Four Raiders that need to step up in 2017

September 1, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Jihad Ward (95) rushes against Seattle Seahawks tackle Garry Gilliam (79) during the first quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
September 1, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Jihad Ward (95) rushes against Seattle Seahawks tackle Garry Gilliam (79) during the first quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

Looking to build upon a successful 2016 campaign, the Oakland Raiders will need several players to step up their games in order to be true contenders in the AFC.

Addressing his team in the locker room of NRG Stadium after a disappointing 27-14 loss in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, Jack Del Rio proclaimed that “the Raiders are back. We’re just not back to where we want be yet.” Certainly winning 12 games and making the playoffs for the first time since 2002 is something that the coaches, the team and the fans can be proud of. And who knows, perhaps with a healthy Derek Carr, things could have ended quite differently for the Oakland Raiders in 2016.

The fact of the matter is, on paper, this team is built to contend for a Super Bowl title. But in order to get there, they will need several players to step up in 2017. Here are four players who need to take their game to the next level in order for the Raiders to truly return to greatness.

Jihad Ward

Jihad Ward was the 2016 second round pick, who was labeled as a developmental prospect coming out of the University of Illinois. Ward made 13 starts in his rookie season and played in over 60 percent of the snaps, and was forced into action earlier than planned with Mario Edwars Jr. going down with an injury for most of the year.

Ward finished the season with 30 tackles, (18 solo) and no sacks. Despite plenty of opportunity, he was never able to translate it into production.  According to Pro Football Focus, Ward received a grade of 37.7, which ranked him last among interior defenders.

The good news is Del Rio has already gone on record, praising Ward for “attacking the offseason.”  Jihad will have to be more consistent in providing an interior pass rush for a defense that ranked dead last in the league with 25 sacks. The belief is that with a year under his belt and a productive offseason, Ward should be in position to take a huge step forward in his second year. The addition of Eddie Vanderdoes should also provide some healthy competition and give Ward added motivation.

Mario Edwards Jr.

Sticking with the defensive line, Mario Edwards Jr. is another player the Raiders need to step up in 2017. But the issue with Edwards isn’t performance, it’s his health. Since entering the league as a second round draft pick in 2015, Mario has only played in 16 out of 32 possible games, missing time with both neck and hip injuries.

The bottom line is that the Raiders desperately need him to stay healthy, as the performance of the front seven as drastically suffered without his presence. With his blend of speed and power, Mario can play both on the interior and on the edge. His ability to push the pocket from the interior will make the lives of Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin much easier coming off the edges.

Like Ward, Edwards Jr. also appears to be taking the offseason quite seriously, getting himself in tip top shape.

It’s just a matter of staying on the field.

Amari Cooper

Seeing Amari Cooper’s name on this list may come as a surprise, but I’ll explain.

At first glance, you’ll notice Amari improved on his 7.7 percent drop rate from 2015, as well as increased his receptions (83) and receiving yards, with 1,153. But when you look at his game by game performance, there are major inconsistencies week to week.

In the first eight games, Cooper hauled in 52 receptions for 787 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the final eight, he caught just 31 passes for 366 yards, with 3 touchdowns.

Amari is much too talented to go through an eight game stretch where his performance suffers that much — 3.8 receptions and 45.7 yards per game where his averages in the second half of the season.

Cooper will turn just 23 years old in June, and seems primed for a big year in his third season.

Sean Smith

It’s fair to say that Sean Smith did not live up to his monstrous four-year $40 million deal in his first season with the Raiders.

Smith was signed as a free agent to be the shutdown cornerback the team badly needed.  Smith struggled from the beginning of the season, particularly with smaller, speedy receivers. In Week 1, he was benched shortly after being torched for a 98-yard touchdown reception by Brandin Cooks. Those struggles continued throughout the year, all the way to the playoff loss to the Texans.

In his press conference at the end of the season, Del Rio criticized the secondary for the amount of explosive plays allowed during the year. But in year two, Smith certainly has a chance to bounce back and be the player the team thought they signed. Especially in his second season in the scheme and with addition of John Pagano to the defensive coaching staff.

Should Smith struggle again, look for some of his snaps to go to first round pick Gareon Conley. At least if Conley isn’t given the slot job to star the year.