Derek Carr and the re-tooled Raiders look to take a step forward in Jon Gruden's second season
The Raiders are a team in transition — and not just geographically. The hiring of Jon Gruden as coach last year sparked a makeover that included a change at general manager, trades of two star players and a roster overhaul. The result in Year 1 wasn't pretty — a 4–12 finish, two years removed from a 12-win season.
This offseason, the Raiders hired Mike Mayock as general manager, acquired star receiver Antonio Brown and used three first-round draft picks on what they hope are "foundation players" for a team that has made one playoff appearance in the last 16 years.
"I'm really excited about the future of this franchise," Gruden said during the draft. "But we've got to build this team."
The question: Will that process yield progress in the Raiders' last season in Oakland before a 2020 move to Las Vegas? Or will 2019 be just another layer of foundation?
Quarterback Derek Carr will be expected to lead the improvement after the Raiders added high-priced pieces around him. In Carr's first season with Gruden, he set career bests in completion percentage (68.9) and passing yards (4,049) but also had a career low in touchdown passes (19) as the Raiders ranked 28th in scoring. Carr was sacked 51 times, and the pressure combined with a lack of deep-threat receivers meant he seldom pushed the ball downfield. The Raiders targeted those issues by acquiring receivers Brown and Tyrell Williams and tackle Trent Brown. Carr was injured in each of the previous two seasons but played 16 games in 2018, and the Raiders gave him a vote of confidence by not pursuing a quarterback in the draft. They also released his 2018 backup, AJ McCarron. Mike Glennon, Landry Jones and Nathan Peterman will vie for that job.
The Raiders also let Marshawn Lynch become a free agent and will need a new lead back. They used a first-round draft pick on Alabama running back Josh Jacobs and re-signed Doug Martin (after acquiring Isaiah Crowell, who promptly went down with a season-ending injury). They view Jacobs as a potential three-down back, although he must show that he can handle a heavy workload and also pass protect. Jalen Richard tied for the Raiders lead in catches (68) last season and played 40 percent of the offense's snaps. He should keep a sizable role as Gruden loves his versatility.
No unit changed more this offseason than receiver. Jordy Nelson and Seth Roberts are out. Brown, Williams, J.J. Nelson and Ryan Grant are in. Brown gives Carr a clear No. 1 receiver with at least 100 catches and 1,200 yards each of the last six seasons. Last season was Gruden's first as an NFL coach without a 1,000-yard receiver, and he'll delight in scheming ways to get Brown open. Williams and Nelson are deep threats — Williams has averaged 16.3 yards per catch in his career, Nelson 17.8 yards. Grant, who had 35 catches for 334 yards in 2018, and Nelson could face competition at slot receiver from fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow. Whoever lines up at slot should benefit from the big-play potential of Brown and Williams outside.
Tight end Jared Cook, Oakland's leading receiver last season, left for the Saints in free agency. He was a focal point of the passing game partly due to the Raiders' lack of receivers, and his replacement likely won't have as many targets. Darren Waller will get the first shot after being signed off of Baltimore's practice squad last November. Waller, who was suspended in 2017 for violating the NFL's policy on substance abuse, had six catches for 75 yards last year. Mayock says he likes Waller's potential.
After allowing 52 sacks last season, tied for fifth most in the league, the offensive line remains somewhat unsettled. The Raiders made Trent Brown the highest-paid lineman in the NFL but haven't announced whether he'll play left or right tackle. Kolton Miller, last year's first-round pick, started at left tackle as a rookie and played through a knee injury. Brown was the starting left tackle for the Super Bowl champion Patriots. With former Pro Bowl left guard Kelechi Osemele traded to the Jets, the Raiders could move Gabe Jackson from right to left guard, with Denzelle Good as the other starter. But they haven't made that call, either. Center Rodney Hudson, their most consistent player for years, provides some continuity. Veteran Richie Incognito was signed in late May but he has been suspended the first two games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
The Raiders allowed the most points in franchise history in 2018, so there were plenty of areas to improve. But the most glaring was their lack of a pass rush. The defense totaled an NFL-low 13 sacks and only one from an edge rusher — Arden Key — who's still on the roster. The Raiders hope Key added strength this offseason that will make him more effective. They also used their top draft pick on defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who will start immediately; added two other edge rushers in the late rounds; and signed free agents Benson Mayowa (four sacks in 2018) and Josh Mauro. Maurice Hurst, who had a team-high four sacks in 2018, returns as a disruptive starting 3-technique alongside nose tackle Justin Ellis, whose 2018 season was limited to six games by a foot injury in the opener. Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins returns on a two-year deal, while 2018 second-round pick P.J. Hall remains in the interior rotation.
Oakland added experience at linebacker in free agents Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall. The question is whether they can stay on the field. Burfict excelled in Raiders coordinator Paul Guenther's defense in Cincinnati but missed time to a hip issue and concussions last season and has been suspended in each of the last three seasons. Marshall missed time last season to a knee injury, and he'll be transitioning from a 3-4 defense in Denver to a 4-3. Burfict and Marshall could be competing for a spot. Tahir Whitehead played almost every defensive snap for the Raiders last season. No other linebacker played more than 44 percent of snaps as the Raiders often used a nickel defense. Marquel Lee started for part of 2018 at middle linebacker before ceding the spot to rookie Jason Cabinda.
Gareon Conley and Daryl Worley started most of last season at cornerback. That didn't stop the Raiders from drafting two corners in Trayvon Mullen and Isaiah Johnson (both 6'2") who Mayock says can both play the type of press coverage the Raiders prefer. Worley ended last season on injured reserve but is expected back healthy. The Raiders signed Lamarcus Joyner, who played free safety for the Rams, and plan to use him often at corner in their nickel defense. Nick Nelson did not seize that role last year. First-round pick Johnathan Abram, an effective defender against the run in college, fits best as a strong safety. The Raiders gave Abram the No. 24 jersey once worn by Charles Woodson. Karl Joseph started at strong safety during the second half of last season but could be moved around, while Erik Harris returns as a backup.
Signing rookie placekicker Daniel Carlson last October, after he was cut by Minnesota in Week 2, was one of the Raiders' best moves. Carlson converted 16-of-17 field goals tries and all 18 extra points with Oakland. Rookie punter Johnny Townsend was less consistent; his net average of 38.3 yards per punt ranked 29th in the NFL. Dwayne Harris should return kicks and punts again — his 14.1-yard average on punt returns ranked second in the NFL in 2018.
Just nine of 50 players drafted under GM Reggie McKenzie from 2012-17 are still with the Raiders. Gruden has now had two offseasons and two drafts to fill a roster with the players he wants. He has been granted the time and authority to "build this team." Whatever happens this season likely won't change that. Players have expressed excitement and confidence in the team's culture and future. Gruden has, too, but he's been careful not to promise immediate results.