Raiders Prove They're Not Ready To Join AFC's Elite—Yet

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 2, 2019

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 01:  Head coach Jon Gruden of the Oakland Raiders talks with quarterback Derek Carr #4 during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on December 1, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Not that long ago, the Oakland Raiders were being mentioned as a legitimate playoff contender—an idea that would have seemed laughable when the season started. Starting in Week 4, the Raiders went 5-2 over a seven-game stretch and were above .500 10 games into the season for the first time in years.

After they got blown out in back-to-back games by the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, who won 40-9 in Arrowhead on Sunday, the notion of these Raiders making the postseason in 2019 is looking rather laughable again. Over the past two weeks, they've been outscored 74-12 and went nine quarters without a touchdown before notching a garbage-time score against the Chiefs.

Still, not making the playoffs shouldn't be viewed as a disappointment. There's a real chance the Raiders will finish at least 8-8 for just the second time since 2012. Given that Oakland was picked by many more pundits than not to finish last in the AFC West this season, a second-place finish behind the Chiefs would be real progress in head coach Jon Gruden's second season of his second stint in charge.

The Raiders are headed in the right direction. They're improving more quickly than most expected. And while the Silver and Black may not be ready to compete with the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC's elite just yet, they also aren't that far off.

Oakland had three picks in the first round of the 2019 draft. That two have emerged as significant contributors in their debut year speaks well to Mike Mayock's first season as general manager.

With 104 yards on 17 carries in Sunday's loss, Josh Jacobs became the first rookie running back in Raiders history to top 1,000 yards. He entered Sunday averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and Week 13 marked his fifth 100-yard game of the season. The former Alabama star has emerged as the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and is earning the respect of Oakland running backs coach Kirby Wilson.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

"What's impressed me the most about Josh is his ability to respond to the challenges that we placed in front of him," Wilson said, per Vic Tafur of The Athletic. "He's done a nice job of being humble and working hard, from week to week, respecting the National Football League. He's responded to great defenses that he has faced week in and week out, because the more success that he has had, he has become a bigger and bigger target."

Defensive end Clelin Ferrell hasn't had quite the same impact. But the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft has played a big role for an improved Raiders defense, tallying 31 tackles and 3.5 sacks through 12 games. Those numbers aren't eye-popping, but as defensive coordinator Paul Guenther told ESPN's Paul Gutierrez, the Raiders have moved Ferrell all over the formation and appreciate his versatility.

"He's a smart guy, and if you look at his film in Clemson, he played on the edge, he played inside, he played over the center sometimes," Guenther said. "So, he was a versatile guy, which is why we liked him, so he can handle those things. He's very smart and he studies good, and he's been prepared to do most of those things for us."

Jacobs and Ferrell aren't the only members of the team's rookie class who have played a part in Oakland's resurgence.

Fourth-round edge-rusher Maxx Crosby has posted the numbers Ferrell hasn't, pacing the team with 7.5 sacks. Second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen played well enough that the team was comfortable flipping Gareon Conley to the Houston Texans. Fifth-round receiver Hunter Renfrow has come on as a legitimate weapon in the passing game.

The list goes on and on.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

It's a rookie class that's been as impactful as any in the NFL—maybe more so. And that's without even mentioning injured safety Johnathan Abram, who was the team's third first-rounder in 2019 but played in only one game before heading to injured reserve with a torn labrum and rotator cuff.

It hasn't just been the young kids who have stepped up for Oakland, either. Free-agent acquisitions have also played big roles.

Wide receiver Tyrell Williams leads the team in touchdown receptions this season. Right tackle Trent Brown has helped anchor an offensive line that ranks in the top five in both run blocking and pass protection, per Football Outsiders.

That offensive line has helped key a rebound year for quarterback Derek Carr. He admittedly hasn't looked great these past two weeks, and his statistical production isn't awe-inspiring. But the 28-year-old has completed over 70 percent of his passes, has more than twice as many touchdowns as interceptions and has a passer rating over 100.

Is Carr a great quarterback? No. Gruden said as much after the game.

But he's the second-best quarterback in the AFC West, and he'd be a lot better if Oakland's passing-game weapons were more dangerous. Renfrow has been a pleasant surprise, and Williams has played relatively well. But the team lacks a true No. 1 receiver. There's a reason Oakland traded for Antonio Brown last offseason, and it wasn't his personality.

That's not the only area in which the Raiders need to improve. Linebackers Tahir Whitehead and Nicholas Morrow are serviceable on a good day…and liabilities on a bad one. The team's ranking of 28th against the pass entering Week 13 indicates how the young secondary is still finding its way.

Those weaknesses have been exposed the past two weeks, and they aren't insignificant. Oakland's leading wide receiver in Week 13 was Zay Jones, who had all of two catches for 14 yards. The Chiefs were 7-of-11 on third downs Sunday. Last week at MetLife Stadium, Renfrow's three catches for 31 yards paced the wideouts, and the Jets threw for 313 yards.

However, Oakland is in excellent shape to address those areas in the 2020 offseason. As part of the trade that sent Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears, the Raiders have another first-round pick next April. They picked up an extra Day 2 pick in the Conley deal. And if the 2019 class is any indication, Mayock and Gruden are pretty good at identifying young talent.

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Never mind that Oakland currently ranks inside the top 10 in available cap space, per Over the Cap.

It's still technically possible for the Raiders to make a late run and get into the AFC playoffs as a Wild Card. But based on the last two weeks, that's not going to happen. That just doesn't change the fact that Oakland is already better than most expected in 2019—and is in position to be that much better in 2020.

That could set up one heck of an interesting first season in Las Vegas.

The Raiders aren't ready to challenge the Chiefs in the AFC West just yet. But it's not all that hard to imagine the 2020 Las Vegas Raiders doing one better and challenging to rep the conference in Tampa in February 2021.

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