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AFC West camp preview: Del Rio tries to turn Raiders around

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The Sports Xchange

A camp that lasts nearly a month affords the Oakland Raiders the opportunity to forge yet another new identity under coach Jack Del Rio.

Del Rio has done his best during the offseason to sweep away 13 non-winning seasons, including 11 years of double-digit losses, by stressing the positive and largely ignoring the negative.

The new coach, having grown up in the East Bay, has made no secret of the fact that coaching the Raiders is his dream job. He arrives with a mandate from owner Mark Davis and what appears to be kindred spirit in general manager Reggie McKenzie.

The roster has gotten considerably better in the offseason — maybe not enough for the first foray into the postseason since 2002, but perhaps the stepping stone to respectability the franchise has been seeking for more than a decade.

Twice the Raiders got to .500 — under Tom Cable in 2010 and Hue Jackson in 2011 — but it was a mirage as the McKenzie-Dennis Allen era wiped out salary cap issues as well as roster talent as the Raiders hit the skids.

Unlike last season, when McKenzie and Allen brought in aging free agents, McKenzie and Del Rio instead focused on players in their late 20s and ostensibly in their prime — including center Rodney Hudson, defensive tackle Dan Williams, safety Nate Allen, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, linebacker Curtis Lofton and running back Roy Helu Jr.

What could be one of the top draft classes in franchise history in 2014 featured instant starters in quarterback Derek Carr, strong side linebacker Khalil Mack, guard Gabe Jackson and defensive tackle Justin Ellis. A potential impact player was added when wide receiver Amari Cooper was added in the first round this year.

Although drafts are a crap shoot, the Raiders also feel good about defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and tight end Clive Walford contributing immediately.

Immediate concerns as camp begins will be upgrading the NFL’s 32nd-ranked rushing attack, with the hope that third-year back Latavius Murray builds on a late-season audition (82 carries, 424 yards) that saw him average 5.2 yards per attempt.

Offensive line coach Mike Tice has talked up an offensive line he believes is the most athletic he’s ever had, with tackle Donald Penn and Jackson showing power to the left of Hudson at center.

As camp develops, the Raiders’ ability to defend the pass will be watched closely. Their close-but-no-cigar pass rush netted only 22 sacks, although it got some pressure.

At cornerback, after going the one-and-done veteran route (Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer in 2012, Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter in 2013, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown last season) the Raiders are instead going with youth in third-year player DJ Hayden and second-year corners TJ Carrie and Keith McGill.

But mostly, camp will be about the tone set by Del Rio and Co., and whether non-producing players will find themselves immediately tethered to the bench or the waiver wire.

Over the last few years, other than changes they didn’t want at quarterback, lineup changes made for performance reasons during camp have been few and far between.

The Raiders will be in Napa for 26 days with 16 scheduled practices, breaking camp on Aug. 25, two days after the second-preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings.

CAMP CALENDAR

July 30: Player report

July 31: First practice

Aug. 25: Camp ends

Team strength: Linebacker

Khalil Mack gives the Raiders a budding star, a player who can be one of the NFL’s dominant defenders against both the run and pass. He will do virtually all his work moving forward as a pass rusher or a run-stuffer. Veteran Curtis Lofton lends a steadying veteran presence along with Mack and there are appealing options on the weak side, including Sio Moore (when healthy), Ray-Ray Armstrong and Malcolm Smith.

Breakout player: QB Derek Carr has been given the kind of supporting cast that will help him excel after surviving a 16-start rookie year that had a lot of good but some very real points of concern. Rookie WR Amari Cooper, who also could break out in his first year, should take care of the league-worst 5.5 yards per pass attempt.

–Work in progress: Cornerback.

This is the Raiders’ most inexperienced position, with the primary competitors being DJ Hayden, TJ Carrie and Keith McGill.

Coach Jack Del Rio wants to give the young players a chance to seize the moment, but wouldn’t rule out looking at veterans if need be if the trio doesn’t hold its own during training camp.


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