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Playoffs or not, Week 17 is a perfect opportunity for the young Raiders to test their mettle

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Raiders find themselves in the thick of the playoff conversation heading into Week 17 despite holding just a 7-8 record.

Nobody expected them to be in this position, so the fact that Week 17 remains meaningful marks a major improvement considering that this franchise has played only a handful of momentous games this late into December since the turn of the century.

Regardless of whether this team makes the playoffs or not, the year 2019 has been a success for a franchise that will spend 2020 in a new home, in a new state.

From an historic early season road trip, to a happy-go-lucky 6-4 record, to the doldrums of a four game losing streak, and back into playoff contention, this youthful team has learned their share of lessons through an adversity filled season.

The playoffs would be a worthwhile achievement, and an excellent cherry on top of their step forward from the league’s bottom-tier, but the Raiders wouldn’t exactly be a dark horse Super Bowl contender if they punched a ticket to the dance.

In fact, if everything goes their way with the Raiders managing to beat Denver by a total of less than 7 points, they’d finish with the worst point differential of any playoff team in league history, per Josh Dubow of the Associated Press.

The Raiders are rocking a -105 point differential at the moment, good for fifth worst in the NFL. That’s mostly due to the fact that when the Raiders lose, they lose big. Six of their eight losses this year have come by 18 points or more.

Each of those big losses (apart from a despicable showing against the Jets) were against winning teams, while Oakland hasn’t won a single game against a team that currently sports a winning record this year.

That means that despite whatever happens in Week 17, this team isn’t quite ready for playoff contention, although they’re building something that should last well into the future.

With Jon Gruden potentially around for eight more seasons based on his contract, and Mike Mayock looking like a wunderkind after acing his first draft, the Raiders have the foundation and potential continuity to breed and consistent winner. But at this point in the franchise’s development, the team might be viewing Week 17 as an evaluative exercise almost as much as they’re gunning for a playoff spot.

While in a high-pressure situation and dealing a bevy of injuries, Gruden’s staff has an opportunity to appraise the talent of some of the backups soaking up limelight. It is the perfect opportunity to see what they have in certain players, and a few are worth monitoring.

The majority of storylines will surround Derek Carr, as per usual. Can he follow up a nearly pristine performance against the Chargers? We all know about Carr’s suboptimal production during sub-40 degree weather, and he may need to push through the elements in Denver in what will be one of the biggest games of his career.

With rumors starting to circulate about some type of disconnect between Carr and Gruden, and unnamed sources suggesting that Gruden and Mayock will be searching for a quarterback with higher upside, Carr has the opportunity to squash many of those concerns with a first-rate showing.

All eyes will certainly be on Carr offensively, but when the Raiders trot out their youthful defense, there are a few key names to keep an eye on.

One of the most intriguing young players who might have a lot on his plate come next Sunday is rookie UDFA Keisean Nixon.

Nixon notched 49 percent of defensive snaps in relief of the injured Lamarcus Joyner, and gave the Raiders a surprising spark with his tenacity and competitive spirit.

In training camp, the Raiders put Nixon through the gauntlet, forcing him to guard Darren Waller, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow and even Antonio Brown. He got “Moss’d” a few times, but his willingness to go up and fight with receivers at the catch point coupled with some sticky coverage skills gave the Raiders hope that he could slowly develop into a contributor.

Against the Broncos, he’ll likely be forced to play outside in addition to his slot duties, with Trayvon Mullen seeming highly unlikely to play. The 5-foot-10, 200 pounder will be forced to cover massive targets such as Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant, which should reveal a lot about his ability to compete at the highest level.

Nixon is under contract for the two seasons at a well below market deal after being undrafted out of South Carolina, and he looks like another gem that gives them quality depth in the secondary and on special teams. We will find out if he can be more than just quality depth this upcoming week.

Another important storyline to follow is the development of Will Compton into the Raiders top linebacker.

At 30 years old, the Raiders signed Compton off the couch the day before Halloween, in desperate need of some linebacker depth. After two straight weeks as the team’s leading tackler after being promoted to a starting role, Compton should be brought back next season.

He’s been a major boon to the Raiders run defense, filling his run fits, getting into position properly and making plays. The most basic tenets of stopping the run are, ‘alignment, assignment, and execution,’ and Compton is executing quite well.

The Raiders won’t ask Compton to play at a Pro Bowl level, but he could give them some much needed consistency at the position while pairing nicely with a rookie linebacker with some coverage chops. Compton’s ascension should make Tahir Whitehead an offseason cut candidate considering his high salary, and he might render Vontaze Burfict’s presence unnecessary.

While Compton and Nixon have golden opportunities to prove their worth, the Raiders youngsters on the defensive line should be motivated to prove themselves as foundational pieces.

Maxx Crosby has done enough this season to push himself into the hearts of Raiders fans everywhere as he’s accumulated all 8.5 of his sacks over the past 11 games, but it seems that Clelin Ferrell still has a lot to prove.

Ferrell has been nails when defending the run as of late. He may even already be one of the league’s premier two-gapping edge run defenders. Problem is, those types of players usually don’t go No. 4 overall because, as we all know, the NFL is a pass-first league.

Ferrell is still developing his pass rush, and while he’s shown some flashes, he doesn’t have a go-to rush move, or counters that keep defenses guessing.

Of Ferrell’s 4.5 sacks this season, 3.5 came against a porous Chargers front five. The only other sack he registered this season came in Week 1 against the Broncos. Besides those three games, he’s registered only a pair of QB hits throughout the other 12 games, with both coming against the Titans.

Facing a porous Denver offensive line should give Ferrell the perfect opportunity to build confidence heading into the offseason.

And while Ferrell and Crosby form the “Salt n’ Peppa” duo that should become a force for the forseeable future, the fact that the Raiders will be able to combine them with two underrated pass rushers in Maurice Hurst and Arden Key, and a pair of stout rotational pieces in P.J. Hall and Johnathan Hankins makes the defensive line a budding strength going forward.

With the high stakes at hand, Week 17 will have a playoff atmosphere surrounding it, which should help with the growth of those interior edge players, and help the Raiders coaching staff identify who can be counted on in clutch situations.

While dealing with a bevy of injuries puts the Raiders at a slight disadvantage, the opportunity to simultaneously be in a high stakes game and in an evaluative situation is a rare gift that will fortify this team going forward.

Even if the Raiders win it big on Sunday, this might spell the end of the 2019 season. And regardless of how it ends, this team’s future is quite bright as they to Las Vegas.