In what could be the last time the Bengals pay the Raiders a visit in Oakland, Cincinnati faces a mix of young and veteran players trying to move on from the coaching carousel era that followed Jay Gruden's exit from the team. They last appeared in the playoffs in the 2002 season - second longest playoff drought in the league and longest in franchise history - and even if that does not seem like it's going to change this winter, Oakland looks to be in better shape going into this season than they have the last few years. Jack del Río is their new head coach and after three successful years as the Broncos defensive coordinator, he will have to improve a porous defense while continuing with the development of second year quarterback, Derek Carr.
The Bengals won't have an easy task come Sunday afternoon, and there is much to like from the Raiders' squad, which actually has some similarities with Cincinnati. Watch out for these players.
1) Trent Richardson
No, seriously, he is about to break out.
1) Marcel Reece H-back
The 6-1 fullback, former wide receiver, and team captain is one of the longest tenured Raiders. A three-time Pro Bowler and a second team All-Pro in 2012, Reece is the jack of all trades for this Oakland offense that relies on quick throws to avoid pressure on their shaky offensive line. He is not a traditional fullback by any means, and last season he caught 37 passes for 265 yards, a down year for him. A very good receiver, he is also a talented ball carrier, having switched to running back in the past to help his squad. There has been talk of Reece getting more involved in the offense, but he did not get any hand offs in training camp and the plan for him is to be used as an H-back. Even if he does not get the ball very often, he will make you pay if you forget about him.
2) Amari Cooper WR
The Fred Biletnikoff Award winner and Heisman Trophy finalist last season from Alabama was selected with the fourth overall pick in this year's draft. He's set to become Derek Carr's best friend and Oakland's A.J. Green. He is clearly and improvement over James Jones, and he has already shown some flashes of his potential. A very skilled player, he knows how to get open. Cooper is already the top candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year and burned Arizona's top cornerback and four-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson in the preseason. Even though he is not as big as other teams' receivers, he is probably one of the most polished receivers in the game and he has not played yet any meaningful snap. He is very natural and has a great feel for the game - Cooper has played wide receiver since he was six -. Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones better watch out, Cooper can turn any short pass into a first down. The Raiders will try to get him the football early on. They will still rely on quick, short passes but with him aboard they think they can throw downfield more often. He is the best playmaker they have on the roster.
3) Latavius Murray RB
The Tay Train, as he is known is a big, fast and strong running back out of Central Florida who was originally selected in the sixth round of the 2013 draft but spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve. Nonetheless he took over incumbent running backs Darren McFadden and Michael Jones-Drew in Week 11 of last season and never looked back, even though he had to miss some games with a concussion. He was one of the big factors in the Raiders' surge in the last games of the 2014 season, providing a spark in the running game that was missing. He has shown the ability to make big plays, but will have to carry a larger load this year in spite of a suspicious offensive line. The Bengals will have to step up their tackling because at 6-3 and 230 pounds, Murray is going to be hard to stop. He struggled against the Cardinals in the preseason, but it was not his fault. He does not have much competition on the Raiders' squad, a proof of the faith Jack del Río and general manager Reggie McKenzie have in him.
4) Khalil Mack DE/OLB
A former fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft, he was one of the only - if not the only - bright spots in a defense that struggled all year long. After playing outside linebacker last season, he has made the move to the line in the 4-3 scheme of new coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who was the Seahawks' linebackers coach for four years before moving South to California. His numbers last season - 22 hurries along with 4 sacks and a forced fumble - don't tell how good he is. Nonetheless, he finished in third place in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting - and has gotten much praise from media and opponents. He can get to the quarterback from any side with speed and also with brute strength, and has some moves that will test Whitworth and Smith on Sunday. His initial punch is fantastic and the addition of nose tackle Dan Williams - another player who could give the Bengals' offense a headache - and rookie fellow defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. will provide him with much needed help.
Mack is, of course stout against the run.
Some could call him a LEO linebacker and others an EDGE player, but besides position names he is a pure pass rusher who could develop into one of the best in the NFL. Mack had a terrific game against Arizona a couple of weeks ago, getting two sacks, a quarterback hit and five hurries, despite being double teamed often.
Oakland needs every single pressure their defensive line can get, because their secondary is a work in progress with Nate Allen joining Charles Woodson, second-year cornerback TJ Carrie - who looked good in preseason - and DJ Hayden - who might not be too good this year.