By JOSH DUBOW, AP Pro Football Writer
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Soon after announcing plans to move to Las Vegas in 2020, many of the Raiders talked about the desire to give Oakland a Super Bowl title before the switch to Sin City.
With a young offensive core led by Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack and the return to the NFL of local hero Marshawn Lynch after a one-year retirement, the Raiders are considered one of the top challengers to New England in the AFC after last year’s breakthrough 12-win season.
“You always want people saying good things around this time. But also we know that that’s only because of what happened last year. That’s not even this team,” Carr said. “We didn’t even beat Kansas City twice last year. So I don’t know why everyone is so excited.”
Carr and the offense are the biggest reason for that excitement heading into the first of what could be three lame-duck seasons in Oakland. After being picked in the second round in 2014, Carr has shown dramatic improvement each season.
He threw for 3,937 yards and 28 touchdowns last season and also led seven fourth-quarter comebacks to get the Raiders back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
A broken leg in the penultimate game cost Oakland a chance at a division title and led to a first-round playoff loss at Houston. But Carr was completely healed by the start of the offseason program and looks poised to take another step forward under the leadership of first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing.
That is a much bigger priority than planning for Las Vegas.
“I talk to people about it all the time and I say an NFL season is almost like how you look at dog years. It’s like, add seven to it,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “We’re going there in like 21 years.”
Here are some other things to watch this season:
BEAST MODE: The most high-profile addition this offseason was the trade for Oakland native Lynch. Beast Mode decided to come out of retirement to give something back to his hometown before the team leaves the Bay Area. After averaging just 3.8 yards per carry in 2015 in Seattle when he was slowed by injuries, Lynch looks fresh this summer and could regain the form that made him the NFL’s premier power back when he ran for 48 TDs from 2011-14.
MACK ATTACK: After two straight seasons with All-Pro honors and winning the top defensive player award last season, Mack said he wants to break Michael Strahan’s NFL record of 22 1/2 sacks set in 2001. To do that, he will need some help from his teammates. Despite 11 sacks from Mack, the Raiders still finished last in the league with 25. An improved push up the middle from a healthy Mario Edwards Jr., Jihad Ward and rookie Eddie Vanderdoes should help the cause.
BULKED UP: Despite two straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons to begin his career, Cooper felt the need to bulk up a bit this season. He hopes his improved strength helps him get off the line better against press coverage and win battles for contested balls . That should be especially helpful in the red zone, where Cooper was mostly a nonfactor last season. He was targeted just 13 times there all year, with five catches and no touchdowns.
TALK IT OUT: After allowing an NFL-worst 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards a year ago, Del Rio brought on former San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano as an assistant tasked with improving communication and play in the secondary. Results were lacking in the preseason when top two draft picks CB Gareon Conley and S Obi Melifonwu missed time with injuries, but the Raiders are counting on improved performances when the seasons starts.
VIVA LAS VEGAS: Hovering over the Raiders all season will be their pending move to Nevada in 2020. The team plans to play at least two and possibly three seasons as a lame duck in Oakland, leading to a potentially awkward existence. The team has sold out all games for this year as fan support is still in place. Whether that survives any rough times remains to be seen.
“There’s no book on how to do this situation,” Carr said. “No one has done it yet. This is a weird deal, right? But we’re so focused on what we’re doing that it doesn’t matter.”