There are expectations and anticipation about the Oakland Raiders unlike we’ve seen since the morning of a blowout Super Bowl XXXVII loss to Tampa Bay in 2003.
It’s been 14 seasons since Oakland has made the playoffs or even had a winning record. It is tied with Cleveland for the second-longest playoff drought in the NFL behind Buffalo.
But there are legitimate postseason vibes brewing in Oakland. There’s young, athletic, dynamic, explosive hope in Oakland.
After years of whiffing in the draft in the later years of the Al Davis’ regime and early years of the Reggie McKenzie tenure, the Raiders were without a foundation and had the league’s most unimpressive roster. The Raiders’ identity was that they didn’t have an identity.
Yet in the span of two drafts, McKenzie has struck gold and suddenly Oakland has perhaps the very best nucleus of young players in the NFL. Here are the Oakland Raiders’ three best players in order: Defensive end Khalil Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Mack was the No. 5 overall pick in 2014. Carr was sitting there for Oakland in the next round at No. 36. Cooper was the No. 4 overall pick in 2015. In a short amount of time, those three players have already emerged as Oakland’s best players.
Mack is 25, Carr is 25 and Cooper is 22. They are both the present and the future of the Raiders. These guys, all known for their character and work ethic as much as their natural ability, are all just entering their primes. This is the gift for the years of misery in Oakland.
If the Raiders hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the fourth time in franchise history in the next decade or so, it will be because of this dynamic trio picked in the early part of back-to-back drafts.
This group is arguably the best centerpiece group of 25 or younger in the entire NFL.
Jacksonville is in great shape for the future with quarterback Blake Bortles (24), receivers Allen Hurns (24) and Allen Robinson (23), and rookie defensive players in cornerback Jalen Ramsey (21) and linebacker Myles Jack (20). But Oakland probably gets the edge now because of the combination of proven experience and youth.
The Los Angeles Rams have an interesting young core with star defensive tackle Aaron Donald (25), running back Todd Gurley (22) and rookie quarterback Jared Goff (21), but we have to see Goff at a high level before anointing this group.
In Oakland, the Mack, Carr and Cooper trio appears destined to be successful for an extended period.
“It’s certainly a talented group,” former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said. “Those are the type of players Oakland can win with now and build on. All three of them can be special. I like what they having going on with those three.”
Sundquist said it benefits Oakland because their three young stars all play key roles. Sundquist said that Carr and Mack play the most critical positions on their respective sides of the ball.
“The quarterback and pass rusher kind of control things,” Sundquist. “They both have a chance to positively impact the other 10 people on their units. And the chemistry between a quarterback and a star receiver extends greatly. You can see Amari and Carr have a great chemistry.”
Carr and Cooper – who requested to be roommates in training camp this summer to continue to build chemistry – had an instant success last season. Cooper had 72 catches for 1,070 yards (he became Oakland’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Randy Moss in 2005) and he had six touchdowns.
Carr and Cooper had a natural connection and this tweet from a Week 2 preseason loss in Green Bay shows the future is bright for both Carr and Cooper.
??this is as good of a throw as you see by any QB this preseason. Wow. https://t.co/jbOF91cKFD
— Brian Billick (@CoachBillick) August 24, 2016
While Carr and Cooper appear to have the Raiders set for the future, Mack will be the centerpiece of a growing defense. Mack had 15 sacks in his second season (including five in the second half of an Oakland upset win in Denver). The Raiders think Mack can realistically be a threat to get 20 sacks and be a candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Mack’s presence has helped attract free agents to Oakland, including Bruce Irvin from Seattle. Irvin is going to be Mack’s complementary pass rusher and he is thrilled to be joining forces with one of the NFL’s best young players.
“The biggest thing about (Mack), when a guy has had as much success as he’s had in the first two years of his career, some guys seem to not take advice or seem to not work hard, but he comes to work every day,” Irvin said. “He takes advice from me. I take advice from him. I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it, I really think this was meant to be, to be teamed up with him. We’re going to continue to push each other each and every day and we’re going to really make it happen this year.”
With Mack, Carr and Cooper leading the charge, Irvin and the rest of his teammates have a chance to make it happen for several years to come.