Don't Laugh Now, Raiders Are in the AFC Playoff Hunt After 2021 Offseason

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2021

Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (28) takes the field against the Denver Broncos before an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan.. 3, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Justin Edmonds)
Justin Edmonds/Associated Press

The Las Vegas Raiders' offseason has drawn widespread criticism and even confused some NFL analysts.

"I don't understand anything the Raiders are doing," ESPN's Dan Graziano tweeted March 18.

By the time Graziano made that comment, the Raiders had traded right tackle Trent Brown, center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson and signed running back Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million deal.

Head coach Jon Gruden broke up what many viewed to be the team's strongest unit in the offensive line and then invested a relatively significant amount of money in a position that also appeared in good shape with 2019 first-round pick Josh Jacobs already in the backfield.

While that goes against the grain in what many consider a passing league, Gruden may take a page out of the Cleveland Browns' offensive formula. The Raiders' running back duo could pose a challenge to Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as one of the league's best backfield tandems

Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon GrudenSteve Marcus/Associated Press

Dating back to his last two years as a head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, four of Gruden's last five offenses have ranked 11th in total rush attempts. We shouldn't be surprised if Vegas lists within the top five for that category in 2021.

No one criticized the Browns' run-heavy attack while it helped lead the franchise to its first playoff berth since 2002. Jacobs and Drake can re-establish a physical identity for Gruden's offense—one that faded when the team recorded fewer than 90 rushing yards in every game during a 1-3 stretch between Weeks 11 and 14 last year. 

We cannot overlook the question marks and changes across the Raiders offensive line, though.

Hudson's departure is a blow to the unit. Andre James has a lot to prove as the three-time Pro Bowler's replacement. He's only played 116 offensive snaps, but the Raiders signed him to a three-year, $12.5 million extension after dealing Hudson and clearly have high hopes for his future.

Richie Incognito should reclaim his starting spot at left guard, but he's missed 18 games since signing with the Raiders in 2019. Coming off foot surgery, the savvy veteran turns 38 years old in July. John Simpson, who's played 252 offensive snaps, may need to join the first unit if Incognito shows decline or his body doesn't hold up through a 17-game schedule. 

On the flip side, Vegas saved $5.5 million and swapped out Jackson, an average guard, for another decent player at the position in Denzelle Good. If the Raiders kept the former, they would've been on the hook to pay him $9.6 millionBrown missed as many games as he played for the Silver and Black over the last two seasons. In terms of availability, rookie first-rounder Alex Leatherwood provides stability at right tackle after making 41 consecutive starts as a collegian. 

While some viewed Leatherwood as a reach with the 17th pick, general manager Mike Mayock said he rejected a low-ball trade offer from a team that had a need at tackle. Vegas went with the 2020 Outland Trophy winner, which isn't a bad choice when you consider the 6'5", 312-pounder's run-blocking ability, which will help Gruden establish his style of offense.

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and head coach Jon Gruden
Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and head coach Jon GrudenSteve Marcus/Associated Press

Despite a likely focus on the run, quarterback Derek Carr isn't a game manager in this system. He's developed a strong rapport with tight end Darren Waller, who's been a rising star over the past two seasons, catching 197 passes for 2,341 yards and 12 touchdowns in that span.

The Raiders' reconstructed ground attack could take some pressure off Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards, a pair of receivers who are expected to take a second-year leap. In 2020, Nelson Agholor emerged as the team's lead wideout, but he signed with the New England Patriots this offseason.

If healthy, Ruggs and Edwards should see more targets. They missed seven combined games last season.

As a rookie, Ruggs had some flashes, including a 118-yard performance that included a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs in a Week 5 win. He also averaged 17.4 yards per reception.

Carr has played well with bigger pass-catchers, going back to his time with wideout Davante Adams (6'1", 215 lbs) at Fresno State and wideout Michael Crabtree (6'1", 215 lbs) between the 2015 and 2017 terms. Tight end Jared Cook (6'5", 245 lbs) also had his first Pro Bowl season while playing with Carr in 2018, and currently Waller (6'6", 255 lbs) plays a starring role in the Raiders offense.

At 6'3", 212 pounds, Edwards can become a security blanket for Carr. He caught a 26-yard touchdown pass in the 2020 season finale, which may be the beginning of a budding connection with his quarterback.

Carr has improved in all three of his years under Gruden. If he maintains his strong connection with Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, the Raiders would have enough offensive balance with Ruggs and Edwards making solid contributions. Neither of the two second-year wideouts has to become a star in a run-first attack along with arguably the NFL's best pass-catching tight end not named Travis Kelce.

The Raiders offense has its faults, though. In 2020, Vegas lost the most fumbles (16), tied for fifth in turnovers (26) and ranked 23rd in red-zone scoring. Even with Carr's recent improvements, he's not a dynamic top-tier or All-Pro quarterback. Like the majority of players at his position, the 30-year-old signal-caller needs a fair amount of help to lead his squad to the playoffs.

Part of that help would be solid play on the defensive side of the ball, and Carr finally may play with a defense that ranks higher than 20th in scoring for the first time in his career. Gruden hired defensive coordinator Gus Bradley this offseason to replace Paul Guenther, who had the position for the last three seasons.

On Guenther's watch, the Silver and Black fielded two of their all-time worst defenses in terms of points allowed (2018 and 2020). As the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Chargers between 2017 and 2020, Bradley's units ranked 14th or better in scoring for three campaigns (top 10 in two terms).

In an NBC Sports EDGE segment, Warren Sharp questioned the Raiders' talent evaluation process, particularly for defensive backs over the last five years: 

NBC Sports EDGE Football @NBCSEdgeFB

The Raiders spent four of their first six picks in the #NFLDraft on defensive backs, and @SharpFootball has questions. 🤔 https://t.co/wbKGoXgDvl

Well, Bradley may tap into the potential of the Raiders' young defensive backs, which bodes well for safety Johnathan Abram, cornerback Damon Arnette and slot cover man Amik Robertson.

Bradley has developed strong secondary units dating back to his time with the Seattle Seahawks during the rise of the Legion of Boom. He helped develop Richard Sherman, who came out of Stanford as a fifth-round pick. Under his tutelage, Derwin James became a Pro Bowl and All-Pro rookie in 2018. 

In all four of his seasons with the Chargers, Bradley put together a top-10 pass defense. Among the new Raiders defensive backs, he's going to work with his lead cornerback from Los Angeles in Casey Hayward and a promising rookie safety in Tre'von Moehrig. The TCU standout had 26 pass breakups and interceptions combined since 2019, the joint-second-most of any collegiate player, per Pro Football Focus:

PFF Draft @PFF_College

Most PBUs + INTs since 2019: 🔒 Shemar Jean-Charles, App St - 27 🔒 Derek Stingley Jr., LSU - 26 🔒 Trevon Moehrig, TCU - 26 🔒 Tre Brown, OU - 22 https://t.co/2vCdoGZdCU

Bradley also reunites with edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, one of his former Jacksonville Jaguars players who's bought into the system. In sack production, the Pro Bowl defender finds himself on a short list with a former Raiders edge-rusher and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year: 

CBS Sports HQ @CBSSportsHQ

Here's the list of players to record at least 8 sacks in each of the last 5 seasons: Aaron Donald Khalil Mack YANNICK NGAKOUE #RaiderNation got a good one! https://t.co/BvjVILfJQn

We could also see Cory Littleton return to Pro Bowl form under Bradley. The sixth-year linebacker started to show signs of improvement with more run stops in the final three weeks of the last season following Guenther's dismissal. The addition of Quinton Jefferson and the return of David Irving for a full season could also be enough to help Johnathan Hankins patch up the front-line run defense.

On paper, the Raiders did lose some notable veterans from last year's team. Leatherwood may not have listed in the first round of a majority of mock drafts, and the Raiders' recent draft history leaves much to be desired. 

However, offensive line coach Tom Cable has done a good job with left tackle Kolton Miller, a first-rounder from the 2018 draft class who was also considered a reach. On defense, Bradley has a more extensive and accomplished resume than Guenther, and the presence of a decent defense should allow the offense more margin for error. 

At 8-8, the Raiders were the only top-10 scoring team to miss the 2020 playoffs. This year, they should be able to win some games with solid defensive performances. Furthermore, Bradley and Cable have earned the benefit of the doubt in their abilities to develop young talent, which bodes well for players who will need to take on bigger roles or contribute early. 

The Raiders can fare well in division competition, which is a solid foundation for a postseason run. Last year, they went 4-2 against AFC West opponents with an impressive win over the Chiefs.

Despite the buzz around Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, he hasn't performed in a full stadium on the road. We don't know how a live crowd could affect his performances. Secondly, he has a first-year head coach in Brandon Staley and a new offensive coordinator in Joe Lombardi who fielded the 18th- and 22nd-ranked scoring offenses in the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the Detroit Lions. 

Although the Denver Broncos are connected to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the rumor mill, they currently have an uninspiring open competition at the position between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. Neither signal-caller has thrown for more than 16 touchdowns in a single season despite possessing a combined eight years in the league.

Before you dismiss the Raiders as a team headed in the wrong direction because of their offseason moves, take a deeper look at what they've done with changes on the defensive side of the ball and how Gruden runs his offense. It'll all make sense. This is a club that's still in the playoff hunt.


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