The Las Vegas Raiders are at the crossroads after consecutive seasons of mediocrity. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016 and are in a division with Patrick Mahomes, odds of an AFC West title are slim.
How do they get over the hump?
There’s plenty of potential sprinkled throughout the Las Vegas Raiders roster. If this team wants to snap its playoff drought, players must elevate their game. Otherwise, the fallout after the season could prove costly for Derek Carr, Mike Mayock, and others.
Here are five reasons why I think the Raiders can play playoff football this season.
1. Familiarity, cohesion for Derek Carr and Jon Gruden
Carr’s career with the Raiders has been an interesting case. A second-round pick in 2014, he already blew past early expectations. But is he good enough to lead his team to the playoffs? That remains to be seen.
Granted, Carr’s supporting cast hasn’t been particularly strong. Controlling what he can, Carr has steadily improved each year in Jon Gruden’s system. Gruden managed to win a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson. Carr is absolutely more capable as a quarterback than Johnson ever was.
- Derek Carr stats (2018): 4,049 passing yards, 19/10 TD/INT ratio, 68.9% completion rate, 7.3 ypa, 93.9 passer rating
- Derek Carr stats (2019): 4,054 passing yards, 21/8 TD/INT ratio, 70.4% completion rate, 7.9 ypa, 100.8 passer rating
- Derek Carr stats (2020): 4,103 passing yards, 27/9 TD/INT ratio, 67.3% completion rate, 7.9 ypa, 101.4 passer rating
It’s not unreasonable to say we’ve yet to see the best Carr has to offer. If Carr’s playmakers become more consistent, there’s no reason why the 2021 football season can’t be his best.
2. Darren Waller’s a tough cover
You could argue Raiders don’t have a No. 1 wide receiver. But does that really matter? Have you seen Darren Waller? He’s a better offensive weapon than a lot of teams rely on every Sunday.
Standing at 6’6 and being able to run a 4.46 40-yard dash, Waller is the definition of a size-speed freak in the NFL. Those are my favorite types of players. Surely, Waller has become one of Carr’s favorite players too.
Most linebackers are too slow to keep up and most members of the secondary are shorter than Waller by half a foot or more. There isn’t a single NFL defender who is as tall, can jump as high, and is as quick as Waller. For that reason alone, Waller is a tough matchup for any opponent.
While 1,000-yard seasons would suggest otherwise, he is still learning the nuances of playing tight end. Travis Kelce and George Kittle are perennial All-Pro selections, but Waller is on the verge of entering that territory quickly.
3. Homegrown talent meshes with Gus Bradley’s teaching
The Raiders have searched desperately for a quality edge rusher ever since the Khalil Mack trade. Mayock reached for Clelin Ferrell at No. 4 in 2019. This offseason, Las Vegas signed Yannick Ngakoue.
Having a solid rotation of rushers should help take some pressure off Ferrell. Though he initially struggled in the pros, his PFF grade from 62.3 as a rookie to 76.1 in his second season. Keep in mind they still have Maxx Crosby, who’s arguably their second-best pass rusher.
In the secondary, the Raiders have drafted four players with premium picks in the past three years. This particular unit is pivotal to the Raiders’ defense improving or struggling in 2021.
Hiring Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator could be just what this young secondary needs. Remember, Bradley was involved with the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom. At 6-foot-2, Trayvon Mullen has the ideal size for Bradley’s defense to match up against larger receivers.
Reminding some fans of Jack Tatum, Jonathan Abram is the hard-hitting missile that always goes 100%. Sometimes this can hold him back, as he overcommits and gets burned in coverage. Other times, his energy can be contagious.
Newcomer Trevon Moehrig and Abram form one of the hardest-hitting safety combos in the NFL. Going across the middle in Vegas could lead to plenty of receivers being left out to dry in the desert.
Damon Arnette has just nine games under his belt. With no 2020 preseason, first-year players such as Arnette lost out on valuable reps. After a regular offseason, he should be able to hit the ground running with a full training camp.
For whatever reason, the Raiders have consistently reached when drafting players under Mayock and Gruden. If some of these overdrafted prospects don’t develop, the hot seat will reach uncomfortable levels in Las Vegas.
4. Homefield advantage with fans welcomed at Allegiant Stadium
Expected to be at full capacity during the NFL year for the first time since being built in 2020, Allegiant Stadium will be a raucous environment with Raider Nation filling the seats. In fact, the upcoming season offers the public’s first chance to even see Las Vegas Raiders football played in person.
Once fans are able to get a feel for the competitive nature of this football team in 2021, expect “The Death Star” to be one of the loudest atmospheres in pro football.
We all know how excited Raider Nation gets, but that was in the Black Hole. We’ve yet to see just how far the fan frenzy goes in Vegas for professional football. If we learned anything from the Golden Knights, it’s that when the team is competitive, fans will show up in droves to cheer their team to victory.
5. Outside of the Chiefs, AFC West is wide open
I’m not going to say the Chiefs are suddenly going to fall flat on their faces, but the Raiders don’t really need to stay fixated on one team. There’s still plenty of opportunities to reach the playoffs in the AFC West division.
Entering the year, unless Aaron Rodgers goes to Denver, the Broncos and Chargers aren’t expected to be playoff teams. In fact, you could make a case that both teams could be really bad in 2021.
As the old football saying goes “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any at all.” The Denver Broncos are about to discover whether there’s any truth to that theory.
The Chargers overhauled their front office after failing to convert the success of 2020’s Offensive Rookie of the Year into a competitive season. There’s no telling how the Bolts adjust to their coaching change.
If the Raiders can win most of their divisional games, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2016 shouldn’t be a problem.