The Oakland Raiders went through a whirlwind of events with wide receiver Antonio Brown. What started as a warm, fuzzy relationship turned into a nightmare—one that even head Jon Gruden couldn’t see coming his way.
On the flip side, Oakland voided Brown’s guarantees and won’t have to pay him a penny for all his troubles in Oakland. Looking forward, the Raiders still have to play 16 games.
After signing wide receiver Keelan Doss off of the Jacksonville Jaguars practice squad, the Silver and Black move forward with its 53-man roster in hopes for a better season than the last, but will that happen?
Last year, the Raiders went into the campaign as the oldest team in the league with an average roster age of 27.4 years, per Philly Voice writer Jimmy Kempski. This season, Gruden will roll with a much younger squad that ranks ninth at 25.6 years old.
We’ll see how Gruden and his coaching staff develop this group following a rocky offseason. As defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said on the fourth episode of Hard Knocks, “the storm’s coming, I hope you built a ship.”
Typically, when we’re faced with good and bad news, it’s best to hear the latter first—take the body blows and look forward to the positive. So, we’ll start with concerns for the 2019 campaign.
Tom Cable’s Pass Protection
Fans have griped about it, his track record is on paper and quarterback Derek Carr took 51 sacks last year, still, offensive line coach Tom Cable remains firm in his position.
In fairness to Cable, the Raiders started two rookie offensive tackles for a majority of the 2018 term, first-rounder Kolton Miller and third-rounder Brandon Parker. The former dealt with multiple knee injuries, and the latter switched from left tackle at North Carolina A&T to the right side in Oakland. Together, they gave up a combined 20.5 sacks, per Washington Post‘s STATs.
Cable will have an established commodity in right tackle Trent Brown, but he must show his coaching acumen through Miller’s development. Carr, like every quarterback, needs pocket protection. Furthermore, despite his athleticism, he’s not a natural scrambler. It’s up to Gruden to encourage that part of his game if the offensive line folds on the edge.
Richie Incognito will serve a two-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, and Gabe Jackson will miss multiple games as he recovers from an MCL injury. Right out of the gate, we’ll see how Cable handles a curveball with fill-in starters Jordan Devey and Denzelle Good at left and right guard, respectively.
Among the coaches on Gruden’s staff, Cable should have the hottest seat. If Carr is under constant duress, the team has to make a change—possibly with the season in progress.
The Wide Receiver Corps Without Antonio Brown
According to The Athletic‘s Vic Tafur, Gruden built his playbook around Brown during the offseason. Then again, the four-time All-Pro only appeared in one training camp practice. So, they’re used to not having him part of the routine on offense. Tyrell Williams should be more than prepared to take the field as Carr’s lead wide receiver.
With that said, Williams is a solid No. 2 wideout on most teams. He’s going to match up against the top cover men in the league. The fifth-year veteran will need to elevate his game with the rise in the level of competition across from him. If not, the passing offense will struggle in most weeks.
Behind Williams, the Raiders have a couple of castoffs in Ryan Grant, who’s playing for his third club, and J.J. Nelson. The former had a chance to lock down the No. 2 spot on the depth chart with the Indianapolis Colts and faded later in the year, catching no more than two passes in a single game after Week 5.
In all four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Nelson logged catch rates below 48 percent. According to Pro Football Focus, he dropped 13 passes between the 2016-17 campaigns. Last year, his role dwindled as the season progressed as well. The 27-year-old only played 22.61 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
Hunter Renfrow should have some bright moments this year, though, he’s not a lead wide receiver. The rookie fifth-rounder is a clutch performer who could bail the offense out of 3rd-and-8 jams, but the 5’10”, 185-pound wideout isn’t a dynamic playmaker. Because of Brown’s absence, the Clemson product could come close to or reach 50 catches. Then again, let’s not get carried away with expectations. He’s a solid No. 3.
As tight end Darren Waller learns his position, he’ll have hit-or-miss games during the process. Don’t expect him to become last year’s Jared Cook right away, but he should have a strong finish to the season.
Brown would’ve opened up the field for the rest of the Raiders pass-catchers. Without him, Carr will need his guys to win their one-on-one matchups. Outside of Williams, none of them have done it with much consistency in the pros.
Lackluster Pass Rush
This isn’t a recording; it’s still a potential problem in Oakland. Khalil Mack’s void remains an issue. The Raiders need second-year defensive end Arden Key and rookie first-rounder Clelin Ferrell to make strides throughout the year on the edge.
The Raiders shocked many analysts when they selected Ferrell with the No. 4 overall pick. With all eyes on him, he’s expected to make an immediate impact after a strong collegiate career at Clemson, logging 27 sacks and 50.5 tackles for loss in four terms. He doesn’t have the explosiveness of an elite prospect, but his strength and technical ability could help him reach five-to-six sacks in 2019.
Buckner will need a push from his guys on the interior to supplement the pass rush. Johnathan Hankins, Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall and Corey Liuget must bring pressure to maintain a viable push near the pocket.
The Raiders still have a defensive line that in its developmental stages—35 sacks seems like a high bar for this group.
Vontaze Burfict’s Availability
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s presence should help the defense. He’s worked with Paul Guenther, who served as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, for six seasons before arriving in Oakland.
As many know, Burfict has a history of suspensions. He’s also suffered at least seven concussions in his career, per ESPN’s Katherine Terrell. Beyond football, that’s a scary health realization for a physical linebacker.
Burfict missed at least five games every year since 2013 because of a combination of injuries and suspensions. Without him on the field and his knowledge of the defense, Oakland’s young unit could experience some bumps in the road. They need a full season out of their defensive centerpiece.
Sacks look good on paper, but the Raiders have to find a way to stop the run. Opponents gashed this defense for 100-plus yards in 12 out of 16 contests in 2018. Defensive tackle Justin Ellis provided little pocket pressure in his career, but he’s a solid run-stopper. The team placed him on season-ending injured reserve with a knee injury.
If the Raiders can’t stop the run on early downs, they won’t be able to tee off on the quarterback in third-and-long situations, which hinders their ability to pressure the pocket. This group must close the gaps up front.
Moving on to the good news, the Raiders have some positives that could steer the 2019 season in the right direction. That starts with the offense, specifically their quarterback.
Derek Carr Comfort in the Offense
During Hard Knocks, Carr talked about his ease within Gruden’s offense going into Year 2. Through his six-year career, this is the second time he’s had the same offensive play-caller in consecutive seasons. Bill Musgrave was the last—between 2015-16.
Raiders fans romanticize about the 2016 campaign and rightfully so. The Silver and Black went 14 years without a playoff appearance and made a breakthrough with Carr leading the offense on seven game-winning drives.
In 2016, the defense ranked 20th in scoring and 26th in yards allowed, but Carr played to the level of a franchise quarterback. Despite a leaky defense, a dislocated pinky and a competitive division, he put together his best season, and Raiders finished 12-4. Unfortunately, we didn’t see how special that year could’ve been with him because of a broken leg in Week 16.
Fast forward to the present; Carr will likely show improvement in the second year under Gruden. Unlike 2016, the Raiders don’t have Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, but the quarterback has to prove his $125 million worth.
Carr must play at a level that allows his wide receivers to push their performances up a few notches. He has to stand tall in the pocket, deliver accurate strikes, take well-timed risks and become a true extension of Gruden on the field.
If Carr looks as comfortable as he says, Williams, Grant and Nelson should have their best pro seasons in Oakland this year.
Running Back Group
Looking back to the Raiders impressive 2016 season, Carr played alongside a solid ground attack, which ranked sixth in the league. Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard carried the load for that group—two of those players are still in the backfield.
Rookie first-rounder Josh Jacobs will join Washington and Richard in the running group. He didn’t lead Alabama in rush attempts through any of his three terms and doesn’t have much tread on his legs (251 carries). The Raiders won’t have to worry about pro-level burnout, and Gruden will likely use all three of his tailbacks plus fullback Alec Ingold.
All four backs can run and catch out of the backfield, which allows Gruden to dress up formations and isolate his playmakers in space. Fans may not like to see Carr dinking and dunking his way downfield, but the coaching staff will focus on matchups. Jacobs, Richard or Washington against a linebacker may be the best option with defensive backs focused on Williams downfield.
If Jacobs handles 15 carries per contest, he has a chance to lead the Raiders in yards from scrimmage with about 1,200-1,300.
While the Raiders front seven may struggle in the pass rush and run defense, the secondary looks solid. Last year, cornerback Gareon Conley flashed his top-notch coverage ability. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks targeted him 50 times and completed 27 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns; he intercepted three attempts.
Conley isn’t a physical presence on the perimeter, but the Raiders need him to neutralize strikes from quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Philip Rivers within the division. With a questionable pass rush, the defense may have to cover receivers for extended periods on the back end, which isn’t an impossible task for the third-year cornerback.
Lamarcus Joyner joins the secondary as a versatile component capable of lining up in the slot or at safety. In 2017, he had his best season with the Los Angeles Rams playing the latter position, logging nine pass breakups and three interceptions. Guenther may experiment with his fit throughout the year.
Oakland has a solid safety group in Johnathan Abram, Karl Joseph and Erik Harris.
Abram will bring the heat going downhill on tackles, but the Raiders need to see more of his coverage skills in today’s league with tight ends running down the seam areas.
Back in 2004, big hits made the highlight reel, but referees won’t hesitate to toss yellow flags in 2019. Defenders should focus on wrapping up clean tackles as opposed to purposely causing collisions. If Abram understands and plays according to that concept, Oakland would have a rookie playmaker who could lead this team in tackles and help neutralize tight ends Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry and Noah Fant twice a year.
The Raiders have two first-rounders in Abram and Joseph at safety—that shows the potential at the position. It’s up to Guenther to utilize their strengths for optimal results.
Before each NFL season, many prognosticators make this simple mistake: If Team A has an upgraded roster, they should have a better record than last year. That’s a flawed way to predict win-loss records simply because every club has seemingly improved on paper.
With that said, the Raiders have an enhanced roster that should result in a promising future if the coaching staff converts potential into production on the field.
As noted in Kempski’s roster age calculations, the Raiders had an older roster last year—filled with veterans past their primes, but they knew how to play the game.
This season, Gruden has 11 rookies on the 53-man roster—one on injured reserve in cornerback Isaiah Johnson. Second-year players like Miller, Key, Hurst and Hall will also play huge roles. They’re all still learning the professional game. Expect some flashes and also missteps.
Whether the fanbase wants to admit it or not, without Brown, the Raiders are left with a slower rebuild. Carr has to perform at an elite level because he doesn’t have a No. 1 wideout to compensate for mistakes. The defense doesn’t have a single Pro Bowl or All-Pro player, which means Oakland will probably need to win scoring shootouts.
With Cable’s pass protection still in a question, a passing offense not equipped to win high-scoring matchups, an unproven pass rush and a brutal schedule that keeps a young squad off their home field for five consecutive outings, the Raiders will struggle to find wins. With a break here or there, four victories are possible, but no more than that.