Here come the Oakland Raiders.
Week nine of the NFL season is almost in the bag. One of the biggest stories, this week, will undoubtedly concern the Silver and Black, who are coming off a 30-20 trouncing of the Denver Broncos.
Physically, Oakland dominated their division-rivals, averaging 5 yards per rush, to Denver’s 2.8. They harassed Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian into posting his lowest, single-game, completion percentage of the season (48.6%). He was picked off to end the game.
The two teams don’t meet again until week 17, and you have a feeling that the defending champs will have that date circled. Until then, however, bragging rights will reside in the Bay Area.
Oakland has played strong football, this season – particularly on an offense. Led by third-year-quarterback Derek Carr, the Raiders rank second in total yards (3,610) and third in points scored (245).
They’ve been explosive (56 plays of 20+ yards) while maintaining efficiency (6 turnovers – tied for third lowest in the league). While their defense hasn’t been great, it’s been good enough to keep them in games. At 7-2, they now sit alone, atop the AFC West.
The key to the Raiders’ success has been their play in the trenches: namely, the offensive line. Here are the gentlemen responsible:
Raiders 2016 offensive line
LT Donald Penn 6-4, 340, 33, FA (2014)
LG Kelechi Osemele 6-5, 330, 27, FA (2016)
C Rodney Hudson 6-2, 300, 27, FA (2015)
RG Gabe Jackson 6-3, 336, 25, Draft (2014, 3rd round)
RT Austin Howard 6-7, 333, 29, FA (2014)
RT Menelik Watson 6-5, 315, 27, Draft (2013, 2nd round)*
*Watson is listed at number one on the Raiders depth chart, but has been sidelined since week 3 with a calf injury.
As you can see, the Oakland front office has placed a premium on upgrading up front, as two-thirds of the line was acquired via free agency.
None have provided more value than Penn. He is the unit’s graybeard, at 33, but is ranked number one by Football Outsiders’ metrics. The Raiders are averaging a league-high, 5.48 yards-per-play, when they run or pass in his direction.
As a unit, the line ranks among the NFL’s elite in terms of sacks allowed, with 11. The Broncos got to him twice – just the fourth time they’ve given up multiple sacks all season. The first one was simply due to Von Miller being Von Miller. The Raiders won’t have to face number 58 every week.
Oakland has paid for the privilege of such protection, with the priciest-unit in the league. Here are the 2016 cap hits of those players (salaries and figures according to spotrac):
Matt McCants $1,000,000
John Feliciano $345,489
Vadal Alexander $76,846
2016 Salary Cap: $155,270,000
Percentage of 2016 Cap: 22.92%
The top five O-line investors, in case you were wondering, are as follows:
1) Oakland, 22.92%
2) Philadelphia, 21.81%
3) Houston, 20.55%
4) Minnesota, 20.25%
5) Miami, 18.57%
How much bang are these teams getting for their buck? Here are how that same five rank against the run and against the pass, respectively:
Oakland, 11th, 1st
Philadelphia 15th, 15th
Houston, 9th, 11th
Minnesota, 31st, 25th
Miami, 1st, 30th
The Raiders have invested a lot of money, but it has proved to be a wise investment. Additionally, the contracts are heavily-front-loaded, protecting the team against future, performance drops.
The team has been in talks with Derek Carr’s people regarding a long-term, contract-extension. The figures are rumored to be in “Andrew Luck territory.”
Unlike Luck’s hapless Colts, Oakland will have the horses in place to protect their investment.