The NFL playoff field narrowed from 12 teams to eight over the weekend, with four teams being eliminated from the tournament in the Wild Card round, setting up semi-final games in each conference for this Saturday and Sunday.
All four of the teams eliminated from the postseason last weekend happened to be Wild Card teams, meaning they came up short in more ways than one, first of a division title and then of a playoff victory. But while those four teams won’t be competing for a championship in 2017, there is plenty to build upon in each location. In all four cases, the losing team just needs to add some things to its existing core to take the next step toward championship contention.
First, we’ll start with the Oakland Raiders.
The Raiders are currently the best team of the group that was eliminated and they likely would have made a deeper playoff run if not for the devastating injury suffered by emerging star quarterback Derek Carr in Week 16. It can even be argued that if reserve quarterback Matt McGloin had been fully healthy, Oakland would have put up more of a fight against the Houston Texans than they did behind rookie quarterback Connor Cook, who was abysmal in his first NFL start.
The return of Carr, who is line for an offseason contract extension, to lead the Raiders next year along with a core that will mostly remain intact should make Oakland a favorite to claim the AFC West crown they came up just short of in 2016. However, the Raiders do have some things they need to address this offseason to take that next step. On offense, in addition to locking up Carr, Oakland needs to figure out where things are headed with their running game. The Raiders spent millions last offseason to upgrade their offensive line and it worked in many
On offense, in addition to locking up Carr, Oakland needs to figure out where things are headed with their running game. The Raiders spent millions last offseason to upgrade their offensive line and it worked in many ways, giving them one of the top-ranked units in the league. That group served Carr well, and despite the fact that he was injured on a sack, he took half as many hits in 2016 as he had the year prior. Oakland also ranked sixth in the league in rushing offense at 120 yards per game, despite a revolving door at the position that saw three players get more than 80 carries.
The lead back was Latavius Murray, but he missed four games due to injury and was woefully ineffective late in the season. However, he was a touchdown machine, scoring 12 of them. Now Murray is a free agent and, at 27, likely to command a huge deal on the open market if he gets there. His backups in Oakland, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, are solid complimentary players, but ill-suited to carry the bulk of the load, so the Raiders have to weigh whether they want to invest long term in an inconsistent running back with a high upside, or if they want to try to address the position through the draft or free agency. Given the current landscape at the position, it might be their toughest call of the offseason and smart money leans toward the known commodity in Murray rather than the unknown.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Raiders are likely to seek upgrades in their linebacking corps, where end-of-season starters at will and mike linebacker, Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley, are both free agents. Cory James, a sixth-round pick in the 2016 draft, played well in his first season and could fit in one of those roles, but Oakland could use a commanding presence in the middle to guide the group. The Raiders also could seek some upgrades on the inside of their defensive line, where Dan Williams, one of the team’s big-ticket free agent signings two years ago, led a group of defensive tackles that was mediocre at best and often much worse. Improving at middle linebacker and defensive tackle and strengthening the interior of the defense as a whole would go a long way toward improving a run defense that ranked 23rd in the league.