We round out our trip through the AFC West with the Oakland Raiders, who hope that Year Two of the Jon Gruden Administration goes better than it’s predecessor. After luring the former Super Bowl-winning Head Coach out of a decade-long retirement with a shocking 10-year, $100 Million Contract, the honeymoon was rather short as Oakland spiraled into a disappointing 4-12 finish, marred by an exodus of talent, chief among them former Defensive Player of the Year, Kahlil Mack, and Pro-Bowl Receiver, Amari Cooper. However, this Offseason has been defined by further turnover, with Gruden brining in longtime Draft Analyst, Mike Mayock, on board as his General Manager, leading to a wealth of personnel moves, including the acquisition of Antonio Brown via trade among others. While they’ll certainly look different in 2019, the real question is whether or not that all of these new faces make for a better team, which we’ll attempt to discern shortly…
The Gruden Effect 2.0
After much fanfare, it’s safe to say that the first year of Jon Gruden’s second tenure with the Oakland Raiders was nothing short of underwhelming, with the team finishing a mediocre 4-12. However, the end results being what they were, the real disappointment was in how the veteran Head Coach handled his roster. Things got off to a rocky start after Oakland traded one of their foundational pieces, Kahlil Mack, failing to meet the defender’s expectations in contract negotiations. Months later, Amari Cooper was jettisoned following a slow start to the season, with both players netting the franchise a total of three future First Round Picks. We’ll get to the picks later, but in the meantime, the exodus led to a severely depleted roster, with the Raiders ranking 28th in Scoring (18.1 P/G) and dead-last in Points Allowed (29.2 P/G), while former Pro-Bowl Quarterback, Derek Carr (68.9%, 4,049 YDS, 6.21 NY/A, 19 TD, 10 INT, 49.3 QBR), proved to be largely ineffective under the tutelage of the self-professed QB Guru. With that said, it would be hard to imagine many Quarterbacks in the league succeeding given the circumstances, for Carr’s Supporting Cast had been utterly decimated, while the Defense struggled mightily to simply get off the field. Though Gruden was reportedly considering replacing his Signal-Caller during the Offseason, he instead chose to give him another chance in his system, with the train of thought being that the 28-Year Old should be able to recapture his 2016 form in which he was a candidate for MVP. In a Quarterback-driven league, this team’s success will likely coincide with any resurgence from Carr, otherwise there is no question that Gruden will have his sights on a younger, fresher face in next year’s NFL Draft. Remember, this guy is in a truly unique situation for a Head Coach, for given the length of his contract and the club’s looming move to Las Vegas, he has the luxury of playing the long game, biding his time while nearly all of his contemporaries are under pressure to win immediately.
Raiders Reloaded: Veterans
If you subscribe to the notion that Gruden spent a great deal of 2018 taking inventory of the roster that was left to him, then based on their actions during this past Offseason, it’s easy to ascertain how he felt about it. Few teams underwent as much turnover across their roster as Oakland, and by all means, they sorely needed it. The first shoe to drop was the acquisition of Antonio Brown (104 REC, 1,297 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 15 TD) in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers for Third and Fifth Round Draft Picks. Gruden and the aforementioned Mayock promptly inked the four-time All-Pro Receiver to a three-year, $50.1 Million Contract Extension, with the hopes that the talented yet disgruntled Brown would flourish in new surroundings. Keep an eye on his rapport with Carr, seeing as how his relationship with his former Quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was a major reason as to why he was ultimately sent packing from Pittsburgh, despite being one of the most successful tandems in NFL History, combining for 686 Receptions, 9,145 Yards, and Sixty-Seven Touchdowns over the past six years. However, it didn’t stop there for the Raiders, who were very busy in Free Agency, further adding to the Receiving Corps by signing Tyrell Williams (41 REC, 653 YDS, 15.9 Y/R, 5 TD), who averaged 16.3 Yards per Reception over the past four years for division rival, Los Angeles, while acquiring mammoth Offensive Tackle, Trent Brown, who played a major role for the reigning Super Bowl Champion, New England Patriots, making him the highest-paid Lineman in the league at $66 Million over four years. Furthermore, they added to the Defense too, signing Linebackers Brandon Marshall (42 TKL, 1 PD) and Vontaze Burfict (33 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 PD), along with versatile Defensive Back, Lamarcus Joyner (78 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD). It remains to be seen how these new pieces will come together, though they certainly appear to represent an upgrade, at least on paper. With that said, there is another part of this equation, which brings us to…
Raiders Reloaded: The Draft
The moment that they traded away the aforementioned Mack and Cooper for a wealth of Draft Capital, the Raiders adjusted their roster makeup and timetable, tying their rebuilding project to the NFL Draft over the next few years. This notion was only cemented when they made arguably television’s foremost authority on the subject, longtime scout and analyst Mike Mayock, their new General Manager. Heading into the 2019 Draft, Oakland was armed with THREE First Round Picks, and four within the Top-40 Picks alone, setting themselves up with potentially top-tier talent for a very affordable price. So what did they come away with, you ask? As expected, and foreshadowed by their moves in Free Agency, Gruden and Mayock resisted the temptation to select a Quarterback, instead focusing heavily on their porous Defense, using three out of their first four picks on that particular side of the football. Fourth Overall, they landed Clelin Ferrell out of National Champion, Clemson, as consistently productive a Defensive End as you’ll find in college football over the last few years. At 24th Overall, they took Alabama Tailback, Josh Jacobs, who was widely regarded as the only player at his position in this Draft Class to be remotely close to being an elite prospect. At 27th Overall, hard-hitting Safety, Jonathan Abram out of Mississippi State, was the choice, followed at 40th Overall by Clemson Cornerback Trayvon Mullen. Later in the Draft, Oakland nabbed Foster Moreau (No. 137 Overall) out of LSU to bring some speed and athleticism to Tight End, while yet another Clemson Tiger, Hunter Renfrow (No. 149 Overall) was added to work predominantly out of the Slot and contribute on Special Teams. It will be interesting to see how this group acclimates itself, particularly Ferrell, who was a bit of a surprise at No. 4 Overall, though will nonetheless be expected to help improve upon an utterly anemic pass-rush that accounted for a scant Thirteen Sacks. Yes, you read that correctly, folks. By and large, this Draft Class will serve as the foundation moving forward, with the Raiders further building upon it in the 2020 Draft, where they will be armed with a pair of Frist Round Picks, their own and the Cowboys, via the aforementioned Cooper trade.
2019 Forecast: 8-8
Few teams had a more interesting Offseason than the Oakland Raiders, who made waves by trading for Antonio Brown, and were the center of much of the discussion surrounding the NFL Draft thanks to all of the picks that they had in the First Round courtesy of the trades of Kahlil Mack and Amari Cooper. After such a disappointing campaign, Gruden placed an emphasis on getting faster and more athletic throughout his roster, which by and large is something that they appear to have achieved following their activity in Free Agency and in the Draft. However, in what should be their final season in Oakland, will all that turnover parlay into what would be just their second Playoff Appearance since 2002? It’s difficult to say at this point, for while this looks to be a greatly improved team, there are many factors that can ultimately work against them. After spending so many years in the booth, does Gruden still have it? Will Carr ever regain his 2016 form, or is what we’ve seen over the past two years really who he is? Will Brown behave in his new surroundings, or will he continue to rock the proverbial boat? Will the Draft Picks come of age quickly enough to improve upon a dreadful Defense? That’s a lot to answer, folks, and with a schedule that is absolutely brutal out of the gate, it could be very difficult to show any kind of immediate improvement. However, as we’ve said before, Gruden has the luxury of playing the long game, and this team far from being a finished product, which means they’ll likely be located in Las Vegas before they find themselves truly contending again.