Cornerback Sean Smith
Were the Oakland Raiders a noticeably improved team in 2015? Yes.
Were they where they wanted to be at the end of the regular season though? Not quite.
Since he took over as Head Coach of the Silver and Black, Jack Del Rio has been ardent that his goal is for the team to win the division, and while that didn't happen in his first year at the helm, the Raiders did make some noise around the NFL for the first time in several years.
Heading into the offseason, the team undoubtedly had some areas of the roster that needed to be addressed, and General Manager Reggie McKenzie and the front office have been busy filling those holes.
"I thought [General Manager] Reggie [McKenzie] did a nice job of going out, and we worked collectively to identify some guys who we thought would fit our program and what we're looking for," Del Rio told SiriusXM NFL Radio last week. "It's a good group that we've added, and we had so many holes when we got here 16 months ago, and we've worked hard to fill some of those holes and make ourselves more competitive."
And not only has the roster become more competitive with the additions of free agents like outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, guard Kelechi Osemele and cornerback Sean Smith, but people around the league are starting to take notice of that improvement, as Pro Football Focus recently gave the Raiders an "A" for their offseason grade.
"The Raiders' rebuilding job is almost complete," wrote PFF. "Even though they missed out on the playoffs, Oakland showed signs of competing for the first time in a number of years. GM Reggie McKenzie has built a hugely promising offense starring Derek Carr after a breakout year. The offensive line also played a significant part in his development, as did a rejuvenated Michael Crabtree and first-year wideout Amari Cooper."
"The only pressing need for the Raiders was a corner opposite David Amerson. Sean Smith is a dramatic upgrade, and an ideal fit in head coach Jack Del Rio's single-high defense (73 percent of snaps in 2015). He didn't come cheap, but corners who can shut down opposing receivers on an island in man have tremendous value in the modern NFL."
PFF also not only praised the free agent class that McKenzie assembled this offseason, but also shared a positive review of the Raiders' seven-man 2016 NFL Draft Class, headlined by No. 14 overall pick, safety Karl Joseph.
"[Karl] Joseph showed the range to cover sideline to sideline, he punished receivers over the middle, and he ran step-for-step with wideouts in man coverage," PFF wrote. "Shilique Calhoun ranked second amongst defensive ends with a very strong pass-rush grade. He amassed 76 combined pressures (28 knockdowns), second-most amongst edge defenders. Calhoun represents an absolute steal in the third round."
A 7-9 record isn't the record the Silver and Black were looking for last season, but after the impressive offseason that McKenzie put together, saying that the Raiders have a legitimate shot to the claim the AFC West is not out of the question – and that's something that couldn't have been said in years past.
"The Raiders added probably five starters in free agency and the draft who will make an instant impact," PFF wrote. "If their younger players added in previous years can also take the next step, then Oakland will be a frightening proposition in 2016."
The rest of the AFC West's Offseason Grades are as follows:
Denver Broncos – C Plus
Kansas City Chiefs – C Plus
San Diego Chargers – B