The Minnesota Vikings will close out their 2015 home preseason schedule Saturday night when they face off with the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders are a team that have some similarities to the Vikings, as they try to pull themselves out of a malaise that has stretched on for more than a decade.
There will be several familiar faces coming to TCF Bank Stadium that had former Vikings ties.
Head coach Jack Del Rio played for the Vikings during the Denny Green era and it was Green who got him interested in coaching. Brian Billick was the offensive coordinator under Green, and when Del Rio decided to give coaching a try it was Billick who gave him his first coaching job.
Running Del Rio’s offense is embattled Bill Musgrave, who was the butt of blame for the struggles of the Vikings offense during his tenure under Leslie Frazier. He has been hired to help develop a young offense in flux, something he was forced to do with the Vikings and did willingly with the Falcons when Matt Ryan arrived. Saturday will be his first opportunity to get significant playing time with his new frontline players.
Also making a reappearance in Minnesota will be former quarterback Christian Ponder, who parted ways amicably with the Vikings following four unspectacular seasons after being the No. 12 pick in the 2011 draft. He isn’t viewed as competition for the starting job, but his knowledge of Musgrave’s offense can help him serve as a mentor to Oakland’s quarterback of the future.
With all the hype surrounding Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater in the 2014 draft, the rookie quarterback who arguably made the biggest impact was Oakland’s Derek Carr. He threw 600 passes as a rookie and, while he experienced many of the growing pains young quarterbacks go through, he had a pretty decent touchdown-to-interception ratio (21 to 12). He is viewed as the quarterback of the future in Oakland and has a lot more talent and new faces surrounding him this season than he did as a rookie.
For years, the Raiders had pinned the hopes of the running game around Darren McFadden, who couldn’t stay healthy and was rarely effective when he was on the field. With McFadden gone, playing time at running back is being competed for. Latavius Murray has the inside track after averaging more than 5 yards a carry in part-time duty last season. For some reason, a third NFL team is willing to give former third overall pick Trent Richardson another chance to prove he isn’t on the Mount Rushmore of draft busts, where he is primed to join former Raider JaMarcus Russell. Also in the mix are Roy Helu, who carved out a nice living in Washington as a third-down and change-of-pace back, and fourth-year man Taiwan Jones. The McFadden trial is (thankfully) over and the Raiders feel like they have nowhere to go but up in 2015.
The same is true at wide receiver, where Oakland has hit and missed both with draftees and free agents. This time, however, it may be difficult to screw things up because they added Amari Cooper as the top wide receiver in this year’s draft and convinced free agent Michael Crabtree to move across the bay from San Francisco to Oakland. In the span of a month, the Raiders added two receivers that were better than anyone they had on the roster in 2014 and give Carr a couple of weapons he didn’t have his rookie season.
With the improvements on offense that are expected in 2015, the biggest mending project Del Rio will be facing is a defense that allowed more points than any team in the league last year (452), but the team has invested to make sure that help is on the way.
Last year, Oakland struck gold in the draft, not only landing Carr but using its first-round pick on linebacker/defensive end hybrid Kahlil Mack. He was a risk on greatness last year coming to the NFL from the University of Buffalo but out-performed even the loftiest of expectations. He is a star ready to explode on the NFL and, if the Raiders do turn their franchise fortunes around, he will be front and center as to the reasons why.
Mack and Carr aside, the Raiders haven’t had the best of luck at drafting, so they have decided to build their team through acquiring other teams’ free agents and castoffs. Up front, the Raiders drafted defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. in the second round to compete for a starting spot. But in the short-term, the Raiders bolstered their defensive line over the last 18 months with free-agent defensive end Justin Tuck of the Giants and defensive tackle Dan Williams of Arizona. Both are veterans that can be defensive leaders as the Raiders try to develop younger talent deeper on the depth chart.
Oakland has used the same policy in the back seven of the defense, signing former Falcons and Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton, former Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, former Eagles safety Nate Allen and reunited with former Raider and, more recently, former Packer, cornerback Charles Woodson – who was the Raiders’ first-round pick in 1998.
Oakland is a team that is work in progress, hoping that a slew of outside veterans will help the growth of a young nucleus that will be the faces of the franchise until the end of the decade. They are a team looking to end a cycle of mediocrity and appear to have building blocks in place that have been missing the last several years. They don’t have a Commitment to Excellence anymore, but they have a commitment to improve and are starting to assemble the pieces they need to solve the puzzle of winning.