What to look for: Raiders at Saints

The Raiders are in New Orleans, about to attempt to fend off what coach Dennis Allen calls “a prolific offense.”

Friday’s game should expose a sliver of what the Raiders have in store for the regular season — and how they can communicate in a loud environment like the Superdome.

The Superdome rivals Seattle’s Qwest Field (now CenturyLink Field) as far as noise and the offense will no doubt be affected. The question is by how much.

With left tackle Jared Veldheer out, Alex Barron will start his first game since 2011, when he sustained a season-ending knee injury. The underachieving former first-round pick’s performance should give a glimpse of how effective he can be moving forward.

Running back Rashad Jennings will get a crack at New Orleans’ below-average defensive line. He is looking to prove himself worthy of being the primary backup behind starting running back Darren McFadden.

Matt Flynn is firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, but it seems more and more people would like to see Terrelle Pryor have a shot at the job.

Pryor looked excellent in the preseason opener – until throwing across his body and into the hands of a defender – but nonetheless, he is showing improvement from last year.

McFadden is in a contract year and has proved to be ineffective considering his large cost in cap space. He hasn’t rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three seasons — really due to injuries — but the NFL is a business and the Raiders are one of their products.

McFadden is one of the most dynamic backs in the league, yet has earned the unshakeable label of an injury-prone player.

His injuries, though, can also be traced in large part to the Raiders’ play-calling. In last season’s opening loss to San Diego, McFadden got 15 carries and was targeted in the passing attack another 18 times.

When you utilize any player that much, over time they’re going to get hurt. And when you abuse your top offensive performer, you can’t be surprised when he breaks down — especially someone with a history like McFadden.

Rookie running back Latavius Murray — a wild card in the Raiders’ offense — should have a decent number of snaps all to himself. He’s an enigma, with the potential to be a superstar in the NFL.

If Murray can shine throughout his rookie campaign, he might become heir to the throne at running back.

A more serious battle for depth looms on the strong side of the line, as David Ausberry and Richard Gordon are duking it out for the top tight end spot. Ausberry had seven catches last year and Gordon had two.

Both were drafted in 2011 and taken in the late rounds, and this could be the most intriguing of any position battle. Regardless of who wins the battle, this seems to be the weakest part of the offensive chart. But there’s always the possibility that one of them will break out, and Ausberry looks most likely to do so.

Defensively, the Raiders are fairly deep. Not Mariana Trench deep, but still “this takes some serious effort to touch the bottom of the swimming pool” deep.

The defensive backs chart is pretty loaded. It may be the Raiders’ best secondary since moving back to Oakland.

Rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden probably won’t take the field until week three of the preseason. But with Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter on the roster, there’s really no need.

Joselio Hanson will need to earn his spot in nickel coverage, and his test will be the Saints passing attack.

The defensive line and linebackers should also have their physical and mental abilities tested. The Saints offensive line is nothing to scoff at and is arguably the best in the NFL.

Linebacker Nick Roach looked good during the preseason game versus Dallas, but the Saints are a whole different animal. Roach’s performance could even impact his future with the organization.

The team has no permanent plan at middle linebacker following the release of Rolando McClain, and a solid performance is still needed for Roach to stand out as the clear number one.

Outside linebackers Kevin Burnett and Sio Moore should feel confident in their spots on the depth chart as starters. Keenan Clayton missed practice all week and may become a longshot to make final cuts should his absence continue.

The defensive numbers for Oakland were atrocious last year. Ranking near the bottom against the run and pass, defense seems to be getting the attention this year.

Because the AFC West is so deep on offense, this could actually give Oakland a fighting chance to make the playoffs.

The Oakland front office has made vast improvements to the team from front to back while simultaneously shedding $40 million in cap space for upcoming seasons.

Injuries to the Raiders’ starting defensive backs could set the team back in a major way. Hanson is a solid nickel corner, but will need to stop bigger receivers from getting an inside release.

If he can do that, Allen should be happy. If the Raiders’ offense is able to exceed expectations, the season should be a memorable one for fans.

If both offense and defense exceeds expectations, then the playoffs are possible.

Remember that while Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen, he’s old and reaching the typical age of massive regression.

Denver’s defense also took a big hit when Elvis Dummervil was released. If Von Miller’s suspension is upheld after appeal, that could spell trouble. More pressure would be created for the Broncos’ offense, which could in turn might result in injuries.

If all of that happens, the Raiders could be headed for football in January.


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