Raiders' Poor Return on Drafts, Free Agents Raises Major Concerns About Gruden

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2021

Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden reacts during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

The sky isn't falling over Allegiant Stadium, where the Las Vegas Raiders call home. Yet the Silver and Black's 2021 forecast has a potential storm brewing on the horizon.

Every year, fans want to see their teams exhibit notable improvements, leading to tangible results, a winning record, a playoff berth and ultimately a shot to win the Super Bowl.

Three years into head coach Jon Gruden's tenure, the Raiders are still hoping to finish above .500. He has the odds stacked against him while trying to will the team back to the postseason, per Josh Dubow of the Associated Press: 

Josh Dubow @JoshDubowAP

82 coaches hired since 2000 lasted 3+ full seasons. 61 made the playoffs in the 1st three seasons, Gruden is the 21st not to. The only one of those to eventually make the playoffs was Jason Garrett, who did it in 4th season with Cowboys

As the shot-caller and team architect, Gruden deserves much of the blame for the Raiders' slow rebuild. In 2019, Mike Mayock accepted the general manager position but told ESPN's Steve Levy he ultimately answers to the Raiders skipper: 

Raider Posts @RaiderPosts

"I'm excited about the Oakland #Raiders." https://t.co/0orby0ik9A

We cannot completely discount Mayock's voice behind the scenes. With that said, Grudenthe chief decision-maker, head coach and offensive play-callerhas the final say, which is expected given his 10-year, $100 million contract. 

Gruden's level of power over the franchise has become a bigger issue than any of the team's statistical shortcomings because he sets the stage. He's struggled to foster an environment for growth and development.

Gruden and former Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie's 2018 draft class flopped with the exception of left tackle Kolton Miller and Maurice Hurst, a rotational defensive tackle. They traded a third-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for wideout Martavis Bryant, and that move amounted to nothing. He caught 19 passes for 266 yards in one season with the club.

That same year, the Raiders traded two of their best players in edge-rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper. They went on to perform at All-Pro and Pro Bowl levels for the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.

Gruden found a playmaking gem at the end of the campaign, plucking tight end Darren Waller from the Baltimore Ravens practice squad. He has the Raiders' single-season reception record (107), topping Hall of Fame wideout Tim Brown (104) in 2020.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown
Wide receiver Antonio BrownJeff Chiu/Associated Press

Going into the 2019 offseason, the Raiders organization had an aura of optimism, equipped with three first-round picks after trading Mack and Cooper. They also acquired wideout Antonio Brown, but he never played a down for the team and celebrated his release.

Despite the offseason chaos around Brown, the Raiders saw some hope in a promising 2019 draft class with consistent contributors from Rounds 1 to 5, including Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, Trayvon Mullen, Maxx Crosby, Foster Moreau and Hunter Renfrow. 

In 2020, Jacobs earned a Pro Bowl nod, but collectively, the Raiders' talented group of second-year pros didn't see significant growth. Some of them took a small step back.

Ferrell recorded 21 quarterback pressures and logged two sacks. In between bouts with COVID-19 and a shoulder injury, the Clemson product flashed in moments few and far between. He brings more impact as a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, which isn't ideal for a top-five draft pick.

Mullen recorded 14 pass breakups and two interceptions, but he allowed a 93.1 passer rating in coverage, regressing from 78.3 in his rookie term. The starting cornerback also allowed a 62.1 percent completion rate, slightly worse than the 55.9 percent he yielded in 2019.

Maxx Crosby played through a torn labrum and a broken metal plate in his hand, which likely affected his impact in the second half of the season. He still recorded seven sacks and 32 quarterback pressures for the year.

Moreau took a backseat to tight end Jason Witten, who retired this offseason. The LSU product bounced back from a torn ACL and played 88 fewer total snaps than he did as a rookie. Gruden should've found a way to use him inside the opponent's 20-yard line—his offense ranked 23rd in red-zone scoring.

Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs III
Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs IIIIsaac Brekken/Associated Press

Meanwhile, the 2020 class didn't bring much pop to Las Vegas.

Henry Ruggs III, the first wideout off the draft board last April, ranked 11th in receptions (26) and ninth in receiving yards (452) among first-year receivers (h/t StatMuse).

In nine games, fellow first-rounder Damon Arnette struggled in coverage, allowing 25 catches on 32 targets and a 106.9 passer rating.

The Raiders traded third-rounder Lynn Bowden Jr. to the Miami Dolphins before Week 1.

Multiple rookies battled injuries and COVID-19, but Mayock expressed his dissatisfaction with the group's overall performance. 

"I was disappointed in the productivity of our rookies," Mayock said. "I'll be the first one to admit that." 

While the Raiders rookies went through growing pains, they couldn't depend on their free-agent class, which has become a trending problem under Gruden.

Based on guaranteed money, take a look at the two highest-paid veteran acquisitions each year since 2018, per Spotrac.



WR Jordy Nelson: $13M (retired - 2019)

LB Tahir Whitehead: $6.28M (cut - 2020)



OT Trent Brown: $36.25M (traded in principle - 2021)

S Lamarcus Joyner: $21.30M (cut - 2021)



LB Cory Littleton: $22M

DE Carl Nassib: $16.75M

Offensive tackle Trent Brown
Offensive tackle Trent BrownJeff Bottari/Associated Press

Among those signings, Brown is the only one who earned a Pro Bowl nod with the team, and Vegas agreed to trade him to the New England Patriots, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

According to The Athletic's Vic Tafur, the Raiders had questions about Brown's work ethic after he tipped the scales at 400 pounds last year.

For two years, Joyner seemed like a miscast slot cornerback after a couple of solid terms as a safety for the Los Angeles Rams. Littleton didn't show positive signs until the end of the 2020 campaign. The coaching staff benched Nassib as a healthy scratch in consecutive games.

Former Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther (left) and head coach Jon Gruden
Former Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther (left) and head coach Jon GrudenChase Stevens/Associated Press

Gruden hired Gus Bradley to replace former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, and the new play-caller has to coach up and fill holes at all three levels of the unit.

Gruden assembled a staff that fielded the worst defenses in franchise history, setting new marks for points allowed in a single season in two of the last three years. In 2020, he watched opposing offenses gash his team for 14 weeks before firing Guenther, who's also his friend.

We can point to the Raiders' porous defense or an offensive line that may undergo significant changes as the team's primary focus this offseason, but both issues are symptoms of Gruden's staff- and roster-building decisions. 

Now, Gruden has to clean up free-agent whiffs via roster cuts and trades and spend more money on veterans to compensate for the sluggish development of his recent draft classes in hopes that he made the right hire in Bradley. 

The Raiders should be further along in their fourth year under Gruden. As fans clamor for a resurgence in Las Vegas, owner Mark Davis needs to apply pressure to the main man in charge.