1. Can Dennis Allen right the ship in Oakland?
Things didn't exactly go as hoped in Dennis Allen's first season as Raiders head coach, as the team stumbled to a 4-12 finish. Despite the team's struggles, Oakland was able to steal a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in week four, and also went on the road and gave the Atlanta Falcons all they could handle in a tough road loss.
Allen had been a defensive coach in the NFL since the 2002 season when he broke in as an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, and was the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos last season. Despite the fact that Allen seems to have a very good mind for defense, the personnel was simply lacking across the board this season, as injuries and mediocre talent at several positions really limited the team's ability to stop opposing offenses.
Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie will have their work cut out for them this offseason, as Oakland ranked in the bottom-third of the league in scoring defense (27.7), interceptions (11) and passing touchdowns (28).
Also of concern was the Raiders inability to run the ball effectively, as 2009 first round pick Darren McFadden again missed time due to injury, and ran for a career-low 3.3 yards per carry. Part of that can be attributed to sub-par offensive line play, but the injury bug has to be particularly concerning for all who follow Oakland football, as McFadden has played in just 57 of a possible 80 games through his first five seasons.
2. What are the odds Darren McFadden becomes an elite running back?
The running game for Oakland this season was downright putrid, as the team averaged just 88.8 yards per game and totaled just four rushing touchdowns on the season. Yet again in 2012, 2008 1st-round pick Darren McFadden missed multiple seasons due to injury, as an ankle sprain caused him to miss four contests. In his career, McFadden has never played in more than 13 games in a season, and has been participated in 57 of a possible 80 team games through his first five years in the league.
Even when he was on the field, McFadden wasn't the dynamic runner we had become accustomed to in 2010 and 2011, as he averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry while totaling 707 rush yards in 2012. The dismissal of offensive coordinator Greg Knapp reflects on both the blocking scheme (which, along with the play of the offensive line, was sub-par), and the lack of balanced play-calling.
With 2013 being the final year on McFadden's six-year rookie contract, time is running out for him to prove he's worthy of a contract extension by being productive AND staying healthy.
3. The pending secondary shake-up?
Oakland allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for a whopping 10.8 yards per attempt (with 28 touchdowns) this season while intercepting just eleven passes. Part of the problem can be attributed to a pass rush that produced just 25 sacks (31st in NFL), yet the play of the cornerbacks in particular is concerning.
The team has several free agents in their secondary, including safeties Matt Giordano and Mike Mitchell, as well as cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer, Joeselio Hanson and Coye Francies. The team may look to retain Spencer, who is a serviceable corner that spent his first eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and is a solid cover corner, though he is probably closer to the end of his career than his prime.
Management will no doubt look to improve their corner play this offseason, though this draft likely doesn't have a cornerback worthy of being selected at #3. Players like Oregon State's Jordan Poyer or Florida State's Xavier Rhodes could be targeted in the second round.
The safety play for Oakland wasn't terrible in 2012, so expect the same starting pair of Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch for 2013. as they are both solid players in their prime that are both signed through at least 2014.
4. Will the Raiders retain Richard Seymour?
In September of 2009, Oakland gave New England a 2010 first-round pick for Seymour, a five-time Pro Bowler to bolster the the team's interior defensive line play. Seymour has been solid since joining the Raiders, racking up 139 tackles and 19 sacks in his four seasons with the Raiders.
Seymour will be an unrestricted free agent this off-season, and it's unlikely that the Raiders will use the franchise tag to retain him, as that would tie up a significant portion of their available cap space. The question is now two-fold: 1) does Seymour want to return to Oakland, and; 2) will the club want to keep a 33 year-old player who missed the final eight games of the regular season due to a hamstring injury?
At 33, Seymour won three Super Bowls as a member of the New England Patriots, and may look to sign with a contending team for less money for one more chance to hold a Lombardi Trophy. It's entirely possible that Seymour could accept a rotational role as well, but will still command a near-market salary (probably in the neighborhood of $5-6 million/year).
There's little doubt that Seymour is still a productive player, but the team needs help in other areas, and would likely be better served letting him walk. The 2013 Draft has a good deal of talent at defensive tackle, and it' likely Utah's Star Lotulelei will be available at #3 for Oakland's pick. If he's not, the team could either sign or trade for a younger player which may cost less than retaining Seymour.