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Moton: Midseason Hardware for Improving Raiders

Moe Moton
oakland raiders derek carr hunter renfrow

Senior NFL columnist Moe Moton takes a look at the first eight games of 2019 and hands out his awards for the first half of Oakland’s 2019 campaign.

As the Oakland Raiders focus on a crucial Thursday Night Football matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers—a contest that holds AFC wild-card implications—let’s take a moment to grab our best Silver and Black outfits for a midseason awards ceremony.

At this point in the season, many, including yours truly, didn’t think the Raiders would have much to celebrate with widespread roster turnover during the offseason, heightened expectations for inexperienced players and a tough schedule through October.

On the contrary, the Raiders sit at 4-4 in the standings with a chance to reach the postseason. As former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Mora once said, “Playoffs?!?”

That’s right.

Oakland has one game against a club with a winning record as of Week 10. Of course, that could change, but the competition won’t compare to the opponents in the first half of the season.

How did the Raiders battle their way into the playoff picture?

The team’s progression starts with continuity under center and the link between the quarterback and play-caller. In addition, multiple draft picks have made consistent contributions. On top of that, head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock hit on a few free-agent acquisitions. Lastly, a premium pick from the 2018 draft class has shown significant improvement.

Without further ado, let’s acknowledge the Silver and Black’s Sensational Seven with award winners and runner-ups for each category.

Top Offensive Player: QB Derek Carr

Unless your squad has running backs Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey or Leonard Fournette, this award goes to the quarterback much like most valuable player.

Derek Carr didn’t earn recognition in this category by default though. For the second time in his career, he’s listening to the same play-caller on the sideline.

Between the 2015-16 seasons, Bill Musgrave orchestrated the offense. During that time, Carr made notable strides in development. Now, we’re seeing what continuity can do for the signal-caller in his sixth season.

Through eight weeks, Carr has a season-high in quarterback rating (105.1) and QBR (55.1). While those numbers can be difficult to break down in layman’s terms—just turn on the film and watch him work with a new pass-catching group.

Despite turnover at wide receiver and tight end, Carr’s accuracy hasn’t taken a hit (71.2). Sure, he throws a lot of short passes, but that’s expected in Gruden’s offensive system.

Gruden has and continues to speak highly of his quarterback in public.

“He sees it before it happens…he’s a coach on the field,” Gruden said during Monday’s media presser.

As a coach on the field and point-guard like ball distributor, Carr has made adjustments at the line of scrimmage and delivered dimes to his pass-catchers. Oakland’s ground attack ranks sixth, but the signal caller’s command of the huddle and pinpoint accuracy allows this offense to flow like a smooth machine.

Runner-Up: RB Josh Jacobs

We’ll dig deeper on Josh Jacobs in another category, but he’s certainly 1B to Carr in the offense. One can argue they’re equally important because second-level defenders must respect the run. Their attention to the ball-carrier potentially opens passing lanes in the middle of the field.

josh jacobs oakland raiders moe moton silver and black today
Raiders rookie sensation Josh Jacobs is flying high early in his NFL career.

Despite his high-level production, Jacobs hasn’t played more than 60 percent of offensive snaps in six out of eight contests. He’s a major component to the team’s attack, but Carr’s shrewd decision-making remains central to the unit.

Top Defensive Player: DT Johnathan Hankins

Usually, analysts look at sacks and interceptions to pinpoint the best defender on a roster. Oakland has little productivity in both areas, ranking 25th and 24th in those respective categories.

We have to look at the trenches for the Raiders’ most valuable defensive player. Johnathan Hankins leads the team in stops (15), per PFF. Although that number seems insignificant, keep in mind the run defense ranks seventh in yards allowed, giving up 100 yards to just two opponents.

The Raiders’ ability to stop opposing ground attacks provides a silver lining for an otherwise porous defensive unit.

Hankins’ presence on the interior plays a major role in stifling ball-carriers up the middle. Without him, the group would likely face an absurd amount of short-yardage situations on second and third downs.

Runner-up: DE Benson Mayowa

While Hankins plays about two-thirds of the defensive snaps (65 percent), Benson Mayowa hasn’t been on the field for a third of the plays (29.26 percent). For that reason alone, the latter isn’t the team’s top contributor on defense.

Still, Mayowa has made his presence felt in limited duty, logging 5.5 sacks in seven contests.

benson mayowa oakland raiders silver and black today
Mayowa has been a key player for Oakland on defense so far in 2019.

While defensive end Arden Key misses extended time with a broken foot, someone on the coaching staff must campaign to give more snaps to the Raiders’ top pass-rusher.

Top Offensive Rookie: RB Josh Jacobs

Without a doubt, Oakland has the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year in Jacobs. He’s seventh in rushing yards (740) and currently on a tear, registering at least 120 yards on the ground in three of the last four contests.

Because of Jacobs, Carr doesn’t have to throw the ball 40-50 times per game. The rookie first-rounder can handle a full workload and looks to punish defenders while moving the chains, averaging an impressive 4.9 yards per carry.

Most teams have moved toward running by committees, splitting touches among multiple players. At times, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard will step in for a few rush attempts or targets in the passing game, but Jacobs has become the engine to the league’s sixth-ranked ground attack.

Once Jacobs sees more looks in the short passing game, the 21-year-old could pose a major threat to linebackers and safeties in space. He’s physical but also elusive with the ball in his possession.

Runner-up: FB Alec Ingold

When you watch Alec Ingold block, he’s essentially a sixth offensive lineman, who leads the way for Jacobs.

If you’re going to praise Jacobs for his work on the ground, Ingold deserves some credit as well. Vic Tafur of The Athletic highlighted the rapport between the two rookies.

“We’re one and the same out there, on the same level mentally,” Jacobs said. “We know what we want to do and then when the play starts, that dude is special. Fullbacks don’t get the recognition, but real people who watch football can see what Alec does.”

Ingold signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent and beat out Keith Smith for the job. The veteran came over from the Cowboys as one of Rich Bisaccia’s favorites, which tells you everything about the Wisconsin product’s upside.

Top Defensive Rookie: DE Maxx Crosby

At Eastern Michigan, Maxx Crosby flashed athleticism and an endless motor, but his lean body type raised some questions during the pre-draft evaluation process.

NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein posted a quote from a scout for an AFC team that suggested Crosby’s talent would override concerns about his size.

“When you watch him on tape, it gives off the same vibe as watching a good player’s old high school tape before he grew into his body,” said the scout. “He’s been there for four years and should have filled out more than this in my opinion, but he has some talent, so I’ve got to keep him alive in our meetings.”

maxx crosby oakland raiders silver and black today
Maxx Crosby has been the Raiders defensive rookie MVP so far in 2019.

Crosby isn’t a game-wreaker yet, but he’s contributed earlier than expected as a fourth-round pick. The rookie defensive end is active on run and pass downs, which explains why he’s on the field for 63.70 percent of defensive snaps.

Crosby has shown glimpses of his potential to become a key cog on the defensive line, logging 20 tackles, 15 solo, four for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two pass breakups. He’s not going to line up as just a pass-rusher, his skill set will allow him to make plays all over the field.

Runner-up: N/A

Ideally, you’d like to see defensive end Clelin Ferrell bring more than run-stopping ability and three pass deflections to the group. The Raiders have moved him inside for a fair amount of snaps, matching him up with stout offensive linemen, which has affected his pass-rushing production.

The coaching staff bears some responsibility for Ferrell’s lackluster pocket pressure. The Raiders need more than a run-stopper with the No. 4 overall pick. Perhaps his role changes in the second half of the season. Nonetheless, the Clemson product acknowledges the professional learning curve, per Tafur.

“I’m still a very young player and a lot of things, I don’t know what I don’t know, you know what I mean? A lot of things I haven’t seen before,” Ferrell said. “I’m so used to going against college offenses, the NFL offenses are completely different.”

While lining up in different spots across the defensive line, Ferrell will need time to find his way, but it’s too early to call him a bust.

Top Free-Agent Acquisition: RT Trent Brown

When the Raiders signed Trent Brown to a four-year, $66 million contract and assigned him to right tackle, critics thought the front office overpaid for good talent at a lesser position.

In today’s NFL, elite pass-rushers line up on both sides of the line, so the quarterback needs quality protection at right and left tackle. Brown has secured Carr’s strong side, allowing just six pressures, which include one sack, per Pro Football Focus.

Brown has dealt with injuries, sitting out with a calf ailment in Week 7. He’s questionable for Thursday game because of a knee issue. Nonetheless, the fifth-year veteran has earned every penny in his new deal. Carr doesn’t have to worry about relentless pressure coming from the right side when the 6’8″, 380-pounder lines up on the perimeter.

Runner-up: WR Tyrell Williams

After wideout Antonio Brown went AWOL and ultimately pushed his way out of Oakland, Tyrell Williams became the lead playmaker at the position. He scored a touchdown in his first five games with the Raiders. The Detroit Lions pass defense snapped that streak last week, holding him to three receptions for 48 yards.

Carr has spread the ball among his pass-catchers, which takes some pressure off of Williams. The Raiders passing attack doesn’t sputter or flourish based on the wideout’s production, but he’s a quality addition because of the fallout with Brown and youth at the position.

Most Improved Player: LT Kolton Miller

Last year, Kolton Miller allowed 16 sacks and 65 total pressures, listing first and second in those categories, per PFF. In fairness, he battled multiple knee injuries throughout his rookie campaign.

kolton miller oakland raiders silver and black today
Kolton Miller has improved significantly since his rookie campaign. Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Now healthy, and bulked up to 330 pounds, Miller tightened up on his pass protection. Aside from a rough outing with the Minnesota Vikings, he’s stonewalled some of the better pass-rushers in the league. The UCLA product allowed just one pressure in games against the Denver Broncos, with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, and Green Bay Packers, who field a dominant duo in Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith.

Right now, the Raiders have one of the best offensive tackle pairs in Brown and Miller. The latter is developing into a building block for a top-notch front line.

Runner-up: S Erik Harris

Erik Harris doesn’t have the extended range to play center field full time, but he’s shown some reach in pass coverage. Once a special teams ace, the 29-year-old has worked his way into a decent role on defense, playing 74.07 percent of defensive snaps.

Harris is tied with cornerback Daryl Worley for a team-leading four pass breakups. In Week 4 against the Colts, he essentially sealed a victory with a pick-six to put the Raiders in the lead 30-17 with two minutes and 17 seconds left in regulation.

Although Harris may be a step behind or out of position on occasion, he’s certainly displayed notable growth as a second-year starter. With Johnathan Abram out for the season with a torn labrum, the fourth-year veteran has added some playmaking ability to the safety spot.

Biggest Surprise: TE Darren Waller

Fantasy football enthusiasts can attest to the following statement: Darren Waller’s rise happened seemingly overnight—or one offseason in NFL terms.

The Raiders signed Waller off the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad in November of last year. He flashed in a few games, which gave the coaching staff a glimpse of his potential. The front office allowed Jared Cook, the offense’s top pass-catcher from last year, to hit the free-agent market.

darren waller foster moreau oakland raiders
Waller is one of the best stories in the NFL this season and he and rookie Foster Moreau create the league’s best tight end tandem.

Many didn’t expect Waller to provide an immediate impact as a former wide receiver who converted to tight end. Nonetheless, his pass-catching skills have translated to production. He leads the Raiders in receptions (48) and yards (548) with an 80 percent catch rate. Furthermore, the 27-year-old is a willing and effective blocker downfield and in closed quarters.

The Raiders didn’t waste time signing Waller to a three-year extension, which speaks to his accelerated rise in Oakland.

Runner-up: TE Foster Moreau

Tight end may be Oakland’s strongest position.

Even with Waller’s breakout year, Foster Moreau has come down with big-time receptions. In Week 4 against the Colts, he scored on the opening drive. While playing in London against the Chicago Bears, Carr targeted him multiple times on the game-winning possession that put the team in field-goal range. The LSU product logged a touchdown during the fourth quarter in a back-and-forth battle with the Lions last week.

Moreau didn’t have many opportunities to show off his pass-catching skills at LSU, but he’s a soft-handed receiver who’s reliable in the aerial attack. Together, the rookie fourth-rounder and Waller could become a viable tight end tandem for years to come. Both have exhibited qualities of complete players at the position.

Midseason Awards Closing

The Raiders’ decision to stay the course at the trade deadline shows confidence in their young group. Looking at the performances through eight games, Oakland may have multiple diamonds in the rough and a couple of shooting stars.

If Carr continues to play at a high level, the Raiders defense has to string together decent outings for a playoff run. At 4-4, they’re competitive in part because of the names listed above. With continued growth, the Silver and Black could compete in meaningful December games for the first time since 2016.