The Sophomore Surge Of Derek Carr

For the past decade, the once-fearsome Oakland Raiders have been little more than a punchline. They have been perennial contenders for the first pick in the draft for many years running, and their name is often circled by fans of opposing teams as a bye week.

The struggles of the Silver and Black are due in large part to the subpar play of the quarterbacks. In recent history, Oakland has started JaMarcus Russell, Terrelle Pryor, and pre-Fountain-of-Youth Carson Palmer as part of their never-ending quest to resolve the problem under center. Judging from the first five games of 2015, however, it seems the Raiders might have finally found an answer.

At 2-3 and 3rd in the AFC West coming up on a crucial game against the division rival Chargers in San Diego (and playoff odds that hover between 14 percent and 18 percent, depending on where you look), it's hard to label the team as a whole a smashing success. But there is something to be said for the passing offense. The Raiders have gained the 11th-most yards in the air in the NFL, and boast the 10th most efficient passing attack per DVOA. Those figures mark a vast improvement from the 2014 regular season, in which Oakland ranked 26th and 28th by those measures, respectively. At the helm of this unit is this beast:

(Credit: Matt Marton--USA TODAY Sports)

In 2014, Derek Carr looked like he might just be another mediocrity in a string of disappointments as the Raiders' signal caller. Out of 33 qualified QBs, he ranked 30th in completion percentage (58.1 percent), 30th in passer rating (76.6), and dead last in yards per attempt (5.46). He also turned in pedestrian performances by advanced stats, placing 37th in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards above Replacement) and 34th in individual DVOA out of 44 qualified passers. 

Now, we're looking at one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Carr is 8th in the league by DYAR, and 7th by DVOA. The counting stats--yards, completion percentage, and the like--still leave some to be desired, but all rank him in the top half of quarterbacks.

What sparked this improvement? Obviously Carr is more familiar with the league in his second year, but that alone doesn't account for this big a jump out of the cellar.

Oakland's first-round draft pick, rookie WR Amari Cooper, has quite a bit to do with his quarterback's emergence this year. Carr's calling card while at Fresno State was his powerful arm; he was and is unquestionably the most talented passer in the 2014 class when it comes to making the big throws. The funny thing about making those throws, unfortunately, is that there has to be someone on the other end to catch the ball.

(Credit: Kirby Lee--USA TODAY Sports)

With Cooper in town, Carr has a legitimate deep threat. As a result, his YPA has shot up from 2014's measly 5.46 to 7.23. Making deeper, riskier throws might come at the cost of completion percentage, but not for Carr: he's now connecting on 63.6 percent of his throws, up again from 2014. 

He's also quietly supported by one of the best offensive lines in the league. Last year, the group made huge strides in pass protection; by adjusted sack rate, the Raiders improved from 28th in 2013 to third in 2014. They've continued their dominating ways in 2015, ranking behind the Jets, Giants, and Lions as the fourth-most effective pass blocking crew. Behind a strong, cohesive line, it's much easier for a young QB like Carr to find his footing and make the strong throws he wants to make.

So what does this mean for the future of the Oakland Raiders? For this season, it's unclear. They don't have a particularly difficult rest of the year: their remaining opponents combine for a .480 winning percentage and a DVOA of 0.7 percent, both of which account for schedules slightly easier than the average. Catching 5-0 Denver for the division title is a tall order, but a wild card berth is still very much in play, especially if they beat San Diego on Sunday.

Beyond 2015, however, the prognosis is very good. Raider fans have every reason to think that Carr's sophomore-year improvement is no joke: he's always been talented, and now he's giving us a glimpse of what he can do with some structure around him. As long as there's a tough O-line and at least one solid target like Cooper that will let Carr flip the switch to "rock and roll" occasionally, there's no reason to think that this version of their QB--the one advanced stats label one of the top-10 passers in the NFL--will go away. 

While their division rivals age around them, Oakland has a young, talented core, championed by their quarterback. Carr is for real; before long, maybe this year, the Raiders--a punchline for so long--might be too.

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