Skill positions hold key to playoffs for Oakland Raiders

With a week to go before the Oakland Raiders kick off their 2012 season, we breakdown the 53 men who will take on the San Diego Chargers.

We start with the players who will make the biggest impact on whether or not Oakland sneaks into the playoffs this season- the skill players. Last season the Raiders finished in a tie atop the AFC West, but missed out on the playoffs by finishing third on the tiebreaker. While the defense certainly played a part in the Raiders missing the postseason, the skill positions failed them at some crucial times in games especially in the 28-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7.

Gone are last season’s leading rusher Michael Bush and three of last season’s top-six receivers. Injuries to Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore could be problematic for a team with only five receivers on the roster. Star running back Darren McFadden is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the last nine games of last season and backup running back Taiwan Jones has all of 16 carries in his career. Oakland has no true pass catching tight end, but three solid blocking ones instead. Despite all of this the Raiders have the talent at these positions to contend in a weak AFC West.

Running Backs: McFadden is clearly the class of the bunch despite having not played since that loss to the Chiefs on Oct. 23. When healthy he is one of the premier backs in the NFL and will help to carry this team offensively. When McFadden needs a spell, Jones will need to step up and deliver some quality carries which Jones did last season. The 2010 Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year is also a threat out of the backfield in the passing game which was evident on his 30-yard catch against the Chiefs in Week 7.

Mike Goodson is a solid third-string running back who showed he can be productive at this level during the 2010 season. He played in all 16 games, starting three for them for the Carolina Panthers and ran for 452 yards and three touchdowns on 103 carries. At fullback, Marcel Reese and Owen Schmitt give Oakland some great blocking for McFadden and some pass catching ability out of the backfield. Reese was especially potent in the passing game the last two seasons, combining for 634 yards, five touchdowns and 52 receptions. While Schmitt is not as prolific offensively, he is a big strong back who can use his strength to power through the line or block for McFadden  in short yardage situations.

Tight Ends: The tight ends have combined for 35 receptions as a unit and five years of NFL experience. Brandon Meyers has the most experience of the bunch entering his fourth season in the league after playing his college ball at Iowa. David Ausberry and Richard Gordon both enter their second year in the league and will be used mostly in passing situations.

None of these players will be expected to provide much help in the passing game, but will be expected to help open up holes for McFadden to run through especially on the goal line and other short yardage situations. I would not be shocked to see Oakland add a pass catching tight end to exploit the seams, but then again the Raiders will be a run-first team and will need all the blocking help they can get.

Wide Receivers: The most fascinating position on the Oakland Raiders is the wideouts. Only five are listed on the roster and they are a mixture of size and speed, both of which is important in the 21st century NFL. The leader of this group is Darrius Heyward-Bey, the leading receiver last season with 975 yards and 64 catches. Moore had more than 600 yards and five touchdowns last season and will be expected to raise both totals in 2012. Ford will add some speed in the slot and will be the team’s third receiver to begin the season.

The two interesting receivers are both rookies who have had distinct paths. Juron Criner was a fifth-round pick who left Arizona with more than 2,800 yards and 200 receptions and was coveted for his six-foot, three-inch frame. However, Criner will likely start as the fifth receivers after being overshadowed by Rod Streater, who shot up the depth chart after signing as an undrafted free agent.

Also six feet and three inches tall, Streater has made a name for himself in training camp and took snaps with the first team offense during training camp while Ford and Moore nursed injuries. He only made 19 catches during his senior year at Temple, although he gained more than 400 yards and caught three touchdowns.

There is no doubt Carson Palmer has a lot of weapons to choose from this season, but the key for Oakland’s chances of making the playoffs is whether or not these skill players step up and perform up to expectations.

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