The 2021-22 NFL season is just around the corner. Preseason has officially kicked off, and training camp is reaching its dog days. Reports out of the Las Vegas Raiders’ camp have been overwhelmingly optimistic, sudden retirements aside.
In the words of Jon Gruden, ‘We don’t have any energy vampires. We have guys that like the game and are going to compete.’ That’s the main purpose of this time: competition. Guys fighting for a job, or to take somebody else’s job.
Who will be left standing when the dust settles on August 31st? Here’s our 53-man roster prediction for Gruden’s (energetic) Grinders.
- Quarterbacks (3): Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Nathan Peterman.
A projection so easy, Carr’s youngest kid could guess it. Carr’s the unquestioned man under center, likely with a C on his chest again in 2021. Mariota will serve as his backup and will be given a special “package” of plays to operate out of. No, the Raiders will not be trading him to Indianapolis. Gruden believes in having depth, and he definitely doesn’t believe in helping his competition in the AFC. Lastly, Peterman? More like Peter-CAN… somehow he makes this roster for the third year in a row. Gruden probably just likes yelling his name.
- Running Backs (4): Josh Jacobs, Kenyan Drake, Trey Ragas (R), Alec Ingold.
Much has been made about Drake’s addition to this roster and how it affects Jacobs. In reality, all it means is the Raiders have another weapon on offense who can catch, move in the open field, and score touchdowns in bunches. Jacobs is 1A, Drake is 1B.
Richard was set to make the team, but a recent foot injury keeps him off the opening roster- and maybe even the Raiders, for good. Trey Ragas, an undrafted rookie from Louisiana (sound familiar?), averaged six yards per carry during his illustrious college career. Ingold continues to fly under the radar as one of the NFL’s top fullbacks.
- Wide Receivers (6): Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, John Brown, Zay Jones, Willie Snead.
This is one room at the Raiders facility that is currently over-flowing with players. Guys like Marcell Ateman and Keelan Doss have played meaningful snaps in the NFL. And undrafted guys like DJ Turner and Dillon Stoner have traits that can’t be taught: speed and returning ability. Some combo of those four will be stashed to the practice squad, but the six who will actually make this opening day unit are relatively set in stone. Worth mentioning: Ruggs should improve tremendously in Year 2, but look for Bryan Edwards (if he can stay healthy) to become the real star here.
What about the tight ends and offensive line?
- Tight Ends (3): Darren Waller, Foster Moreau, Derek Carrier.
The strength of the Raiders offense. Very few teams can rival the Raiders in the talent/depth of this group. Waller is an unquestioned top three tight end now, with Travis Kelce openly admitting that he roots for his success. Raider fans can smile knowing Moreau has his reps back- thank you, Jason Witten! Carrier is a special teams ace with great hands, who occasionally plays pool basketball with Carr; can’t get rid of that, even if undrafted Matt Bushman impresses.
- Offensive Line (9): Kolton Miller, Richie Incognito, Andre James, John Simpson, Alex Leatherwood, Jaryd Jones-Smith, Denzelle Good, Nick Martin.
Like the receivers, the offensive line features some fierce competition for the backup spots. Jones-Smith, a mammoth of a man who Mayock spoke highly of before the draft, beats out Parker for the swing tackle spot, cementing yet another failure from that infamous 2018 draft. Martin came to the Raiders after five seasons starting for the Texans and can play guard in a pinch. Jimmy Morrissey is the first guy signed to the practice squad.
- Defensive Line (10): Maxx Crosby, Yannick Ngakoue, Johnathan Hankins, Quinton Jefferson, Clelin Ferrell, Gerald McCoy, Carl Nassib, Malcolm Koonce (R), Solomon Thomas, Darius Philon.
The Raiders have been bare-thin along the defensive line for years now. Not anymore. Management made it a top priority to add bodies to this position. As a result, Gus Bradley can send wave after wave at the quarterback for all sixty minutes. Ngakoue was the biggest addition of course, but keep your eyes on Philon; he brings the most juice to the interior since Denico Autry. Lastly, six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy wasn’t signed this late to be a practice dummy. He’s making this team, and if he’s back to full health, he will see the field plenty during passing downs.
- Linebackers (5): Nick Morrow, Nick Kwiatkoski, Cory Littleton, K.J. Wright (if signed during the preseason), Tanner Muse *Divine Deablo stashed on the PUP.
Nick Morrow is officially that guy for Las Vegas, and I wholly expect him to be a captain this year. K.J. Wright (if/when he is signed) gives this defense somebody comfortable in the new scheme. In addition, Wright thrives in both man and zone coverages. However, with Wright aboard, Kwiatkoski and Littleton will be fighting for the remaining snaps at the Will; Littleton may even become a surprise cap casualty. Muse will be a special team’s ace.
The defensive backfield still has question marks…
- Cornerbacks (5): Casey Hayward, Trayvon Mullen, Nate Hobbs (R), Damon Arnette, Amik Robertson *Suspended: Nevin Lawson.
By no means a mainstream trio, the Raiders presumed starting corner group of Hayward-Mullen-Hobbs is sneaky solid. I’m all in on the Nate Hobbs hype, and with Lawson unavailable for the first two weeks, he will be the starting slot corner. Arnette will play more slot this year himself, but the first-round pick and Week 1 starter from 2020 is firmly a second-stringer. Robertson, a popular fourth-round pick from last year, barely beats out the veteran Rasul Douglas.
- Safeties (5): Johnathan Abram, Tre’von Moehrig, Karl Joseph, Tyree Gillespie, Roderic Teamer.
Take a bow, Dallin Leavitt. You had a hell of a run. With the remodeling of this unit and the extra reinforcements along the defensive front, there is just no room left for the Utah State kid. Don’t fret though, he’s likely practice squad bound. Teamer is my one subtle surprise, but Gruden likes keeping five safeties, and Bradley is familiar with him from their time in Los Angeles. Having Joseph back is cool, but being able to play Abram in the box with Moehrig roaming in center field is *Josh Peck voice* the “cooliest.”
Daniel Carlson, A.J. Cole, Trent Sieg.
Don’t fix what’s not broken, right? Carlson only missed two field-goal attempts last year and should have been a Pro Bowler. A.J. Cole leaves a lot to be desired and could be pushed by rookie Corliss Waitman. His consistency and chemistry with Carlson keeps him around though. Sieg is, well, a long snapper. You forget who he is because he’s good at his job.
Some closing thoughts…
This roster is the strongest it’s been since Gruden returned. The big question mark is still the defense. Can they make a jump to mediocrity, at the minimum? There’s definitely better depth and coaching on that side of the ball than in previous years, possibly this entire century. If Carr continues to have success under Gruden’s guidance, the young guys (i.e. Ruggs, Abram, Ferrell) take steps forward, and health remains a friend, this roster should produce 10/11 wins. And yes, a playoff berth.
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*Top Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post