Every offseason fans are reminded that the NFL media tends to have a terrible case of group think and this tends to generate storylines that are usually proved incorrect. For the Oakland Raiders going into this off-season, there are five storylines and talking points of sorts that should be rejected out of hand.
Variation is Coming
On June 1st in an exchange with his co-host Joy Taylor on his radio show, Colin Cowherd said he has the Raiders finishing fourth in the AFC West because of points stated by Joy. She cited Gruden’s “rhetoric” about keeping it old school, not using analytics, and potentially not relating to modern players. This has been the most annoying trope this offseason.
Firstly, this idea that Gruden will be coming into this season running a bunch of near and far two back sets from 1998 is idiotic. Greg Olson the Raider’s offensive coordinator recently spoke to the media regarding the tight end group. He went on to elaborate on how they have multiple guys with different skill sets and will be used in different ways. Does that sound like 1998?
Recently in OTAs, Derek Carr was heard on camera in pre-snap making simple one and two-word audibles most notably, “New York”, and “Klay Thompson”. This is significant because Gruden’s old west coast playbook required quarterbacks to learn hugely complex play calls, but that approach has been replaced in many west coast circles with simple one-word play calls. Leading this change in the NFL are head coaches Sean McVay and Jay Gruden, both of whom are the two peers Jon speaks with most.
As for analytics, every team no matter how dumb the coach plays uses analytics. The question is, which analytics should a team use? I have long lead the charge to regularly dismiss Pro Football Focus analytics because they are clearly subjective. That does not mean a coach cannot determine what another team’s strengths and weaknesses are. Coach Gruden may not be relying on certain advanced metrics out of choice, but he is most certainly using analytics on ball distribution, graphing play outcomes, and other similar concepts.
To wrap this up, as for the question of relating to modern players, most of these young players went through their formative years listening to Gruden on the television calling football games. Maybe what he really needs is not to be their friend and relate to them, but to be that larger than life personality they grew up with that they will respect.
Extensive Rookie Impact
The age of the Raider roster has been both a punchline and a talking point for this entire offseason. However, in the most recent offseason team activities, it has been the rookies that have been making some of the biggest impressions. The offensive tackles to be exact have shown themselves to be quick learners and have earned considerable praise. Due to the injury to Donald Penn and his recovery from Lisfranc surgery, these rookie offensive tackles may be asked to take on a considerable load very early.
Beyond the offensive tackles, the rookie interior linemen have also proved to be quick learners. Reports are sketchy as to whether or not Mario Edwards Jr. is playing defensive tackle or not, but it does seem that he is on the second team. Hurst has seen significant starting reps in early activities and this makes sense pairing him with the mass of a man that is Jelly Ellis. PJ Hall will earn quality reps and be a critical rotational player who can play both interior spots and help produce an interior push late in the game when the Raiders have a lead.
One of the most impressive pictures to come out of recent offseason team activities was the picture of Arden Key bending the edge in pass rush drills and flashing some absurd bend. Yes, I fully realize this is a drill, not a game situation, but Key will prove to be a very crucial part of this defense from Day 1. He will be expected to rotate in and make sure the starters can get a rest, while also being a fresh pair of legs that can explode off the edge late in the game.
This topic tends to go hand in hand with the previous, but it also becomes a different discussion. Right now reports are that Reggie Nelson is starting at free safety with Karl Joseph at strong safety. I have been adamant and will continue to pound the drum that this coaching staff will lose considerable respect in my eyes if Nelson makes this roster, let alone start. The fact is, the 35-year-old can no longer run but he also has a horrible problem of guessing wrong on most plays.
To add to this, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has recently said that the safeties will be interchangeable and they will not necessarily have defined safeties. This is the exact approach that the previous regime used and although it has its benefits, as long as Nelson is on the field, the Raiders are at a massive disadvantage. All a team has to do is line up with the tight end on Joseph’s side which will pull him down to align and cover. From here, the offense can now isolate Nelson in the middle of the field. Even with faster cornerbacks, if the offense were to run a vertical route with an inside release, Nelson would not have the foot speed to maintain coverage over the top. If the offense ran that route on both sides Nelson would have to choose and the opposing quarterback could go opposite of him. If you want to see this principle in action watch the Ravens game from last season.
What should be noted with all of the geriatric Raiders is their contract structure. Nelson, Giacomini, Hall, Wright, Harris, Whalen, and Lamur have all been given significant workout bonuses and be cut before Week 1 either saving significant amounts of cap or at minimum breaking even as the case with Nelson. Giacomini and Nelson both received over a million dollars guaranteed, but both of them also have the majority of their remaining cap hits wrapped up in game-based incentives. Between the two of them, the Raiders would have spent about 1.15 million dollars but will save 3.865 million when they are cut.
What the Raiders did was lock up older guys who could teach certain positions in the offseason and the Raiders overcompensated for that fact. Altogether if the Raiders cut the entire geriatric squad, they would save approximately 7.4 million dollars in cap space that they could roll over to next season. The team would only be out approximately 1.5 million dollars for those players to have spent the offseason coaching up the younger players.
Addition through Addition
One thing the Raiders have been adept at doing ever since Reggie McKenzie arrived in Oakland and has only grown with Gruden is a desire to always push to add talent.
This roster is not yet complete and I believe we will see some significant shake-ups occur. Firstly, there is a decent chance that Donald Penn will not be on this roster once he can clear a physical. As long as the rookie offensive tackles continue to grow and show they can handle the load, the Raiders will be more inclined to move on from his contract. The team could clear up nearly six million dollars by cutting him with only a dead money hit of three million. This would likely not be in line with the original plan, but that money could play a vital role in resigning players next season as part of the cap rollover.
Another position in line for a significant change is the safety position. Much has been made out of some of Gruden’s comments regarding Obi Melifonwu and the lack of faith he has in him. Due to this, it would make sense for the Raiders to add a safety like Vaccaro or Reid. These are bigger bodied and balanced safeties that can be relatively flexible and would allow Gilchrist to dominate in the slot role. It would also force Obi to be a backup this year and get healthy while learning some special teams.
If the player they add has a big season, the Raiders could also garner themselves a significant compensatory pick when he receives a big money free agent offer. It puts the Raiders in the same place at safety as they are at cornerback. The older vet is on the roster to start this year on a one year deal and they have a young player behind them to step in as a starter next season while they rack up compensatory picks for guys they cannot afford to extend.
One more position that is shaping up to potentially have more talent added to it is linebacker. With the recent addition of Derrick Johnson, the linebacker group added some depth to their pass defense sub packages. Because this team will be in nickel the vast majority of the time, it is important that they have two bigger run stopping linebackers they can rely on to fill gaps against the run when they are spread out.
Stuck on Money
Khalil Mack has not shown up for offseason team activities and nobody in Raider Nation is worried, and they should not be. At some point, there will be talk among the NFL media that his holdout will be disruptive or the Raiders are so far off that the extension will not get done. There is one reality when it comes to contract negotiations: deadlines make things happen. Right now there is no pressure on the team or the player to sign a contract because they are not close to a deadline of note.
The pressure will build for both parties as the offseason gets closer to training camp and the real snaps come into play. At that point, it will be a matter of time until Clowney signs his deal and the agents for Donald and Mack subtly coordinate on who gets the biggest overall contract. It will be a game of chicken for nonsensical bragging rights for the agents, but this happens every season. In the end, the Raiders will extend Mack, they will save money against this year’s cap, and he will come right back into the locker room with nobody complaining.
Of course, that will not stop the media from fueling bizarre conspiracy theories and proposing that the Raiders would be better off trading Mack, but just know that all of those tropes are complete nonsense. This team has the cash, cap space, and means to sign him to any contract they choose to sign him to. The only debate once they hit a number will be about structure.