Even at their highest point last season, sitting at 6–3 and the playoffs a very real possibility, an awareness was rising inside the Raiders building that plenty of work still remained, specifically regarding a defense that, frankly, the Raiders were winning games in spite of. That makes their collapse over the last part of the season hardly surprising, and even less so the work they put in during the offseason.
Between free agency and the draft, the Raiders provided new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley with 13 new players, four of whom should win starting jobs with a handful seeing extensive playing time. The objective is to create at least an average defense to complement an offense that averaged the 10th-most points in the league. If so, the expectation in Las Vegas is that the Raiders will absolutely be knocking on the door of the playoffs in 2021.
For all the talk that Jon Gruden would immediately replace Derek Carr with his “own guy” upon his hiring in 2018, Carr is ironically the last man standing after a roster overhaul. Carr’s command of the offense has enabled him to produce three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons.
A surprising offseason offensive line purge means new starters at right tackle, center and right guard, and second-year wide receivers Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards need to take big steps forward after uneven rookie seasons. Rookie Alex Leatherwood, a first-round pick from Alabama, is expected to replace Trent Brown at right tackle, and the Raiders are counting on his highly regarded run blocking to add punch to their ground attack. The trades of veteran stalwarts Rodney Hudson at center and Gabe Jackson at right guard leave big shoes to fill, but there is confidence in the building that the two years Andre James spent in offensive line coach Tom Cable’s lab creates a ready-made replacement for Hudson, and that Denzelle Good can build off his surprising 2020 performance to lock down Jackson’s spot. Veteran Richie Incognito, who played just two games last year due to an Achilles injury, is in line to secure one of the guard spots, with second-year prospect John Simpson waiting in the wings. Kolton Miller was rewarded with a contract extension as the anchor at left tackle.
If the line holds up, Carr has plenty of young help around him, and the Raiders acquired some veteran insurance just in case some of the youngsters aren’t ready for the challenge.
Dynamic tight end Darren Waller is so good that the attack rightfully runs through him. There is good and bad in that, as Waller is such a matchup nightmare that feeding him generally leads to big things. That said, the Raiders can’t afford to get too reliant on Waller, as it sometimes makes them too predictable.
The Raiders need to unleash the two-headed running back attack of Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake, whose ability to be interchangeable and also complementary will mean plenty of personnel groupings in which they share the field. Drake’s wideout skill set means the Raiders can go up-tempo without the need to make substitutions. Fullback Alec Ingold is one of the best players at his position. His blocking is a huge part of the run game.
Gruden needs to figure out how to better use Ruggs, the speedy Alabama product who had an up-and-down rookie season. Ruggs spent the offseason working on his core strength, route running and explosion. The free agent signings of veterans John Brown and Willie Snead IV add some experience to a young receiver group that rounds out with Edwards and reliable slot receiver Hunter Renfrow.
As expected, the Raiders invested time, money and draft capital on defense during the offseason, beginning with the hiring of Bradley, a long-time respected coordinator who is being counted on to restore some semblance of order.
To put the Raiders’ 2020 defensive woes in perspective: They allowed the third-most points, forced the third-fewest turnovers (15) and collected the fourth-fewest sacks (21), and it was their inability to hold three leads with under 1:45 to play that ultimately cost the Raiders a playoff spot.
Free-agent pickup Yannick Ngakoue adds an edge pass-rush dynamic the Raiders have been missing for years, and as one of only five NFL players to amass 40-plus sacks and 15-plus forced fumbles since 2016, he immediately becomes the Raiders’ most feared pass rusher. His presence means that Maxx Crosby likely moves into more of a pass-rush specialist role, which will reduce his snap counts while potentially raising his efficiency.
Third-year defensive end Clelin Ferrell might have been a reach as the fourth overall pick in 2019, but he has steadily improved and provides a high-level skill set in setting the edge. On known passing downs, the Raiders will kick Ferrell inside, creating situations where he, Crosby and Ngakoue are all on the field at the same time.
The additions of interior linemen Quinton Jefferson, Solomon Thomas and Darius Philon (returning to the NFL following legal issues in 2019) and the retention of Johnathan Hankins create depth and rotational possibilities inside.
For the Raiders’ front seven to take off, Cory Littleton needs a rebirth at linebacker. Save for a late-season surge after the Raiders fired defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, the prize of the 2020 free agent class never played comfortably last year. The arrival of Bradley, with his track record of putting players in position to succeed, should point Littleton back in the right direction. Beside him, Nick Kwiatkoski and Nicholas Morrow hope to build off their solid 2020 seasons. Meanwhile, second-year prospect Tanner Muse and rookie Divine Deablo are expected to be sub-package chess pieces.
The Raiders pulled off a shrewd draft-day move by trading up in the second round to grab TCU free safety Trevon Moehrig, who fills an immediate need as the quarterback of the back end of the defense. His arrival frees up strong safety Johnathan Abram to be utilized as a box safety in Bradley’s Cover-3 defense, tapping into his run-defense skills but also minimizing his role in pass coverage. The Raiders drafted Tyree Gillespie in the fourth round, and he could push for time in subpackages while also providing some insurance for Abram. Las Vegas brought back veteran Karl Joseph for depth.
After a rough rookie season in which he dealt with wrist surgery and concussions, cornerback Damon Arnette needs to stay on the field and make good on his first-round draft status in 2020. Opposite him, Trayvon Mullen has settled in as a dependable player. Amik Robertson will get a chance to lock down the slot cornerback spot vacated by Lamarcus Joyner, but keep an eye on rookie Nate Hobbs, who played both outside and inside at Illinois. Veteran Rasul Douglas was signed to add a veteran presence.
After a rough final stretch in 2019, Daniel Carlson regained his form in 2020, and the Raiders rewarded him with a new contract. Punter AJ Cole has been one of the more solid players at his position the last two years. Renfrow is expected to resume punt-return duties, with kickoff return duties being sorted out in training camp.
Even with the offensive line changes, the Raiders have a playoff-caliber offense, and depending on the improvement of Ruggs and Edwards and the impact of Drake, the unit could be even better in 2021. That is a credit to Gruden, who has rebuilt that side of the ball into a productive, efficient unit. It all comes down to defense, and whether the massive changes from both a coaching and personnel standpoint have the desired effect. If so, there is no reason the Raiders should not be knocking on the playoff door again and, this time, much better prepared to finally push through.