Playoffs! Playoffs! We are going to discuss playoffs and the Oakland Raiders.
Many of the so-called experts, handicappers, and prognosticators have the Raiders finishing last in the AFC West again. Let me tell you, based off a long running history, most couldn’t argue. For every season the team has had massive changes, losing has been the only constant.
The ministry of offense
Derek Carr has had to learn four offenses in five seasons, his only continuity coming in 2016. If the Raiders make the playoffs, it will be due largely to his ability to connect with his new targets. The good news is Carr has progressed in completions nearly every season he’s been in the league. His first year in Jon Gruden’s offense saw him throw for 4049 yards 19 TDs and 10 INTs, eclipsing his previous career bests in his second season under Bill Musgrave.
Mind you, Carr did this with Amari Cooper until he was traded, the last of what Jordy Nelson had to offer, and Seth Roberts, who finally caught a touchdown pass in a game they didn’t win. So, what elicits any confidence? The fact that the front office got him a ton of help.
Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, and Ryan Grant are the new targets he has to work with. Brown, after a lengthy offseason filled with tabloid style headlines mixed with lobbing grenades at his former team, has an awful lot to prove. The social media beef with Juju Smith-Schuster is only adding fuel to his fire and a motivated true #1 WR is exactly what Carr has been missing.
Williams is the type of deep threat Carr loves to throw to. He’s tall, fast, and has reliable hands. Averaging 15.3 yards/reception in 2018, a change of scenery may benefit Williams. His catching percentage rose the last three seasons; however, his targets went down in each of the last three seasons, as well. He will be afforded favorable matchups as the #2 option/primary deep threat in Gruden’s offense this season.
Even more important than WRs is the running game. A QB has two best friends: his tight end and his running game. With the 24th pick in the draft, the Raiders selected Josh Jacobs to be Gruden’s new bell-cow.
Jacobs was the primary back but split time with a stable of backs in the 2018 season. A complete back, capable of blocking, catching, and possessing physicality, Jacobs has learned how to be a winner. Jacobs will be stabled with Doug Martin and Jalen Richard behind the Raiders’ massively rebuilt offensive line.
Trent Brown was signed to a big deal and is expected to be a mainstay at the right tackle spot for years to come. The Raiders have dismissed the idea that a left tackle is the more important pass blocker because the better edge rushers in the AFC West come from the strong side. Both second year offensive tackles Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker are around the 330 pound mark and expect improved strength to lead to better health.
Miller played 12 of his 16 games on a grade two knee strain, and the Raiders hope injury is what derailed the effectiveness of his rookie campaign. The Raiders added veteran guard Richie Incognito to challenge Denzelle Good for a starting spot at left guard.
What a rush!!!
Perhaps the single most glaring issue with the Oakland Raiders was the lack of a pass rush. In a 16 game season with 11 players on the field at all times, the Raiders only managed to produce 13 sacks as a team.
Arden Key was asked to gain weight, and then revealed he played most of the 2018 season with a shoulder injury. At the start of OTA’s in April, he weighed in at 245; last week he claimed to have bulked up to 260.
He and position coach Brentson Buckner counted 13 “almost” sacks he had in 2018. Going from a drafted situational pass rusher to an every down player was not his intended usage, but he should benefit from it nonetheless. He will be looking at a move to the left side of the formation with the addition of Clelin Ferrell.
Ferrell has been praised by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and is described as a player who fits the system to a “t.” One of Clemson’s “Power Rangers,” the elite defensive line, he and his rangers whooped the Crimson Tide’s offense en route to a runaway 44-16 National Championship victory. Ferrell has it all: power, explosion, technique, experience, and leadership.
Expecting one rookie to be the end all solution is folly, so instead we introduce Mad Maxx Crosby. Crosby is a small school stud. Should he be able to add more strength and weight this offseason, he will push Key to be better, or back into a situational role.
The edge depth of the Raiders has been greatly improved, and with proper coaching from Buckner, they should be able to contribute at minimum four to six or more sacks per player. A stronger edge rush will help the interior collapse the pocket and sack the quarterback or rush his throw.
Soul Patrol 2.0
Having a dynamite secondary is a hallmark of a Guenther defense. Last year he had what he had, this year he has a player for every situation. Gareon Conley took great strides to validate his first round draft status by posting the seventh lowest completion percentage when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus(hyperlink).
Adding Trayvon Mullen, the defensive MVP from the Clemson/Alabama title game, is a marvelous scheme fit and pairing for this defense. Mullen is more of a zone corner and a willing participant in run defense, which are both compliments to Conley’s skillset. Isaiah Johnson is tall, rangy, and fast, perfect for the bigger receivers the Raiders will face this season. With Conley, Mullen, and Johnson, they can now mix and match corners based on the receivers they face.
Enforcing the last line of defense appears to fall to rookie Johnathan Abram and Lamarcus Joyner. Receivers playing the Raiders this season are lucky there is a defenseless receiver rule because Abram is a trash talking head hunter. The kind of guy who says something wild to opponents, making them focus on him, then comes the hit stick, and in finale another player has been owned by Abram.
Joyner is going to be asked to do a lot in this defense, cover the slot, cover deep, make tackles in run support, and keep everything in front of him. Joyner is more than capable especially when he has good corners in front of him. While he and Abram may both be under six feet tall, Guenther seems to like featuring smaller safeties.
Erik Harris was re-signed to the club because of his size, productivity, and special teams skills. (First/last name?) Joseph has until the end of training camp to prove he isn’t going to give up his spot to a rookie. Both of these players are fantastic depth pieces and great guys to have for nickel and dime situations.
On paper, the Raiders have gotten massive talent upgrades from the 2018 season. Younger, faster, stronger, and quality football players is the direction the front office has taken this year.
Defensively, the team has got to take steps forward, second year players have to show improvement, and the veterans need to teach these rookies how to be pros. There is a boatload of raw talent but it’s up to the coaching staff to get these guys lined up and doing their jobs.
Offensively, the Raiders are stacked. This is the best receiving corps they have had since Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and Jerry Porter. This offensive line is massive. The rookies have added strength and weight, and are expected to show growth in their second years. The running backs are a young complimentary bunch whose skillsets all work off of each other and give Gruden many ways to attack defenses.
Darren Waller came on late last season with his play and has placed himself in a position where the tight end job is his to lose. Derek Carrier, Luke Wilson, and Foster Moreau round out the position group and each bring something unique to the table.
The talent on this team would lead any sane person to believe the playoffs were a genuine possibility, however, the Raiders have had a long history of squandering seasons and most won’t believe it until they see it.