"A young quarterback who is the pride of the AFC West, one of the biggest rising stars in the NFL and a player who is expected to be in the MVP conversation annually." For the past couple of years, this statement would clearly describe the trajectory of Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller Patrick Mahomes.
Not long ago, however, it could have described Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
In 2016, Carr and the Raiders were on fire. The team (then in Oakland, California) finished 12-4, and Carr finished tied for third in NFL MVP voting. That season saw the Fresno State product pass for 3,937 yards in 15 games with 28 touchdown passes and just six interceptions.
Carr also suffered a broken fibula in Week 16 against the Indianapolis Colts. The Raiders exited the postseason early, and Carr embarked on a rocky three-year journey that took him from the Pro Bowl (2015 to '17) to the hot seat—at least in the eyes of fans and the media.
Carr's fall from grace wasn't immediate, but it is undeniable. And it hasn't gone unnoticed by the quarterback.
"I'm going to be completely honest with you. I'm tired of being disrespected," Carr said Tuesday, per Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group.
He is on a mission to prove that he is the same quarterback the football world adored just a few years ago—and to get the Raiders into the postseason for just the second time since the franchise lost Super Bowl XXXVII to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following the 2002 campaign.
"You can say what you want. I'm trying to go to the Super Bowl so we can hang one of those banners in this beautiful indoor [facility] that we've got, and then I want to try and do it again," he said. "Then do it again until I'm too old and they kick me out of this place."
While Carr's statement could easily be dismissed as standard offseason bravado, his confidence is not misplaced. He and the new-look Raiders offense have the opportunity to take the NFL by surprise in 2020.
How We Got Here
Carr feels disrespected, and it's not simply because he's no longer considered one of the top young quarterbacks. NFL Media's Adam Schein wrote the following of Carr during the 2016 awards season:
"The fact is, no player in the NFL was more responsible for his team's achievement—and overachievement—this year than Carr. His numbers (28 touchdowns against just six picks, with 3,937 passing yards) were excellent, though he was clearly outpaced by other quarterbacks. But Carr's year wasn't about stats. It was about value. It was about fourth-quarter play and carrying the Raiders to 12 wins."
Now Carr is more likely to be described as a middle-tier starter. Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports recently ranked him 19th among starting quarterbacks, behind players like Kyler Murray, Jared Goff and Cam Newton, who hasn't been able to play a full season in two years.
The disrespect surrounding him also involves questions about his job security—questions that have persisted virtually since the organization hired Jon Gruden as head coach two years ago.
"The Raiders could be moving on from starting quarterback Derek Carr this offseason, with several team sources sensing a growing frustration with the veteran by the coaching staff and concerns about how much potential for growth remains," CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora wrote in December.
The Raiders didn't select a quarterback in this year's NFL draft, but they did bring in 2015 second overall pick Marcus Mariota in free agency. It's worth noting that Mariota was general manager Mike Mayock's favorite quarterback in the 2015 draft class.
Mayock also seems eager to work with Mariota.
"We've got to rebuild him a little bit, get his confidence back, build him up from the ground up," Mayock told reporters in April after Mariota signed with the team. "It's going to take a little while, I think, just to get him healthy and where he wants to be, but we’re excited about the quarterback room."
The Raiders' rumored frustration with Carr likely stems from two things: The desire of Mayock and Gruden to get "their guy" and not a quarterback they inherited and the fact that Carr hasn't been the same quarterback he was in 2016.
To be fair, though, Carr has had to overcome several obstacles since his MVP-worthy campaign. He had to recover from a significant injury, he dealt with the loss of No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper in 2018 and his defense—notably without star pass-rusher Khalil Mack—ranked dead last in points allowed that same season.
Carr's perceived decline has come under less-than-ideal circumstances. However, he was a fine starter in 2019. He passed for 4,054 yards with 21 touchdowns and just eight picks, and he could be in store for an even better 2020.
Why This Year Could Be Different
It's easy to overlook just how good Carr was last season. While the 7-9 Raiders weren't irrelevant, they weren't viewed as legitimate contenders. However, Carr recorded a career-high passer rating of 100.8 (the ninth-highest in the NFL last season).
"I played better last year than I did in 2016," Carr said, per McDonald.
It does appear that the 29-year-old has regained his Pro Bowl-caliber form. That's the first step toward a potentially elite offense in 2020.
The presence of running back Josh Jacobs—who arguably should have been named Offensive Rookie of the Year over Murray in 2019—is another key factor. Though largely an early-down back, Jacobs is already one of the best young runners in the league. In just 13 games, he racked up 1,150 yards on the ground and helped boost the team's rushing attack from the bottom half of the league.
Jalen Richard, who has recorded 104 receptions over the past two seasons, adds some depth and receiving ability to the backfield.
Las Vegas also has one of the most underrated offensive lines in the NFL. Pro Bowlers Rodney Hudson and Trent Brown highlight a unit that surrendered just 29 sacks in 2019 (eighth-fewest in the league) and helped the rushing attack produce a solid 4.3 yards per carry.
Last season, the Raiders ranked 11th in total yardage, ninth in passing yards and 13th in rushing yards. However, they ranked just 24th in points scored. This offseason, though, Las Vegas added veteran wideout Nelson Agholor and rookie receivers Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards in the first and third rounds, respectively.
These players can completely change the Las Vegas passing attack and hopefully lead to more drives ending in touchdowns.
Ruggs has 4.27 40-yard-dash speed and can open things up in the running game and on underneath receiving routes. However, the Alabama product is more than just a pure burner, as NFL Media's Lance Zierlein wrote prior to the draft:
"Ruggs' speed alone helps both the running and passing games because it forces safeties into more passive positioning. He can work all three levels and his ability to turn slants and crossing routes into big gainers could make him the favorite gift under the tree for a quarterback and offense in need of an explosive weapon."
Edwards hasn't drawn the same attention as Ruggs, but the South Carolina product could be just as impactful as a rookie.
"Bryan is a very violent route-runner, and that's a good thing," Carr said, per Kyle Martin of the team's official website. "He's very violent, he's very aggressive in his cuts, he reminds me—when the ball is in the air—of [Green Bay Packers wide receiver] Davante [Adams], great ball skills."
From a size standpoint, Edwards might even be better suited for the No. 1 role than Ruggs. The 6'3", 212-pound pass-catcher racked up 71 receptions for 816 yards and six touchdowns in a Gamecocks passing attack that netted just 2,667 yards last season.
Agholor adds more depth to what has suddenly become a talented receiving corps. Tyrell Williams is a fantastic field-stretcher, though not a true No. 1 talent, while Hunter Renfrow shone as a rookie slot man last season. Both should benefit from having more clearly defined complementary roles, with Ruggs as the No. 1 option.
Williams and Renfrow combined for 1,256 yards last season. They're now likely to be Las Vegas' second and third receivers—possibly third and fourth if Edwards explodes as a rookie. Though Ruggs only produced 746 receiving yards last season, he did so on just 40 catches, averaging 18.7 yards per reception.
Tight end Darren Waller, who racked up 1,145 receiving yards last season, rounds out what could be one of the most explosive receiving groups in the league. The former Baltimore Ravens project essentially served as Carr's go-to receiver for much of 2019—not too dissimilar to Travis Kelce with the rival Chiefs—and he too should benefit from the safety attention the team hopes Ruggs will command.
If either Ruggs or Edwards has the sort of rookie impact that guys like Tennessee's A.J. Brown and Seattle's DK Metcalf had in 2019, Carr will have elite weapons at running back, receiver and tight end. This should set the stage for a true bounce-back season and the respect—and playoff opportunity—that the quarterback craves.
If things come together for the Raiders offensively, they won't just be a feel-good story. They'll be one of the most dangerous young teams in the NFL.