Optimism surrounding Oakland Raiders is real

NAPA, Calif. — Something strange is in the air at Oakland Raiders training camp and, for the first time in a long time, it’s not a foul smell. There is no silver and black skunk running in the bushes. There is a sense of optimism that coach Jack Del Rio is eager to spread.

“I think there’s a genuine excitement,” Del Rio said. “Last year when I got here, I thought it was important to establish high expectations.”

Of course, the optimism card is being overplayed in most of the 32 NFL camps. Even the Cleveland Browns are hopeful.

But Del Rio is not pitching a phony product and offering free shipping and handling if you pick up the phone and act now. The Raiders are young and talented on both sides of the ball, their coaches have a clue, and their chances of posting a winning record are real.

Oakland’s regular-season win total is 8½ at Las Vegas sports books. It’s not an awe-inspiring number, but keep in mind the Raiders’ last winning season was in 2002.

At Station Casinos, the proposition on the Raiders reaching the playoffs is priced at “No” minus-170 and “Yes” plus-140, so it’s not a long shot.

The team’s two biggest stars — quarterback Derek Carr and defensive end Khalil Mack — just went to the Pro Bowl in their second seasons. Carr passed for 32 touchdowns, and Mack had 15 sacks.

“When I look at the Raiders, and you look at what they have done the first two years under Carr, I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to ask them to win nine games and be in the wild-card run,” Sunset Station book director Chuck Esposito said. “As far as young talent goes, they have some of the best in the league.”

Oakland’s offensive line is regarded as one of the NFL’s strongest. Carr has big-play wide receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The Raiders bought free agents Bruce Irvin, an outside linebacker from Seattle, and Sean Smith, a 6-foot-3-inch cornerback from Kansas City, to boost the defense around Mack.

The best teams in the AFC West last season — the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos and 11-win Chiefs — could back up a little to open the door for Oakland.

“It’s a tough division,” Del Rio said, “but we come in expecting to win our division.”

Raiders owner Mark Davis said Saturday he’s “absolutely encouraged” by stadium developments in Las Vegas. But relocation speculation has not discouraged the team’s loyal fan base. The franchise is on track for a season-ticket sellout. So, unlike the ugly situation in San Diego last year, Oakland will have a true home-field advantage.

There are plenty of reasons for optimism and tough talk. Still, there are always traps capable of tripping up any team.

The Raiders finished 7-9 last season, when finishing was their weakness. As handicapper Warren Sharp pointed out, Oakland trailed entering the fourth quarter by seven or more points in just two games all season.

“The problem was their focus and performance in the fourth quarter,” Sharp said. “Carr posted the NFL’s worst fourth-quarter passer rating when the game was within one score and threw six interceptions, most in the NFL. While expectations and hopes are high for Carr, the team must focus on utilizing the run game more often. The Raiders must commit more to the run, and cut down on the mistakes late in games.”

Sharp (SharpFootballAnalysis.com) produced a thorough analytics-based NFL preview magazine, and in it he forecasts Oakland to win eight games.

The schedule, although not considered brutal by numbers crunchers, is deceptively difficult. The Raiders are 1-point underdogs in their Sept. 11 opener at New Orleans, and while the Saints have problems, no team envies a Week 1 date in the Superdome.

The Raiders, who have not been road warriors lately, make four trips to the Eastern Time Zone to play Tennessee, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay in Weeks 3 through 8. Forget what those teams did last season because none of those will be easy games, especially with early kickoff times.

“I’ve seen this team have hype before and get tripped up by the schedule,” said John Tournour, also known as JT The Brick, a Fox Sports Radio host and Raiders TV host who lives in Las Vegas. “This year, I think it’s a little bit different. I think the Raiders should be a borderline nine- to 10-win team.”

Tournour is sold on Carr and Mack. He’s high on Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

“The Raiders have the ingredients to be really, really good,” Esposito said. “I think they have the talent to take that next step. But it’s still the Raiders, so you never know.”

The jump from seven to nine wins is something Evel Knievel could handle, but it might be too much for a young team with a tricky schedule.

My forecast is 8-8 for the Raiders, who are probably a year away from a winning record and three years from landing in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow @mattyoumans247 on Twitter.

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