NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans kick off the season on Sunday against the Oakland Raiders at Nissan Stadium.
The Raiders finished 12-4 last season before losing in the playoffs to the Houston Texans. Quarterback Derek Carr is back after being injured late in the season, and he leads a potent offense that features a lot of weapons.
This week, I caught up with Vic Tafur, who covers the Raiders for The Athletic. Tafur worked at the San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years before recently joining The Athletic. You can follow Vic on Twitter @VicTafur, and join over 45,000 others.
Jim: Hey Vic. Congrats on the move to The Athletic. You’ve covered the Raiders a long time, and this year’s team is a popular pick to win the AFC. Is this team a title contender in your mind?Vic: I think they are a contender for sure. I think the offense is better than it was last year – quarterback Derek Carr is back and he has gotten better very year, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to get better. The same with receiver Amari Cooper – I think he’ll have a big, breakout year this year. He has gotten bigger, stronger and he is definitely better on the high point catches, and he’s a little tougher. I think he’ll be the breakout star this year. Plus, you add in running back Marshawn Lynch, who is motivated and is playing for his city of Oakland, a team that’s leaving in a couple of years. Tight end Jared Cook is another great addition, and I think he’s a guy they haven’t had for a long time. He’s a tight end who can stretch the field, and make some plays down the middle. He’ll give the offense a different look and he’ll be a big red zone target as well. And even receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, you look at him and can see why he was a first round pick. The guy is huge and he is super-fast. He is not the most skilled pass catcher, I get that, but I think he’ll be able to make some plays on reverses and handoffs and short screens, and he’s another weapon who can take it to the house also on kickoff returns. So with some of the new guys, there’s reason to believe the offense could be even better.
Jim: The Titans finished 1-3 in the preseason, and that left some fans at least a little concerned. The Raiders, meanwhile, finished 0-4 in the preseason. How did Oakland approach the preseason, and do they head into the season with any concerns?
Vic: I think the preseason is really hard to gauge. The defensive is obviously a big question mark, but the defense is not going to look great in the preseason because they are not going to do a lot in terms of scheme. And they tried a lot of new guys out – a lot of veterans weren’t playing much. So you can’t really judge too much off the preseason. But the offense looked fine in the preseason. All the guys I mentioned earlier flashed. But going into the season I think the offense will have to take the team as far as it can and the defense will definitely have to get a little better. I think they were 26th last year – if they can go to the low 20s or into the teens this year, they may be in business.
Jim: We both remember December 24th well. Marcus Mariota suffered a fractured fibula in Jacksonville, and later that day Carr suffered a broken fibula himself. How has Carr looked, and is he ready to go?Vic: Yeah, he is fired up. He says he was totally healthy early this spring – he is definitely one of those guys that always works hard. He is one of those gym rat kind of guys who grew up watching film with his brother, and he always wanted to be an NFL quarterback. Obviously he has all the tools, and he is healthy. And he is hungry, too, because he missed the playoff game last year. Watching him, he is 100 percent. The broken leg I totally healed and he is 100 percent, and he is really excited about the new guys they added and thinks the offense is going to take it to the next level.
Jim: You mentioned Lynch earlier, and everyone remembers what a bruiser he was with the Seahawks. How has he been with the Raiders, and how has he fit in the locker room from a personality standpoint?
Vic: Well, he is in great shape. I’ve talked to some guys that were up in Seattle, and I think this is the best shape he has been in in probably 2 or 3 years. He looks lean, and the few carries he had in the preseason he’s looked like his old self. We’ll see if the rust comes off or if it’s a factor once the real games start, but he is motivated and his teammates love him. He is definitely a very real guy, he is kind of a unique character with a no b.s. approach and the players respect that and think he’ll give them a big addition on offense in the form of a physical runner, and a guy who wants to win. He is here to win for his city, and I think that is pretty cool.
Jim: I know you’re familiar with a couple of new Titans – Brynden Trawick and Daren Bates. Those guys excelled on special teams in Oakland last season before signing with Tennessee in March. What do you remember about them?Vic: They were really good, and they’re very seasoned guys who take their craft very seriously. They did a nice job here, and they were good with the younger guy on special teams, teaching guys around them to play better. And they were good guys in the locker room. So I think they will be good additions for the Titans. The Raiders were happy with both of them last year.
Jim: Just a few more here Vic. I’m curious: What’s the buzz around the fan base in Oakland? This team is moving to Las Vegas, and that has to be tough on fans there. Will they still support the team?
Vic: It’s such a weird deal, because they are leaving in three years. So it is so unique. There has been a little blowback, but not a lot. I think most Raiders fans are like: You know what? I’ll be mad in two years, but right now we have a chance to win the whole thing and I am going to stay on board and I am going to still wear my jersey and I love my team. I’ll maybe be a little more pissed off in a couple of years, but right now I am going to ride this thing and see where it goes. I really think that’s what a lot of fans are thinking. But I do think as we get closer to 2020 more fans are going to be upset about this. It’s a raw deal for Oakland fans obviously, and that will become more evident as we get closer to 2020. Now if the team should start to falter, I could see some animosity start to brew.
Jim: Last thing. What’s a reasonable expectation for this team? How do you think they’ll do?
Vic: I think my pick was 10-6 – I almost went 11-5. I think the offense is that good, but the defense is definitely a question mark. They have some problems and some holes on defense that they haven’t fixed. But I think if some guys step up, they have a chance to be good. Either way, I think the offense will carry this team and they’ll get to 10 or 11 wins and into the playoffs and then anything is possible.
Jim: Appreciate it, Vic. It should be a good one on Sunday.