At the mid-point of the NFL season, there are plenty of directions a team could be headed. For some, it's adding depth to the roster in preparation for a playoff push. For others, it's a focus on getting healthy thanks to a solid first half that has all but guaranteed a trip to the postseason.
And then, there are the Raiders, Jaguars and Buccaneers. As the three teams with pole position for the No. 1 pick this spring, the focus in Oakland, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay are remarkably different from the ones above.
Sure, the coaching staffs are still pushing their players to compete and attempt to win games. But, in reality, from a front office perspective, winning probably isn't the biggest goal any more. Yes, it matters, but in any smart organization, the focus must shift to the future — to next year.
So, with that in mind, as we've done a lot on this website recently, we ask the question of what the future holds for Oakland. Two weeks ago, I talked about the hope this team has. Only a week later, however, we cited a radio host who crushed General Manager Reggie McKenzie for employing 18-22 "replaceable" players in their starting rotation.
So which is it? Is there hope? Or are we reliving the realities of the last two seasons — bad teams with a bunch of players who wouldn't be in Oakland for long?
By my count, Oakland has somewhere in the neighborhood of 7-10 guys who aren't just "future contributors" but guys who are legitimate building blocks for a contender. Even better news is that there's probably another 3-5 guys who could develop themselves into that conversation by season's end.
Here are those players:
These are the guys who are on their way to becoming franchise players — guys you'll hopefully see on billboards and marketing materials for years to come.
Derek Carr — Atop the list is the most obvious choice: Derek Carr. I don't think I need to explain this one, but even after struggling in the first half against Seattle, Carr proved once again why everyone in Oakland is excited about his future.
Khalil Mack, Sio Moore — While much has been written (and rightfully so) about Mack's season, I think Moore's progress has been woefully under recognized. Either way, the future with these two guys at linebacker is remarkably bright.
While the players above are the future "stars", this next group is full of guys who can be classified as consistent role players. Not necessarily pro-bowlers, but simply guys filling a position you won't need to worry about for a few years.
Stefen Wisniewski — While Wisniewski has been in the league for four seasons already, he is still just 25 years old and has proven to be a very solid lineman despite the mish-mash of players that have surrounded him.
Gabe Jackson — Like Wisniewski, Jackson has been a solid addition to the Oakland line and is someone they're hoping to pencil into the lineup for the next decade.
T.J. Carrie, D.J. Hayden — Like Jackson, Carrie's success must be qualified with "for a rookie", and yet, his improvement week to week has been noticable — especially in a position that has long been a black hole in Oakland. Likewise, Hayden's inclusion on this list may be more hope than reality, but he flashed brilliance in Seattle this week despite limited practice and conditioning. If these two guys can emerge as above average corners, the Oakland defense will be well on its way.
The last group is full of guys who could go either way — maybe out of the league in two years, maybe the potential to move into the "building block" category by year's end.
Justin Ellis — Ellis is a young guy who flashed promise this Sunday against Seattle, but still has a ways to go before we pencil him in as a sure-fire prospect.
Brice Butler, Andre Holmes, Rod Streater — At wide receiver, I think Raider fans have had expectations lowered to a point where any whiff of talent becomes over-magnified and appreciated. Here's what I mean: two years ago Denarius Moore was the next big thing, and yet, now he can't even crack the rotation. I think all three of these guys have what it take to make it in this league with some slight improvements, but we're a long way from the next pro-bowl wide receiver.
Mychal Rivera — Of the guys in this tier, I think Rivera is the most likely to succeed. However, like the receivers, he has also been the beneficiary of a horrible position group where any hint of success breeds praise. If Rivera can maintain the relationship he has developed with Carr, and if he can keep catching the passes thrown his way, he could become a nice piece down the road for Oakland.
Below this third and final tier is a group of guys who might still have an outside chance of being a longtime Raider, but have a lot left to prove before they make any of these lists. These are guys like Menelik Watson, Latavius Murray and even the oft-injured (but still only 27) Tyvon Branch.
So, in summary — yes, Damon Bruce has a point when he talks about all of the replacement-level guys Oakland employs at the moment. But where he's wrong is his ignorance to the amount of young talent that Oakland has the opportunity to build around. Yes, they have the oldest average age in the league, but that doesn't mean they're without young talent altogether.
This isn't a defense or attack on Reggie McKenzie (I'll let that debate wage in the comments), but it's merely an observation of where we're at — down, but hopefully not out for long.