Josh Jacobs and the Raiders begin a new era in Las Vegas with increased expectations
As the Raiders begin their new journey in Las Vegas, they segue into Chapter Two of a Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock partnership that has overseen nearly a complete overhaul of the depleted roster Gruden inherited upon taking over in 2018. The results of the reconstruction are expected to be felt on the scoreboard, where young, athletic playmakers playing alongside veteran quarterback Derek Carr are being counted on to lift the Raiders offense from methodical to explosive.
Defensively, the Raiders added much-needed skill and experience at linebacker, safety and in the interior of the defensive line through free agency. With a group of second-year defenders consisting of DE Clelin Ferrell, DE Maxx Crosby, CB Trayvon Mullen and S Johnathan Abram, and the additions of a pair of rookie cornerbacks in Damon Arnette and Amik Robertson, the Raiders appear to be on their way to fielding a much more competent defense.
As Carr heads into his seventh year, he may finally have what he’s been deprived of his entire career: an offense replete with weapons and a defense capable of giving him a legitimate shot to win games. The pressure is on Carr to take this franchise to the next level.
To Gruden’s and Mayock’s credit, they helped the Raiders take a decisive step forward last year with the offensive tinkering, and it put them in position to add the remaining pieces in free agency and the draft. The additions of RT Trent Brown and LG Richie Incognito in free agency turned the offensive line from one of the worst to a top-10 unit when healthy. Rookie running back Josh Jacobs set a franchise rookie rushing record; tight end Darren Waller was a revelation in his third season; and rookie slot receiver Hunter Renfrow defied his fifth-round draft status to catch 49 for 605 and become a third-down security blanket for Carr.
The Raiders, though, lacked explosiveness, so while they gained the 11th-most yards per game in the NFL at 363.7 last year, they were No. 24 in points at 19.6.
That has the potential to change after a draft that reeled in Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs III; South Carolina WR Bryan Edwards, a big, physical target; and Swiss army knife Lynn Bowden Jr. from Kentucky, a sort of Percy Harvin-type asset who led the SEC in all-purpose yards per game last year after being forced to move from wide receiver to quarterback early in the season and ended up rushing for 1,468 yards.
“I think the bigger picture for both Jon and I was, ‘How do we get more dynamic?’” Mayock says. “You look at our offense last year, I think Jon did an outstanding job. We used two or three tight ends just about more than anyone else in the league. Darren Waller came out of nowhere to catch 90 balls. Josh Jacobs came out of nowhere to gain 1,200 yards. I think Jon did an outstanding job without us having significant wide receiver production. And when Jon and I sat down in the offseason, it was about trying to get more dynamic.”
The Raiders also added veteran tight end Jason Witten, who will be a role model for Waller and second-year tight end Foster Moreau, and WR Nelson Agholor, who adds dependability and production.
Gruden stands to benefit from the new additions, as his playbook will begin to open and expand more with the inclusion of so many different skill sets. In Ruggs, he has the long-ball go-to threat he thought he had in Antonio Brown last year, but also a skilled game-changer who can attack defenses deep, on slants, in bubble-screen situations and as a ball carrier. And with defensive focus now turning his way, it should mean more room for Waller, Jacobs, Renfrow and Tyrell Williams to operate.
Mostly, it means that Carr has a full complement of assets to tap into, something he has not had in his six seasons with the Raiders. Keep in mind that the team added Marcus Mariota in free agency. The plan is for him to be Carr’s backup, creating the best quarterback room in recent Raiders history.
The Raiders signed 13 players in free agency. Seven of those players and the biggest chunk of their salary cap space were devoted to defense, where an infusion of talent was needed at all three levels after a lost season in 2019.
It’s not that the Raiders were completely devoid of talent and production. Crosby, a fourth-round pick, had 10 sacks as a rookie, and fellow rookie Ferrell showed promise in setting the edge of the Raiders defensive line. Mullen, a second-round pick from Clemson, locked down one cornerback spot with a strong finish to his rookie season, and while Abram missed all but one game of his rookie season due to a shoulder injury, he showed enough during his time on the field that he has a chance to be an impact strong safety.
The problem was that there just wasn’t enough talent, especially at linebacker, where the Raiders were continually exploited. They addressed that in a major way by adding the best inside linebacker in free agency in Rams veteran Cory Littleton, a three-down backer who will add dependability as both a run stopper and pass defender, as well as Bears emerging linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who, like Littleton, can excel as both a run and pass defender. Training camp will decide who lines up next to the newcomers, with Nicholas Morrow and Marquel Lee among the possibilities.
The addition of Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins creates more depth. When the Raiders are in base defense, Collins will play alongside Johnathan Hankins, Crosby and Ferrell, although known-passing situations could push Ferrell inside with free-agent defensive end Carl Nassib coming off the edge. That formation, under the tutelage of new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, has a chance to wreak havoc and improve on the 32 sacks the team mustered last year.
Rookie cornerback Arnette, who was graded as one of the best press-cover corners in the draft, is expected to challenge for a starting spot opposite Mullen, although the Raiders still have high hopes for second-year cornerback Isaiah Johnson and also signed veteran Prince Amukamara. Robertson could forge a role for himself among a group that includes slot corner Lamarcus Joyner, Nevin Lawson and Keisean Nixon. Mullen and Arnette profile as old-school Raiders bump-and-run cornerbacks — a requirement for second-year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s 4-3 defense to run optimally — and that might be felt in the pass rush, as the defensive front could have more time to get to the quarterback.
Abram, a fearless hitter, is being counted on to bounce back from his lost rookie season, and the plan is for him and free-agent pick-up Damarious Randall to man the two safety spots, with free-agent addition Jeff Heath and veteran Erik Harris as the primary backups.
Placekicker Daniel Carlson faltered down the stretch in 2019 and finished with seven misses among his 26 field goal attempts. The Raiders added undrafted free agent Dominik Eberle from Utah State to create competition. Punter AJ Cole averaged 46.0 yards per punt last season. Ruggs and Bowden are expected to add an immediate shot in the arm as kickoff and punt returners, respectively.
The Kansas City Chiefs rule the AFC West, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But Gruden and Mayock are following a plan that makes sense, and for the first time in years, there is a feeling of direction and genuine progress. They have not closed the gap on the Chiefs significantly, but they are drawing nearer to other teams in the AFC. This is a big year for Carr, who can solidify himself as an upper-echelon quarterback overseeing a talented young offense. If he can position the Raiders as the second-best team in the division, that could be enough to reach the playoffs.