Washington Redskins.

In all seriousness, the Raiders were a 7-9 team last year that, like just about every other NFL franchise, signed and drafted multiple players that they believe will make them better at football. And to be fair, they probably are. Just don't go buying your tickets for the Jags-Raiders AFC Championship Game just yet.

Quarterbacks usually make their biggest leap in between year two and three, but Derek Carr seems to have already covered that in his sophomore season. After an already impressive rookie season with an abysmal receiving corps, Carr jumped from 24 to 32 touchdowns and added 717 passing yards in 2015.

There's a lot to like from Carr; he has a big arm, climbs the pocket well, and throws with both touch and velocity. However, he still needs to improve his timing and cut down on late throws if he wants to become an elite quarterback, or more importantly, make the playoffs.

Carr's numbers improved in part because the Raiders went out and got Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, and Seth Roberts, who combined for 20 touchdowns. Throw in 1,066 yards from running back Latavius Murray and the Raiders look like a formidable offense.

The other side of the ball is headlined by Khalil Mack, who became the first player in NFL history to be voted first-team All-Pro at two positions; linebacker and defensive end. Denver Broncos fans know Mack best as the player who blew through right tackle Michael Schofield and the rest of the offensive line for five sacks in Week 14.

Behind the pass rushers, the Raiders defense was fairly porous. The retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Charles Woodson didn't help things, but the void that he left was quickly addressed.

Free Agent Additions

The Raiders didn't waste any time making a big splash, making former Baltimore Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele the crown jewel of their free agency haul with a five-year, $58.5 million contract. Osemele's biggest challenge will be to improve the 3.9 yards per carry the Raiders rushed for last year. He joins a solid interior line wit Gabe Jackson and Rodney Hudson.

After bolstering the offensive line, the Raiders turned their focus to the defense and made three key signings. Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin was added from the Seattle Seahawks to provide a pass rush opposite Mack, which was a necessity considering the uncertainty of Aldon Smith's availability in 2016.  

http://www.scout.com/nfl/broncos/story/1681565-5-reasons-you-should-go-p...Oakland desperately needed help at cornerback after last season, so they wisely picked up Sean Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs. This addition will allow them to move away from disastrous former first-round pick D.J. Hayden and allow Smith and David Amerson to get most of the snaps on the outside. Smith's length (six-foot-three) makes him an ideal option against the bigger receivers in the division like Demaryius Thomas and Keenan Allen.

On the back end, the Raiders plucked nine-year veteran Reggie Nelson from the Cincinnati Bengals to fill the hole at safety.  Nelson has a nose for the ball (eight picks in 2015) and will deliver some crushing hits, but often gets burned when he guesses wrong.  It's a little concerning that the Cincinnati Bengals opted to pay their other safety, George Iloka, and let Shawn Williams assume Nelson's role.

On the whole, it has to be encouraging for Raiders fans to see the front office investing in their defense and offensive line rather than superfluous speed demons like in the days of old.  

Rookie Additions

The Raiders spent their first three picks in the draft adding reinforcements to the defense. With the 14th overall pick, Oakland took West Virginia Mountaineers safety Karl Joseph. Joseph suffered a torn ACL after just four games in 2015, but was able to notch five interceptions in that short span. By picking up Joseph and Nelson, the Raiders will have two physical, ball-hawking safeties, but no true center fielder to cover deep down the field.

The next pick was used on Illinois Fighting Illini defensive lineman Jihad Ward. Ward is a versatile player that can play both end and tackle, but the pick was a bit confusing considering the other defensive lineman, like A'Shawn Robinson, that were still on the board at that time. Ward should see most of his snaps on first and second down as he doesn't add much as a pass rusher.  

Oakland did draft a pass rusher, however, when they snagged Michigan State Spartans linebacker Shilique Calhoun. Calhoun isn't great against the run, but as the Broncos have made clear, you can never have too many guys harassing the quarterback.

The Raiders rounded out the class with Connor CookDeAndre WashingtonCory James, and Vadal Alexander. The Cook pick was a bit of a shock; Carr is the established starter and Matt McGloin appears to be a serviceable backup.

Better or Worse?

There's no denying that, at least on paper, the Raiders are a better team than they were last year. But what exactly does that mean? When you scrutinize their whole season, it appears they may not been as good as their record indicated last year.  

After a 3-13 campaign, the Raiders took advantage of a last-place schedule in 2015. Only two of their wins came against teams that finished with a winning record (Broncos and Jets) and five of their seven wins were one-score games.

The Verdict: 8-8

The Raiders are going to have a tough time in the improved AFC West, and teams that throw the deep ball well (Carolina PanthersJacksonville JaguarsNew Orleans Saints) will take advantage of their lack of a true free safety. They also neglected to spend money or a high draft pick on someone to complement Murray in the backfield, so their low-efficiency running game remains a problem.

8-8 might come across as a slight against Raider Nation, but quite honestly, it's a record that's a little more grounded in reality than the hype men on the sports networks would lead you to believe.

RELATED: State of the AFC West: San Diego Chargers

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Will Keys is an Analyst for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.

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