As we enter the back half of our 2022 NFL Preview, we head to Sin City where they Raiders have designs on making consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 2000-2002. Make no mistake, Las Vegas endured an EXTREMELY DIFFICULT campaign last year, what with the unceremonious ousting of (former Head Coach) Jon Gruden midseason, followed by a number of high-profile cuts due to off-field tragedy. However, they still managed to rally down the stretch and advance to the postseason for just the second time in twenty years, though (Owner) Mark Davis opted to make significant changes to the executive and coaching branches of his franchise, hiring (former Patriots tandem) Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler as Head Coach and General Manager respectively. Will the Silver & Black become New England West? How quickly will the new faces get acclimated? Have they improved enough to survive in a hellacious AFC West? Read on, ladies and gentlemen…
Turning the Page
After all the crazy @#$! that Mark Davis’s franchise went through last season, it’s hard to blame him for wanting to start over with a clean slate. After emails were uncovered during the NFL’s investigation into the Washington Football Team citing homophobic and racist comments made while he was employed as an analyst for ESPN, Jon Gruden was embarrassingly ousted from his seat as football czar with the Silver & Black. His replacement, Rich Bisaccia, did an admirable job of rallying the troops, leading the Raiders to four straight victories down the stretch, which booked their passage into the playoffs for just the second time since 2002. However, there was always a feeling that Davis preferred to clean house following the Gruden debacle, and thus he set out on an exhaustive search for new leadership, ultimately deciding on the aforementioned McDaniels (pictured) and Ziegler. Former collegiate teammates, the tandem had spent the previous eight years together in New England, where the former operated as Offensive Coordinator and the latter worked his way up the scouting department to become Director of Player Personnel. For McDaniels, this is a second chance to make good on his failed first opportunity as a Head Coach; the venerable offensive mastermind went just 11-17 in little over two seasons with the Broncos (2009-2010), before heading back to Foxborough where he would have a hand in the Pats winning three more Lombardi trophies. Now, the question on everyone’s mind is if the longtime disciple of Bill Belichick will in fact be able to transform Las Vegas into New England West? Needless to say, there is a long and disappointing history of Belichick’s lieutenants trying to replicate the Patriots machine in other locations, with most of them failing for a variety of reasons, though the feeling is that the now 46-year-old was humbled by his previous experience and over a decade later is better prepared for the task ahead of him. One of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL for quite a while now, the expectation is that McDaniels will revolutionize the Raiders’ attack, making them more balanced and efficient, which were MAJOR issues for them under his predecessor; Las Vegas ranked twenty-eighth in rushing (95.1) and twenty-seventh in yards per rush (3.9), which had a direct impact on their erratic showing on third down (37.4%) and within the red zone (51.7%), finishing twenty-second and twenty-sixth respectively. It’s clear that he and Ziegler are on the same page when it comes to what kinds of talent they need to make this happen, as they spent the bulk of the offseason addressing their weaknesses, including the addition of a certain high-profile pass-catcher…
Indeed, not long after their unveiling, Ziegler and McDaniels went about molding the Raiders’ personnel to their liking, jettisoning those players whom they felt didn’t fit their designs and acquiring those who met their standards. After initial skepticism of their faith in (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Derek Carr, the brain trust cemented his future with the franchise by signing him to a three-year, $121.5 million extension, rewarding him following a campaign in which he literally carried the Offense in the face of waves of controversy. They also rewarded him with a trade for the most prolific pass-catcher in the NFL over the past few years, adding (All-Pro Receiver) Davante Adams. Since 2016, Adams has totaled 581 receptions, 7,192 yards, and an NFL-best SIXTY-NINE touchdowns, including at least 111 catches and no fewer than eleven scores in three of the last four seasons. Of course, Carr and Adams’ relationship goes back to their collegiate days at Fresno State, where they became one of the most productive QB/WR combinations in the country. Now, the 29-year-old joins a Receiving Corps that looks VERY formidable all of a sudden, what with the likes of (Wideout) Hunter Renfrow and (Tight End) Darren Waller reeling in at least 100 receptions once apiece over the last two years. Simply put, this is A LOT of firepower at McDaniels’ disposal, with the expectation being that the Quarterback and Wideout will pick up right where they left off a decade ago. With that said, it’s not as if either of them is without something to prove. After years of hearing persistent trade rumors and criticism over his ability to take the Raiders to the next level, Carr must feel comfortable in signing that extension and reuniting with Adams, but that new contract isn’t without protection for the franchise; Las Vegas can cut ties with the veteran after this season with just $5.6 million in dead cap, so there is flexibility if McDaniels and Ziegler are unconvinced and opt to search for a replacement. As for Adams, the veteran inked a HUGE payday (five years, $140 million), but must prove that the bulk of his acclaim isn’t chalked up to playing his entire career with (reigning two-time MVP) Aaron Rodgers throwing him the football. Car is very good, but Rodgers is on another level entirely, and within a new Offense surrounded by established weapons it may be unlikely that he reaches the 100-catch threshold once again. That also may not be needed though, for as McDaniels looks to bring more balance to the attack, it will be more about quality than quantity on this side of the football.
Shuffling the Deck
With the addition of McDaniels and Adams in the offseason and their expected impacts on the offensive side of the football, it’s easy to overlook the revolution that is happening on Defense. Simply put, the Raiders have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league for quite a while, for no team has registered fewer sacks and takeaways since 2018 than the Silver & Black. So as McDaniels and Ziegler bring their New England pedigree to Las Vegas, they also hired (Defensive Coordinator) Patrick Graham to instill that Patriots DNA on D. Graham spent seven seasons in Foxborough coaching the Defensive Line and Linebackers (2009-2016) and has enjoyed recent stints with the Dolphins and Giants as their Defensive Coordinator, while also serving as Assistant Head Coach for the latter. As the team transitions from a largely, zone-based Tampa-2/Seattle-3 hybrid to the Pats’ chameleonic scheme, an emphasis has been placed on adding versatile players with experience operating within what is traditionally a difficult system to implement. And it’s with that said that the Raiders traded their leader in sacks, Yannick Ngakoue, to the Colts in exchange for (Cornerback) Rock Ya-Sin, while signing (Pro-Bowl Edge) Chandler Jones (pictured) in free agency. Now, the veteran is five years older than Ngakoue, but he as a wealth of experience playing within Graham’s scheme, having spent the first four years of his career playing his trade in New England. Furthermore, the 32-year-old has logged more sacks (107.5) and fumbles (33) than any player in the league over the last decade, with his experience expected to rub off on his emerging teammates, particularly (fellow Edge) Maxx Crosby. Enjoying his first Pro-Bowl selection last season, Crosby emerged as a truly relentless presence off the edge of the Defensive Line, registering career-highs in Quarterbacks hits (30) and pressures (42) to go accompany his eight sacks. If Jones and Crosby can consistently bring the heat off the edge, then the rest of this revamped unit should fall into place, positioning Vegas for a repeat trip to the postseason.
Projected Finish: 10-7
While there were plenty of people decrying Davis’s decision to move on from the previous regime despite their turn of form down the stretch, there remained enough skepticism as to the sustainability of the project. After all, seven of the Raiders’ ten victories were of the walk-off variety. Transitioning to McDaniels and Ziegler gives us the impression that there is a consistency, leadership, and attention to detail in place that is a complete 180 from the chaos that marred Gruden’s reign. Expect Las Vegas to be all the better for it, though even with all of their improvements, the rest of the AFC West has improved significantly too, so winning more than ten games is likely a stretch, though a return to the playoffs should be an attainable goal.