Of all of Reggie McKenzie's 2014 free agent acquisitions, it seems like Donald Penn has been the biggest asset thus far. From a statistical/metric point of view, he seems to be playing at a high level. Has he been an improvement at left tackle? How has he gelled with his fellow offensive linemen?
Donald Penn has done a great job manning the left tackle position for the Silver & Black thus far. Penn came into camp and his first year with the Raiders lighter and in better condition as he wanted to prove that his play last year was not symbolic of who he is. He has also really benefitted from the tutelage of offensive line guru Tony Sparano, who is now the interim head coach.
For an offensive line that features only two of the same starters from last year, the Raiders offensive line has come together nicely and done a solid job in protecting Derek Carr (giving up just nine sacks, tied with Denver). Their struggles come in the running game, where the Raiders have hard a tough time finding a push at the line of scrimmage.
Speaking of Reggie McKenzie, do you believe that his approach, both in the draft and in free agency, has been ineffective? Or has it been a failure at the coaching level?
It's tough to say exactly what the problem is, which likely means it is a combination of both. That said, McKenzie appears to have largely missed on free agent signing such as Carlos Rogers, LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Maurice Jones-Drew, etc. Many of the "veteran" pick ups he has made have not produced the way he expected.
On the other side, McKenzie did have a nice draft this year - finding Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, Justin Ellis and TJ Carrie. All five of these players have either started or made great contributions to the team this season. It will be interesting to see if he gets another shot next year to see if he can keep building this team up with some young talent.
When evaluating QB prospects for the 2014 draft, I had a very high grade on Derek Carr. He is a phenomenal arm talent. Is there a concern that the Raiders might be repeating the same history that his brother, David, endured by putting a talented young player, oozing potential, into a bad situation and possibly stunting his growth as a QB by failing to win games?
Regarding Derek Carr, I don't think that the Raiders are repeating the same mistake that Houston made with his brother David. While the Raiders are lacking top talent at the wide receiver position, they are protecting Carr and he has only been sacked nine times. David Carr was sacked 76 times in his rookie year... and then another 68 in 2005.
The Raiders certainly need to get him some more offensive weapons, but Derek has already shown great potential in possibly developing into the franchise quarterback that this team has been desperately looking for. He's a very confident kid and has continued to develop and get better each week, even as the losses have piled up.
Although Khalil Mack has yet to record his first NFL sack, there's not doubting that the Raiders finally hit on a high draft pick. With a +24.4 overall rating, he is the 2nd highest rated 3-4 outside linebacker via PFF, behind only Justin Houston. How has he impacted a Raiders defense, that features a lot of aged veterans in the twilight of their respective careers?
You're absolutely right, there's no doubt that the Raiders hit when they drafted Khalil Mack fifth-overall back in May. Mack has certainly impacted the Raiders' defense despite still looking for that first NFL sack. Opposing offensive lines have often doubled him, knowing that the rest of the Raiders defensive line is struggling to get into the backfield.
Mack has also been great against the run thus far. He has been able to get off blocks and tackle the ball carrier, including in the backfield. While referees have missed some of the calls, Mack has also beaten his man and drawn holding penalties on offensive linemen. If the Raiders can continue to build up their defensive line around Mack, he will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.
The Raiders have been on the losing end of several close games. What has been the biggest factor that has held them back from getting over the hump and closing out games?
Despite being 0-8, the Raiders have at least been competitive for the most part, as you mentioned. Much of their struggles come from the inability to execute properly in crunch time. There have been times where the Raiders could use a first down or use a third-down stop, and haven't executed properly.
The Raiders are converting on first down just over 36-percent of the time, 26th in the league. Meanwhile, when they need a stop to get the ball back and get a chance to comeback late, they're giving up a third-down conversion 47 percent of the time. The Raiders fail at executing late in the games, and they need to change that around if they want to get in the win column.