Second Gruden era set to begin in Oakland
The Raiders have generated plenty of buzz for a team that followed its first trip to the playoffs since 2002 with a disastrous 6-10 faceplant last season. All it took was for owner Mark Davis to convince Jon Gruden to leave the Monday Night Football broadcast booth and return to Oakland for a second stint as Raiders coach. Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million contract to replace Jack Del Rio, whose reign in Oakland ended after three seasons.
“I have to do something with this opportunity,” Gruden said at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., in March. “We’ve had one winning season in the last  years.”
This season will undoubtedly be all Gruden all the time for the Raiders. The late Al Davis gave Gruden his first NFL head-coaching job in 1998, and he went 38–26 in four seasons, including marks of 12–4 in 2000 and 10–6 in 2001. He led them to the playoffs in 2000 and 2001 but won just one postseason game each year.
After the 2001 season, Davis traded Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two first-round draft picks, two seconds and $8 million. In his first season in Tampa, Gruden led the Bucs to a 48–21 victory against the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Gruden must get quarterback Derek Carr back on track after a rough 2017 season. Carr was an MVP candidate in 2016 until suffering a season-ending broken fibula in Week 16. He threw for 3,937 yards with 28 TDs, six interceptions and a 96.7 passer rating that year. Last season, his numbers dipped to 3,496 yards, 22 TDs, 13 interceptions and an 86.4 rating. Carr missed one game after breaking a small bone in his back against Denver on Oct. 1. To help get him back on track, Gruden hired veteran coordinator Greg Olson, who spent two years with the Raiders, including Carr’s rookie season in 2014.
Gruden will use his version of the West Coast offense, one that values fullbacks, tight ends and a powerful running game to go with a strong passing attack. Marshawn Lynch can expect a heavier workload than he had last year when he came out of retirement to play for his hometown team. Lynch rushed for 891 yards and averaged just 13.8 carries per game. In his final five games, he rushed for 101 yards twice, 95 yards another time and averaged 5.2 yards per carry, nearly a yard more than his career average of 4.3.
The Raiders have poured tons of cash into their offensive line and expect a big return from left guard Kelechi Osemele, center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and left tackle Donald Penn. Rookie Kolton Miller, the 15th overall pick, will compete for the starting job at right tackle with free-agent pickup Breno Giacomini, an 11-year veteran.
The Raiders expect a bounce-back year from wide receiver Amari Cooper. After averaging 78 catches for 1,112 yards in his first two NFL seasons, Cooper caught 48 passes for 680 yards last year. They cut wide receiver Michael Crabtree and replaced him with longtime Packer Jordy Nelson. Oakland also added the speedy Martavis Bryant in a trade with Pittsburgh. Bryant caught 50 passes for 603 yards and three TDs last year but was suspended the entire 2016 season after multiple violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Tight end Jared Cook had 54 catches for 688 yards -- both career highs -- last season, his first with the Raiders. Cook is a dangerous target who can stretch defenses over the middle. The Raiders re-signed tight end Lee Smith, whose forte is run blocking. Free-agent addition Keith Smith will start at fullback.
It’s probably fair to call Oakland’s defense Khalil Mack and the Question Marks. Mack, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, had his third straight Pro Bowl season last year and is the only superstar in this group. The fourth-year defensive end had 10.5 sacks, 78 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery last season.
Mack had 15 sacks in 2015, second most in the NFL, and Gruden says that for him to get back to that level, he’ll need some pass-rush help on the inside. Rookie defensive tackle P.J. Hall, a second-round pick from Sam Houston State, could help. So could Maurice Hurst, another rookie tackle, who dropped in the draft (to the fifth round) in part due to a medical issue. Starting defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round draft pick in 2015, is another option inside on passing downs.
Bruce Irvin, who started last year at outside linebacker, will likely be a pass-rush specialist off the edge this year, taking better advantage of his greatest skill. The Raiders drafted Arden Key, another edge rusher, in the third round out of LSU. Defensive tackle Justin Ellis received a new three-year $15 contract and will help stuff the run.
The Raiders finished 23rd in total defense in a tumultuous 2017 season. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was fired after 10 games and replaced by assistant head coach/defense John Pagano. Oakland’s defense had zero interceptions in its first 10 games, making NFL history, and only 14 sacks. Gruden hired former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Over his four years as Cincinnati’s coordinator, the Bengals intercepted 69 passes, the most in the NFL.
The Raiders’ secondary could get a huge overhaul. Cornerbacks David Amerson and Sean Smith were released, and T.J. Carrie left as a free agent. The Raiders signed cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin, Shareece Wright, Leon Hall and Daryl Worley and safety Marcus Gilchrist. Melvin has the inside track to a starting job, and the Raiders hope Gareon Conley, a first-round draft pick in 2017, can make a leap in his second season. Conley appeared in only two games as a rookie and underwent season-ending shin surgery in November.
Starting strong safety Karl Joseph and free safety Reggie Nelson return, but Gilchrist could push Nelson for the starting job. Obi Melifonwu, a second-round draft pick last year, could be in the mix, too. He missed the first eight games with an ankle injury then had season-ending hip surgery in December.
The situation at linebacker is also muddled, especially with Irvin’s role changing. Former Kansas City Chiefs middle linebacker Derrick Johnson, a late free-agent signing, will likely start. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler with 169 career NFL starts and 1,262 tackles, a franchise record. Tahir Whitehead, another free-agent pickup, could wind up starting on the outside. Outside linebacker Cory James started 14 games over the past two seasons but was waived after failing his physical in May. That could open a starting spot for Nicholas Morrow, who gained starting experience last year as a rookie.
The days of spending big money on specialists appear to be over in Oakland. The Raiders cut Pro Bowl punter Marquette King, a move that saved $2.9 million in cap space. Rookie Johnny Townsend will replace him. The Raiders decided not to re-sign kicker Sebastian Janikowski, a first-round pick in 2000. He spent last season on injured reserve and signed with Seattle. Giorgio Tavecchio stepped in and made 16-of-21 field goal attempts last year. He requires a much lower pay rate than Janikowski. The Raiders traded wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson, an explosive kick returner, to New England. They signed veteran return man Dwayne Harris, a 2016 Pro Bowler, and traded with Dallas for Ryan Switzer, who returns punts and kickoffs.
The Raiders still have most of the key players who helped the team finish 12–4 two seasons ago. If Carr gets back on track and Gruden quickly gets back up to NFL coaching speed, then the Raiders should be able to contend for a playoff spot. Tennessee and Buffalo earned AFC Wild Card berths last season with nine wins apiece, giving the Raiders a reasonable goal to shoot for.