2017 NFL Preview: Won't be easy for Raiders to pick up where they left off

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Life was different for the Oakland Raiders a year ago.

Las Vegas seemed to be leverage for a new stadium in Oakland. Derek Carr was scheduled to make a $733,000 salary. Marshawn Lynch was riding camels in retirement. And while some people were excited about the Raiders’ potential for a breakout, they hadn’t been to the playoffs since the end of the 2002 season.

A year ago, there were no expectations for the Raiders to live up to. How times have changed.

The Raiders will be moving to Sin City, after a couple of lame-duck Oakland seasons. Carr is the highest-paid player in NFL history. Lynch is back to play in his hometown of Oakland. And the Raiders are good again.

The title of the 2016 Raiders’ preview was, “Raiders will be a Super Bowl contender, and soon.” I didn’t figure on it being this soon. However, it’s possible they won’t be one this season.

Oakland was 12-3 when Carr got hurt last season. The Raiders, predictably, fell apart without Carr. They lost the season finale and a strange playoff game against the Houston Texans. It was a crushing end to an otherwise storybook season, but it didn’t seem like Oakland fans were too broken up. After all, if a relatively young Raiders team could win 12 games in 2016, the sky would be the limit this season. Right?

Improvement isn’t always linear. There are plenty of indicators that the Raiders’ record was a bit bloated last season. According to pythagorean wins (based on points scored and points allowed) and Football Outsiders’ estimated wins metric, the Raiders played like an 8.8-win team last season. They caught some breaks. They were 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less and 4-1 in games decided by a field goal or less, and those records usually are closer to .500. Oakland was propped up a bit by a plus-16 turnover margin, which was tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for best in the NFL and a whopping plus-4 better than the third-place team.

This is a very good Raiders team. It could be even better this season and still not win 12 games. It’s fine to catch some breaks during a season. It’s just hard to repeat those tricks (though, the horrible luck of losing your star quarterback in Week 16 probably won’t happen again either).

Expectations are the Raiders will pick up where they left off when Carr broke his leg. Carr was on the edge of the MVP race, and he’s in just his fourth season. Khalil Mack won NFL defensive player of the year, and he’s also in his fourth season. Most of the Raiders’ best players are back, and it’s possible Lynch has one more superstar season left after resting his legs for a year.

The expectation is that the Raiders will be right back in the playoffs after their breakthrough season. The talent is certainly in place. But sometimes things can change dramatically and unexpectedly from year to year.

Khalil Mack and Derek Carr helped lead the Raiders back to the playoffs in 2016. (AP)

The grade probably depends on what you think of Marshawn Lynch. It’s hard to predict what the Raiders are getting with him, and how much better he’ll be at 31 years old than departed Latavius Murray. The Raiders also added tight end Jared Cook and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Cook had a solid season for the Green Bay Packers last season and despite whatever flaws Patterson has as a receiver, he’s the best kickoff returner in the NFL. Both moves make sense. The Raiders lost a lot from their defensive front seven – linebackers Perry Riley and Malcolm Smith, defensive tackles Dan Williams and Stacy McGee – but the front seven wasn’t great last season so they might be better off. The draft helped the secondary, with Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley (as long as he doesn’t find himself in legal trouble over a highly publicized rape allegation) in the first round and UConn safety Obi Melifonwu in the second. I thought the Lynch acquisition was a fine gamble, but I won’t raise the Raiders’ grade too much because of it. Grade: C+.

It’s not hyperbolic to believe this could be the NFL’s best offense. Derek Carr took a huge step forward last season and he seems like the type of player who wants to be great. The receiver combination of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree is one of the best 1-2 punches in the league. The offensive line is among the best. Then add Marshawn Lynch to run behind that line, and Jared Cook as a probable upgrade at tight end. There are a few really good offenses in the NFL but Oakland doesn’t take a backseat to any of them, especially if Lynch looks like his old self.

The defense was surprisingly poor last season. Oakland had NFL defensive player of the year Khalil Mack but as a team had an NFL-low 25 sacks. Only one team (the Green Bay Packers) allowed more than the 7.8 yards per pass attempt given up by the Raiders. They gave up the most 20-yard passes (61) and tied for the most 40-yard passes allowed (16) in the NFL. This was after the Raiders added cornerback Sean Smith, safeties Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin last offseason. They didn’t help. The Raiders focused on defense in this year’s draft, but didn’t do much in free agency to fix any issues. There are some good players on this defense, but the results last season didn’t reflect it. We know Oakland’s offense will be good, but we can’t say the same about the defense and there’s no great reason to believe it will be much better.

Derek Carr isn’t perfect. His 7.0 yards per attempt the last couple years is low, especially for someone with receivers as good as Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. He sometimes has issues with lower-body mechanics. But how many quarterbacks under 27 years old would you take ahead of Carr? Even if he’s not No. 1 on your list, there can’t be many ahead of him. He’s got a great arm, good athleticism, is a fine leader and has always been ahead of the curve on understanding the nuances of playing quarterback, thanks to his brother. He is also calm under pressure. Carr was credited with seven fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives last season. Even if you think his record-setting five-year, $125 million deal is a bit rich, it’s hard to argue with the Raiders giving it to him. If Oakland – or Las Vegas – has hopes of winning a Super Bowl soon, it’s because of their young franchise quarterback.

Derek Carr and Khalil Mack were in the same Raiders draft class, and their careers will be intertwined for a long time. Even if Carr plays a more important position and has the bigger paycheck, Mack is the Raiders’ best player. Mack started his career as an outside linebacker and moved to defensive end, and he has the athleticism to be a dominant player at either spot. Headed into last season Mack was a great bet to win a defensive player of the year award at some point in his career, and he took care of that in his third season. Mack is signed through the 2018 season, but Oakland probably won’t wait too long to give him an extension. Carr got $125 million, and Mack should come close to that. Having two mega-deals like that will hinder the Raiders’ salary-cap flexibility, but that’s a problem for down the road.

From Yahoo Sports’ Scott Pianowski: “From a fun standpoint, the return of Marshawn Lynch is a joyous event. But we’re not marketing our fantasy rosters, we just want the numbers. Lynch not only skipped the 2016 season entirely, but he was a stumbling mess of fantasy mediocrity back in 2015; and now he’s 31. Oakland’s super offensive line helps, but the Raiders have underrated RB depth behind Lynch (look at the juicy per-play stats posted by DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard). Lynch’s ADP is fluctuating all over the place; sometimes he’s a second-round reach, sometimes he’s a fourth-round gambit. I’d rather take a surer thing in those pockets (probably a wideout), and let someone else make the buzzy pick. (And give me some Washington in the late rounds, please.) In the end, gravity always wins.”

[Pressing Questions: Fantasy outlook on the Raiders]

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The Raiders have had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in the same season three times in their history. In 1968 it was Warren Wells and Fred Biletnikoff, in 2001 it was Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, and last season Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree joined that select group. Cooper had 1,153 yards to Crabtree’s 1,003, though Crabtree beat Cooper in catches (89-83) and touchdowns (8-5). Crabtree was a great signing by general manager Reggie McKenzie, but Cooper is still the star. Cooper has gone over 1,000 yards in both of his NFL seasons, and the next trick will be catching Derek Carr’s eye in the red zone. Cooper had just 13 red-zone targets last season, fewer than players like Jermaine Kearse and Nelson Agholor. Given Cooper’s tremendous overall talent and Carr’s ability to get him the ball, it seems like Cooper is capable of doubling his touchdown total this season.

WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM MARSHAWN LYNCH?

No matter what happens in 2017, it won’t change that Lynch has had a Hall-of-Fame level career. What he did for the Seattle Seahawks, as perhaps the most important figure in their climb to the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history, secures his place in NFL history. But nobody is guaranteed to be great forever. Lynch is 31 and was out of football last season. In 2015 he had just 417 yards in seven games as he battled injuries. Here’s the optimistic view: Lynch will be healthy and fresh after resting his body for a year, and he’ll put up fantastic numbers behind a punishing offensive line that is by far the best he has played with in his career. It’s also possible Lynch is never going to recapture his Seattle magic. Since 1990, only 11 backs at age 31 or older rushed for 1,000 yards (Emmitt Smith and Frank Gore each did it twice). Lynch is a special player and he steps into a good situation, so maybe he can beat that history. However, the acquisition of Lynch might not turn out as well as Raiders fans hope.

One of the common questions of the offseason has been, who can knock off the Patriots in the AFC? Oakland might be on a short list. The Raiders could score with the Patriots in a single-game elimination situation and perhaps pull off an upset (slowing the Patriots down will probably be the problem). And if there’s an improvement on defense – there’s certainly enough individual talent for it – then we’re really talking about a Super Bowl contender.

We saw how bad the Raiders were late last season without Derek Carr, so an injury to their quarterback is the worst-case scenario. But that’s true for most NFL teams. There is a chance Carr is healthy and the Raiders don’t post a record nearly as good as last season’s mark. Because expectations are bigger, anything short of another playoff berth would be viewed as a huge disappointment. The defense could struggle again and maybe Oakland won’t be as fortunate in areas like turnover margin and record in close games. Also consider the Raiders are in a very tough division. A second straight playoff berth won’t be easy.

The AFC West is tough to predict. You can make a reasonable argument for any team finishing in first or last place. I think the Raiders will be good again, but it will be hard to duplicate the record they posted before Carr got hurt. Of course, there’s no guarantee the Chiefs replicate their 2016 season either. Although I have the Chiefs higher in the rankings, I’ll probably end up picking the Raiders to win the division. It’s a team you’d figure will continue to peak as the season goes on, and an AFC West title is some unfinished business from last season.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!