On Sunday I watched two events that put me in a purely celebratory mood: the Pro Bowl and the Grammy’s. I realized there are actually a lot of similarities between the two events, the main one being that they both honor great achievements from the previous year. Beyond that, it was a good vibe. Everyone was happy and a lot of people that worked really hard at their craft, whether it be music or football, were recognized for their success. Not to go all sappy on you but those people climbed a long way to get to that point and that’s pretty awesome to watch.

That said, I’ve always been the first one to jump in and bash the Pro Bowl, there’s no question about that. As a kid I remember being pretty excited to watch the Pro Bowl…I mean it sounds exciting, you know? All the best players competing against each other in one game? Sounds awesome, sign me up. But there was one word in that description that doesn’t take place in the Pro Bowl and it has always lead me to great disappointment- “competing”. See when I was young I was expecting to see the high level of play and competitiveness that we see every week during the season. I was expecting to see pro football being played. If you’ve ever watched the Pro Bowl you know why I was discouraged by what I saw.

As a result, many years I purposely haven’t even tuned in for the game. I don’t want the NFL to have any disillusions that that product earns my viewership. Honestly I’ve hoped for a long time that they would just turn it into a flag football game (which would be a lot more fun to watch), but that’s another conversation for another day.

The truth is that this year I really had no intention of watching the game but I turned on ESPN, it was there, and as DJ Khaled says, “It’s called not being a dinosaur”. All that really means is that when you turn a cold shoulder and get sour towards the new and developing world, you’re losing. And being as constantly aware of Khaled’s keys as I am, that thought came to my mind and I decided to give it a go. Was I impressed by what I saw? Not especially, but I I also wasn’t repulsed by the effort. It looked a little bit more like football than it has some years and I can appreciate that, and like I said, the vibe along with the Grammy’s, put me in a celebratory mood.

Which brings us to the 2017 Oakland Raiders season awards & superlatives (brought to you by *insert sponsor*). There were a few Raiders in the Pro Bowl, including Derek Carr who brought the AFC back for a comeback win, but I felt like handing out some more credit to the dudes who showed out in a trying season. There weren’t as many bright spots as there were in 2016 but I know there will be more than enough talk about the negatives and the things to fix. There’s plenty of time for that. Today I wanted to bring the positivity and celebrate some of the silver & black’s best with Raider Nation.

Let’s go.

Most Improved Player: T.J. Carrie

In 2014 Carrie was drafted by the Raiders in the seventh round. In 2016 he totaled 19 tackles. This season he lead the team in tackles with 84. It wasn’t Khalil Mack or Reggie Nelson that lead the Raiders in tackles, it was T.J. Carrie. Carrie’s increased playing time was certainly due in part to injuries in the secondary but this climb up the ladder needs to be recognized. Most seventh round picks don’t even make it to the 53-man roster in their first season, much less stay on the roster and work their way up to a significant role.

Carrie cut his teeth on special teams while he continued to improve his game and see more time each year on the defensive side of the ball, making his way into nickel and dime packages. What made his rise even less likely and all the more impressive is that the Raiders have drafted multiple first round defensive backs during his tenure (D.J. Hayden, Karl Joseph, Gareon Conley) and have made high priced signings as well (Charles Woodson, Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson). Despite that, Carrie continues to make his way into the lineup. He may not even have a major role in the Raiders secondary in the future, but the fact of the matter is that this dude is a good football player. He plays fast, plays with tenacity and makes tackles. This season was his best yet and he was definitely Oakland’s most improved player.

Most Clutch Player: Michael Crabtree

Clutch factor is one of my favorite qualities in a player in any sport, and something I think about often. You have to be aware of who makes plays in crucial moments and who wilts under that pressure, it’s one of the most important pieces in determining greatness in my book. I say this begrudgingly, but going back to his college career at Texas Tech, Michael Crabtree has always had a propensity for making the big catches when the stakes are highest.

Everyone (or at least everyone from Texas) remembers the sideline touchdown catch from ’08 that downed the Texas Longhorns. Unfortunately for Crabtree, I feel like the play where a certain loudmouth cornerback stopped him from making the game-winning catch in the NFC Championship and proceeded to call him a “sorry receiver” tends to mark his pro career more than any other moment. Really though, when you look beyond that one play, Crabtree has always made big catches in his NFL career and especially since he joined the Raiders. From the game-winning 2-point conversion catch in Week 1 against New Orleans in 2016 to the game-winning touchdown catch as time expired against Kansas City this year, Derek Carr tends to look for Crabtree in the red zone in the biggest moments and he usually comes through. In those moments I find myself with a lot of confidence in Crabtree and I feel glad he’s on my team, which is why he’s taking home Most Clutch Player.

Newcomer of the Year: Jared Cook

On a team that seemed like it would be improved from 2016 and turned out quite diminished, Jared Cook was exactly what the Raiders hoped he would be. The whole year I felt like he lived up to the contract he signed and then some. Cook was a great improvement at the tight end position from a receiving standpoint, which was exactly the purpose he was brought in to fulfill. Carr used him as a security blanket and Cook really gave him an outlet when things broke down. He didn’t drop balls, he didn’t complain, he just caught passes that were thrown to him. And I can’t stress enough that this was a season where it felt like no one lived up to their typical standard, even the best players on the team. Jared Cook is the one player I would point to and say he really did his job and played the way he expected to. With that, he was certainly the best addition to the team in 2017.

Most Underrated Player: Cory James

I went back and forth between James and Jalen Richard for this award, it was very close. I really like both players and they’re both underrated but in the end I feel like an undervalued player on the defensive side certainly gets talked about even less than someone who carries the ball. James dealt with injuries this year, being held to 10 games, but he’s still the most underrated player on the team.

Similar to T.J. Carrie, Cory James was a diamond in the rough as a sixth round draft pick in 2016. Right off the bat in his rookie season he was able to earn a lot of defensive snaps and I learned to love his play very quickly. He’s a highly versatile linebacker, covering receivers and running backs in the passing game but also stepping up to stop the run very well. James excels in the interior and despite a quality signing in Navorro Bowman, I think the Raiders missed James’ tackling ability in the time he missed. The thing about it is, I just don’t think anyone notices his impact. Cory James is a really solid and vastly underrated player and I’m excited to see him back on the field in 2018.

Grittiest Player: Donald Penn

This was tough because when you look at snap counts, Rodney Hudson played 100% of the offensive snaps this season and Kelechi Osemele played 99.9%, which is pretty amazing by both of them. That type of durability shows a lot of grit and it shouldn’t go unrecognized that those guys brought it on every down for the Raiders this season.

That acknowledged, Donald Penn hadn’t missed a game in his 11-year career until he went down with an injury that caused him to miss two games this year, so I think we can give him more than a pass on the durability side. Along with durability, it’s really Penn’s style of play that makes him the grittiest player on the grittiest franchise in the league. He just plays with a pure nastiness that you can’t teach. Penn wants to maul you on every down and that’s what football is about, I love his mentality. That mean streak and hard-nosed style of play can go somewhat unnoticed on the offensive line but for my money I’ll take Donald Penn as the toughest and grittiest player on the Raiders.

Most Likely to Succeed in 2018: Amari Cooper

I know this has to be my most controversial choice, I understand why it would be a point of contention. I saw the drops. But just like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, “I don’t care”. Amari Cooper is a young player, he’s spent three seasons in the league and in the first two of them he was a pro bowler. Rookies and second-year players don’t frequent the all-star game in any sport but Amari Cooper came in ready to perform at that level. The guy is a rare talent and someone who focuses on his craft and nothing could shake my confidence in him. His rapport with Derek Carr is great, he excels at running any type of route, and I just think he got a little bit in his own head this year. It happens, I’m over it. This offseason he’ll take some time for himself, he’ll work on the drops issue, he’ll come into training camp with a fresh mindset and he’ll have a better season in 2018. Another Pro Bowl season. Take that to the bank.

Best Overall Football Player: Khalil Mack

This was a predictable choice but it’s the right choice. Khalil Mack is the best football player on the Raiders and he’s one of the best in the entire league. Quarterbacks are kind of in their own stratosphere as far as value but when it comes to all the other positions, very few players can have the impact on a game that Khalil Mack can. He does everything on defense well, especially rush the passer and I can’t think of a defensive player in the league that requires more gameplanning and attention than Mack (other than maybe a version of J.J. Watt that we haven’t seen in a couple years). He’s fast, he’s strong, he has great instincts and he’s built himself into a football terminator. This really requires no more explanation than that.

 

Wrap Up

The Oakland Raiders have a talented football team. That’s what thinking about all this reminded me of. Even though it was a bad season, Jon Gruden is inheriting a foundation that can win a championship. We have some dudes that are clutch and improving and extremely gritty and overall just really good football players. Several that I didn’t even name. But for the ones that were named, I really felt they deserved to be recognized for their accomplishments and qualities that make them great. Just like Kendrick Lamar and Bruno Mars and all the other artists who were honored on Grammy’s Sunday. Now let’s just hope they read this piece and feel just as good as those artists did.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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