Jack Del Rio likes where Oakland Raiders are headed

By The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 25, 2016 at 2:40 PM
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INDIANAPOLIS -- All the Oakland Raiders need to know about the possibilities of the 2016 season played out in Week 14 of 2015.

It was then that the Raiders beat the Denver Broncos 15-12 -- the same Broncos who went on to dominate Super Bowl 50 en route to a 24-10 win over the Carolina Panthers.

So logically ...

"It helps you realize this is something that isn't so far away," head coach Jack Del Rio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. "We were the second-to-last team to beat them in the fall. Our guys should understand that. It's not like we're talking about making it to Mars. But it's also a lot of work."

It isn't Mars, but even with an improvement to 7-9, there hasn't been a winning season since 2002 and only twice did the Raiders finish .500.

But with a franchise quarterback in Derek Carr entering his third season and a dominant defender in Khalil Mack coming out of the same draft, the Raiders have two ascending players at positions they haven't had in years.

"Two really talented guys, off to a great start in their careers," Del Rio said. "They're great kids, they're team-first guys, they're hard workers. They're both very talented. The key is to apply yourself, continue to develop your skills."

There is good, young talent throughout the roster after back-to-back strong drafts. The Raiders have a full complement of picks in 2016, but this year begin at No. 14, where it will be difficult to come away with the kind of slam dunks that Mack was in 2014 and wide receiver Amari Cooper in 2015.

Del Rio has thought big since being named the successor for interim coach Tony Sparano last year, openly talking about a division title even coming off a 3-13 season that started with 10 straight losses.

"I think it's realistic for us," Del Rio said. "I thought it was realistic for us last year to pursue that goal. It's all about the work we put in, coming together as a team.

"We laid a real nice foundation last year. We established a winning culture. We expect to go into games to be competitive and win games."

Del Rio tends to keep things close to the vest in media opportunities regarding his roster. He hoped things could be worked out with free agent-to-be left tackle Donald Penn and had no update on the neck injury sustained by Mario Edwards Jr.

But when it came to upgrading the roster, the Raiders needs are so apparent Del Rio came out and stated the obvious.

"Our secondary is going to be attacked this offseason with talent," Del Rio said. "Guys that are there are going to have to compete. We're going to be a more physical secondary next year. We're going to tackle better. We're going to play better and be a better defense. That has to happen."

--Thinking back to last year's press conference at the combine, Del Rio couldn't help but play "I told you so" after reporters questioned the deep throwing skills of Carr following a rookie season in which he averaged a meager 5.5 yards per pass attempt.

The drafting of Cooper and the signing of Michael Crabtree changed things in a hurry.

"I sat up here last year and said he could throw the deep ball well. That's something we saw on tape, but he just didn't have guys who could go get it," Del Rio said. "I feel like we've collected a couple guys who can go get it with Amari Cooper. With that, we saw him hit a higher percentage of deep balls and throw more of them last year."

--Safety Nate Allen, who earned $6.9 million of an original four-year, $23 million deal in free agency a year ago, agreed to return at a lesser rate in 2016.

On the day before $4.9 million in salary would be guaranteed for the coming season, the Raiders released Allen -- then brought him back two days later with $1.85 million in guarantees.

Allen had a decent training camp and preseason, but had an MCL injury in the opener that cost him 10 regular-season games. He missed 10 games while on injured reserve/designated for return.

When Allen did come back, he played in five games, starting three, before injuring the same knee and finishing the season on injured reserve. Allen displayed some of the same issues with tackling and coverage he had with the Philadelphia Eagles, but with the small sample size, the Raiders went ahead and brought him back for another chance in 2016.

The Raiders are thin at safety with the retirement of Charles Woodson, with Taylor Mays and Larry Asante both scheduled for free agency. TJ Carrie, going into this third year, has played both corner and safety and could settle at safety depending on what the Raiders do in free agency and the draft.

--Left tackle Donald Penn told reporters on radio row during Super Bowl week in San Francisco he was disappointed the Raiders hadn't made a move to sign him during the offseason and with free agency approaching.

Penn earned $9.6 million over two seasons and was a strong blind-side protector for quarterback Derek Carr. Penn is 32 years old and would be unlikely to get a deal for more than two years.

Over the last two seasons, Penn has been the Raiders' lone left tackle, with Austin Howard and Menelik Watson playing on the right side last season. Watson sustained a torn Achilles' tendon near the end of preseason and missed the rest of the season.

"We'll see what happens," Penn said. "I did everything I could. I had two great seasons -- two of my best -- but it's a great time to be a free agent."

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