Oakland Raiders 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Raiders broke out as a 12-4 team in 2016, after over a decade since their last winning record, but then they regressed to 6-10 in 2017, with largely the same supporting cast. What happened? Well, after going 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and posting a +16 turnover margin (1st in the NFL) in 2016, the Raiders went 4-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a -14 turnover margin (3rd worst in the NFL). Turnover margin and record in close games tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so that’s not a total surprise, but it also shouldn’t be a surprise if we see their turnover margin swing back to around even in 2018. That alone could add a few wins to this team’s total.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders were actually better in 2017 than 2016, finishing with a -0.18% margin, as opposed to -0.49% in 2016. Their offense was significantly worse, moving the chains at a 33.93% rate, as opposed to 36.29% in 2016, but offense was down across the league last season, so the Raiders only fell from 15th in first down rate to 17th in 2017. Defensively, they were better both in raw numbers and rank, ranking 18th with a 34.10% first down rate allowed, after ranking 23rd with a 36.78% first down rate allowed in 2016.

A big part of the reason why they were not as good offensively in 2017 is the disappointing play of quarterback Derek Carr. Not only did Carr turn the ball over more often (16 turnovers vs. 9 in 2016), he also saw his completion percentage fall from 63.8% to 62.7% and his YPA fall from 7.03 to 6.79. A back injury is probably to blame, as he was never 100% after getting hurt week 4. He only missed about a game and a half, but he completed 67.9% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions prior to the injury and did not look right after his return.

Carr also broke his leg at the end of the 2016 season, effectively ending any shot the Raiders had at a playoff run, so injuries are becoming a bit of a concern with him, but, if he’s healthy, he could easily have a bounce back season in 2018, his 5th season in the league and only his age 27 season. He also gets a new head coach in Jon Gruden and a new offensive system that should fit his skill set better than the one they ran last year under head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who struggled in his one season as play caller.

Carr probably won’t repeat the 1.07% interception rate he had in 2016, as that would be the lowest of all time over the course of a career and is a fluky season for most quarterbacks, but he could easily see his completion percentage and YPA rise up back to 2016 levels. If the Raiders can play turnover neutral football and get a bounce back year from Derek Carr and this passing game, they could easily make it back to the post-season.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Another big issue with this passing game was the disappointing season that most of their pass catchers had. In fact, Carr did not have a single wide receiver or tight end earn a positive pass catching grade from Pro Football Focus. That’s a big difference from 2016, when wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree both topped 1000 yards. Cooper and Crabtree were still their top-2 wide receivers in 2017, but neither played nearly as well as they did the season before, managing slash lines of just 48/680/7 and 58/618/8 respectively.

They also each missed 2 games with injury and were limited to 709 snaps and 599 snaps respectively. In fact, “third receiver” Seth Roberts actually led this team in wide receiver snaps with 749, but he was easiest the worst of the bunch, managing just a 43/455/1 slash line and averaging just 0.95 yards per route run (7th worst in the NFL). He was PFF’s worst ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible.

As a result, the Raiders revamped their wide receiver group this off-season. Cooper remains as the #1 option, but they released Crabtree, rather than pay him 7.75 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season, and then added Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant to be the new #2 and #3 receivers. 2017 4th round pick Ryan Switzer was also acquired in a trade with the Cowboys and, even if he doesn’t play a big role in 2018, he has upside long-term and could keep Seth Roberts and his 2.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary off the roster. Roberts has been a bottom-10 receiver on PFF in each of the past 2 seasons and is not a favorite of the new coaching staff.

The most important thing for this receiving corps is getting Amari Cooper back to form. The 4th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Cooper put up slash lines of 72/1070/6 and 83/1153/5 in his first 2 seasons in the league respectively, so his 2017 production, or lack thereof, was a big surprise. His production was even worse than it looked, as almost a third of his yardage (210 yards) came in one game. He managed just 470 yards in his other 13 games combined and had fewer than 35 yards in half of his 14 games.

Drops have been an issue for him throughout his career, as he’s dropped 32 passes in 3 seasons in the league, including 10 last season, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season and still has a massive upside. The Raiders may move him around the formation more in 2018, as they lack a true slot option and Cooper has flashed on the slot thus far in his career (2.66 yards per route run on 291 routes). That could really benefit him. Lingering injuries were also probably a big part of the problem for him last season and he has obvious bounce back potential in 2018.

Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, meanwhile, will play in 3-wide receiver sets and compete for playing time in 2-wide receiver sets. Bryant is a pure outside receiver, but Nelson’s has some experience on the slot and will likely see action there along with Cooper in 3-wide receiver sets.. Nelson’s 2-year, 14.2 million dollar contract suggests he’s the favorite for the #2 job, but the Raiders also gave up a 3rd round pick to get Martavis Bryant, so they made a big investment in him as well. Both were head scratching moves. Nelson gets about the same as Crabtree would have gotten if they kept him, despite being older (age 33 season), coming off of a worse season (53/482/6), and not being familiar with quarterback Derek Carr, who played with Crabtree for 3 seasons.

Prior to 2017, Nelson had 1000+ yard seasons in 4 straight healthy seasons and finished in the top-9 among wide receivers on PFF in all 4 of those seasons, but he has a pretty significant injury history, wide receivers tend to lose it quickly, and he was not nearly the same player when Aaron Rodgers went down last season. Derek Carr is an obvious upgrade on Brett Hundley, who Nelson played with for most of last season, but Nelson’s most valuable trait at this point in his career is his chemistry with Aaron Rodgers, which is why it’s so surprising that the Packers did not bring back him on a cheaper salary and that the Raiders decided to give him significant money on a 2-year deal.

Bryant, meanwhile, is going into the final year of his rookie deal and is a failed drug test away from at least a season long suspension, so it’s a major surprise that the Raiders were willing to give up a 3rd round pick to get him. A 4th round pick in 2014, Bryant flashed as a rookie and then had a 50/765/6 slash line in 11 games in 2015, but he missed the entire 2016 season with suspension and was not a huge help to the Steelers when he returned. He managed just a 50/603/3 slash line on 684 snaps, fell to third on the depth chart, earned a negative grade from PFF, and got into disputes with the coaching staff. He probably could have been acquired for less. Now going into his age 27 season, Bryant’s chances of a breakout season are dwindling and he’s not the most reliable player either.

With Cooper and Crabtree struggling, the Raiders were actually led in receiving yardage by tight end Jared Cook, who had a 54/688/2 slash line. He still earned a negative overall pass catching grade though and struggled mightily as a blocker as well. Cook has been a capable starter for most of his career, but he’s also never topped 760 yards in a season, is not a great run blocker, and is now going into his age 31 season, so he could start to decline soon. #2 tight end Lee Smith will also play a role, although the 6-6 265 pounder is more of a 6th offensive lineman. The 7-year veteran has never had more than 12 catches in a season, but plays a role as a run blocker. This is a solid receiving corps, but they need Amari Cooper to have a big year as the #1 guy.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why the Raiders were comfortable parting with a third round pick in their trade for Martavis Bryant is because they acquired an extra two third round picks by trading down in each of the first two rounds. In the first round, they moved down from 10 to 15 with the Cardinals, who drafted quarterback Josh Rosen, and picked up the 79th and 152nd pick in the process. They then used that 15th overall pick on offensive tackle Kolton Miller. The Raiders were originally targeting Notre Dame offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey with the 10th pick, but he surprisingly went a pick earlier to the 49ers.

McGlinchey might not have been a top-10 prospect in this draft, but he was the consensus top offensive tackle and the only one universally considered a first round pick in a weak offensive tackle class, so it made sense that the Raiders, who had a hole at right tackle and a soon-to-be-35-year-old Donald Penn at left tackle, would reach a little bit for the only true plug and play offensive tackle in the draft and it makes sense that they then traded down when he was not available, but Miller is a major reach at 15.

Unlike McGlinchey, an NFL ready starter who with a low floor, Miller is a project that drew mixed reviews coming out of college and was not considered a first round lock, even in a weak offensive tackle class. He has the athletic tools to develop into an above average starter, but he’s not nearly as safe of a pick as McGlinchey would have been and he did not make a lot of sense with defensive difference makers like linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Derwin James still on the board. Miller will slot in immediately at right tackle, but could struggle as a rookie.

Miller is not the only big investment the Raiders have made on this offensive line, as their other 4 starters all make at least 9.35 million annually on multi-year deals. In 2016, this was arguably the best offensive line in the league and they’re not far away from getting back there. Right tackle was a big weakness last season, with Marshall Newhouse finishing 70th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, after veteran Austin Howard played well there in 2016. Miller might not play well as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on Newhouse.

The Raiders will also be hoping for a bounce back year from right guard Gabe Jackson, after he finishing 35th among guards in 2017. That’s definitely not bad, but it’s a disappointing season for him, considering the 2014 3rd round pick finished 25th among guards as a rookie, 12th among guards in 2015, and 21st among guards in 2016, leading to the Raiders giving him a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension last off-season that makes him the 3rd highest paid guard in the league in average annual salary. Only in his age 27 season, he has obvious bounce back potential.

The rest of this offensive line still played really well in 2017. Penn’s age is a concern at left tackle, but he still finished 21st among offensive tackles on PFF last season. He’s earned a positive grade in 7 straight seasons and finished 10th among offensive tackles as recently as 2016, so, while he may be on the decline, he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Raiders also used a 3rd round pick on an offensive tackle, taking North Carolina A&T’s Brandon Parker. He’s very raw, but the Raiders likely see him and Miller as bookend tackles of the future in a few years time. In what was universally considered a weak offensive tackle class, the Raiders decided to double dip with two raw offensive tackles in the first 65 picks. With other pressing needs not getting addressed, we’ll see if it turns out to be worth it.

Left guard Kelechi Osemele and center Rodney Hudson are the surest things on this offensive line, as both are coming off of strong seasons and in the prime of their careers. Osemele is going into his age 29 season and finished 15th among guards on PFF last season, while Hudson is also going into his age 29 season and finished 5th among centers on PFF last season. Osemele has been a top-15 guard on PFF in 4 straight seasons, while Hudson has been a top-7 center on PFF in 4 straight seasons. Signed to deals worth 58.5 million over 5 years and 44.5 million over 5 years respectively, in 2016 and 2015 respectively, both have been great free agent additions and are big parts of why the Raiders improved from being perennially one of the worst teams in the league. This should be a strong offensive tackle again, even if Miller is raw at right tackle and Penn is aging at left tackle.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One of the biggest stories around the Raiders going into last season was running back Marshawn Lynch deciding to unretire after taking the 2016 season off and requesting the Seahawks trade him to Oakland, where he grew up. Lynch kind of went under the radar because the Raiders weren’t winning, but he ended up having a pretty good season. He averaged 4.30 yards per carry on 207 carries and ranked 13th in carry success rate at 49%.

Perhaps most importantly, he looked to be as violent of a runner as ever, averaging 3.09 yards per carry after contact, breaking 42 tackles, and finishing 7th in elusive rating. Elusive rating, which measures broken tackles and yards after contact, is a metric in which Lynch has finished in the top-15 among running backs in all 10 seasons in the league and from 2011 to 2014 he led the NFL with 272 broken tackles on 1,181 carries. After running behind a patchwork offensive line for years with the Seahawks, Lynch gets to run behind arguably the best offensive line he’s ever run behind with the Raiders.

The one concern with Lynch is his age, as he goes into his age 32 season. He did take the entire 2016 season off, which could help him long-term, but he also has 2,623 career touches and plays a notoriously rough style of football. Given his age, I expected the Raiders to add a young back in the draft, but instead they just signed veteran Doug Martin to a one-year deal. Martin is only 29, but he’s run like he’s about 40 over the past two seasons, averaging just 2.93 yards per carry on 282 carries.

Martin put up a 319/1454/11 slash line as a first round rookie in 2012 and then a 288/1402/6 slash line in his contract year in 2015, but he’s somehow averaged just 3.27 yards per carry on 543 carries in his other four seasons combined. He’s also had numerous disciplinary and work ethic issues. The Raiders are taking a flyer on him, but there might not be anything left in the tank. Fortunately, they didn’t guarantee him anything, so they can cut him without penalty if he struggles this off-season, but they could have benefitted from adding another back, especially a young back through the draft. If Martin does make the final roster, he shouldn’t take too many carries away from Lynch, who seems to have much more left in the tank, despite his age.

The Raiders also have 2016 undrafted free agent Jalen Richard. He’s undersized at 5-8 205 and will likely never be a lead back, but he’s averaged 5.51 yards per carry on 139 carries and may have earned a larger role in his 3rd season in the league. He’ll also play a significant passing down role again, as neither Lynch nor Martin do much in passing situations. With Lynch managing just 151 receiving yards on 20 catches, Richard led Oakland running backs with 256 receiving yards on 27 catches. He should have around that same level of passing game usage in 2018. This looks like a solid backfield, but they’re relying on Marshawn Lynch not breaking down, as veteran off-season addition Doug Martin is unlikely to pan out.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Lost in the Raiders’ disappointing 2017 season is the fact that their defense was actually noticeably improved. After allowing 318 first downs and 45 offensive touchdowns in 2016, they allowed just 304 first downs and 35 offensive touchdowns in 2017. That didn’t stop them from firing Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator, following a particularly bad defensive performance against the Patriots, but they did a good job replacing him with ex-Bengal defensive coordinator Paul Guenther this off-season. Guenther left the Bengals following the expiration of his contract this off-season, but he was a solid defensive coordinator for 4 seasons and spent the previous 6 seasons on Mike Zimmer’s staff when Zimmer was the Bengals defensive coordinator.

The one main difference between Guenther and Norton is that, while Norton ran more of a hybrid scheme in base packages, Guenther runs a pretty straight up 4-3 defense. The Raiders are expecting him to help boost the 14 takeaways they had last season (2nd fewest in the NFL), though that would likely happen regardless, as takeaways tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Raiders had 30 takeaways (2nd most in the NFL) back in 2016 in Norton’s first season as defensive coordinator. They’ll probably be somewhere right in the middle of those two numbers in 2018.

Regardless of the scheme, this defense is built around edge rusher Khalil Mack, who is one of the best defensive players in the league and has experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 schemes. The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, he’s finished in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, totaling 40.5 sacks, 42 quarterback hits, and dominating against the run as well. Owed 13.846 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, Mack is an obvious candidate for an extension this off-season, but he wants to be the highest paid defensive player in the league, upwards of 20 million annually, so negotiations are taking a while. Worst case scenario, the Raiders would have the franchise tag available to keep him next off-season. He’s not going anywhere any time soon and should continue being one of the best defensive players in the league.

Bruce Irvin remains as the other edge rusher opposite him. He’s earned a positive grade from PFF in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but he is a better run stuffer than pass rusher and is capable in coverage as well. In a 4-3, he’ll play outside linebacker in base packages and then rush the passer off the edge in sub packages. He’s a hybrid player, but has experience in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes and should have another solid season in his age 28 season.

Mario Edwards will play opposite Khalil Mack in base packages. The 6-3 280 pounder has played both inside and outside and will remain a hybrid player in this 4-3, rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages when Irvin moves down to the line. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Edwards flashed as a rookie, finishing 24th among 3-4 defensive ends on 608 snaps, but a hip injury limited him to 35 snaps in 2016 and then he was not as good upon his return on 475 snaps in 2017. Still only in his age 24 season, he still has upside and could have a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal, but that’s far from a guarantee.

With Mack and Irvin playing outside linebacker in base packages, Denico Autry had the most snaps among any of the Raiders’ pure defensive linemen in 2017 with 594. He played pretty well, but wasn’t a good fit for the new scheme and was allowed to sign with the Colts on a 3-year, 17.8 million dollar deal. The Raiders do bring back Eddie Vanderdoes (464 snaps), Justin Ellis (462 snaps), and Treyvon Hester (346 snaps), along with Mario Edwards.

Ellis re-signed this off-season on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. He’s not much of a pass rusher, with just a half a sack and 2 quarterback hits in 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2014, but the 6-2 335 pounder has developed into a strong run stuffer and was PFF’s 14th ranked defensive tackle against the run last season. He’s not an ideal fit for a 4-3 defense, but he should play a base package run stuffing role and was not a bad re-signing on an inexpensive 3 year deal.

Vanderdoes and Hester, meanwhile, are a pair of second year players who will compete for the other base package role and will also rotate in sub packages. Vanderdoes was a 3rd round pick, while Hester went in the 7th, but Hester was the better of the two players, flashing on 346 snaps, while Vanderdoes struggled on 464 snaps. Vanderdoes still has the higher upside, but Hester might still be the better player in 2018. They both have potential, but they might not be anything more than rotational players this season.

The Raiders also used 2nd, 3rd, and 5th round picks on Sam Houston State defensive tackle PJ Hall, LSU defensive end Arden Key, and Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. They could all compete for roles as rookies on an unsettled defensive line. Key could easily be their 3rd defensive end, while Hall and Hurst could be part of the rotation at defensive tackle with Edwards, Ellis, Vanderdoes, and Hester.

Hall faced weak competition, was not invited to the combine, and does not fit the prototype at 6-0 310, but he played well at the East/West shrine came and lit up his Pro Day. Key and Hurst, meanwhile, were at one point projected to be 1st round picks, but Key had a disappointing junior year and had off-the-field concerns, while Hurst has a heart problem that could be a long-term concern. Because have huge upsides, but they come with a lot of risk. They need someone to step up on this line other than Khalil Mack, but they have some options.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

After Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, the Raiders were led in linebacker snaps by NaVorro Bowman, who proved to be a smart mid-season addition after being released by the 49ers, finishing 8th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 643 snaps. Bowman is no longer with the team though and neither is Cory James, who finished 3rd among Raider middle linebackers with 455 snaps. Nicholas Morrow returns, but the 2017 undrafted free agent predictably struggled on 553 snaps as a rookie and likely wouldn’t be much better in his 2nd season in the league.

Instead, it’ll be free agent acquisitions Tahir Whitehead and Derrick Johnson starting in base packages with Bruce Irvin. Both players can play both inside and outside, but Whitehead spent last season at outside linebacker, while Johnson spent last season at inside linebacker and that figures to be where they’ll play with the Raiders. A 5th round pick in 2012, Whitehead purely played special teams in his first 2 seasons in the league, not playing a single defensive snap, but he’s made 55 starts in 4 seasons since.

Whitehead has impressed as a run stuffer, earning a positive run stuffing grade in 3 of 4 seasons and finishing 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in run grade on PFF in 2017, but he’s struggled in coverage, never earning a positive coverage grade from PFF. For lack of a better option, he’ll play an every down role with the Lions and they are paying him like an every down player on a 3-year, 19 million dollar deal, but he figures to struggle in sub packages.

Johnson, on the other hand, is still good in coverage, but struggles against the run. The 13-year veteran was once one of the best linebackers in the league, but he tore his achilles in 2014 and 2016 and is now going into his age 36 season. He’s still been about an average starter over the past 2 seasons, but he’s struggled against the run and could see his coverage abilities go this season as well. He was worth a flyer on a one-year, 1.5 million dollar deal, but he might not be reliable. For some reason, the Raiders did not address their linebacker corps until the 6th round of the draft, so Morrow is their top reserve. This figures to be an underwhelming group in 2018.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Raiders also made some changes in the secondary, which was a weakness in 2017. Those changes weren’t all positive though, as the Raiders lost cornerback TJ Carrie to the Browns on a 4-year, 31 dollar deal, after he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback last season in 16 starts. He was arguably their best defensive back in 2017. The Raiders also let go of Sean Smith and David Amerson, who were owed 8.5 million and 6 million non-guaranteed respectively and received negative grades from PFF on 701 snaps and 287 snaps respectively. The Raiders bring back Dexter McDonald, who ranked 3rd on this team in cornerback snaps last season with 534, but the 2015 7th round pick struggled in the first significant action of his career and is unlikely to be significantly better going forward.

Instead, the Raiders are expected to start free agent acquisition Rashaan Melvin and 2017 1st round pick Gareon Conley. Melvin was PFF’s 19th ranked cornerback last season, but he was a one-year wonder, as he had never finished in the top-50 at his position before in 5 seasons in the league. Already going into his age 29 season, Melvin’s 2017 season could easily prove to be a fluke, especially since he only played 552 snaps in 10 games due to injury, but he was a worthwhile flyer for the Raiders on a one-year deal worth 5.5 million. If he has another strong season in 2018, he could command 10+ million annually on a multi-year deal next off-season.

Conley, meanwhile, was limited to 92 snaps as a rookie by leg injuries, but flashed in limited action and still has a high upside, only going into his age 23 season. He could easily have a breakout second season in the league, though that’s obviously far from a guarantee. The Raiders also used a 2nd round pick on a defensive back in the 2017 NFL Draft, taking hybrid Obi Melifonwu, but injuries kept Melifonwu off the field for most of his rookie year as well, as he played just 34 snaps, while dealing with knee and hip injuries.

He has an easier path to playing time at cornerback than safety and could end up being their slot cornerback, though he’ll have to compete with 4th round rookie Nick Nelson, waiver claim Daryl Worley, who flashed on 865 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016, but struggled on 726 snaps in 2017 and has off-the-field problems, and veteran journeyman Leon Hall, who is going into his age 34 season and struggled on 205 snaps in 2017. None of those are obvious options, so Melifonwu could easily end up winning the job.

At safety, the Bengals bring back starters Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson and also added veteran starter Marcus Gilchrist in free agency. Joseph, a 2016 1st round pick, is locked in at one starting spot, after earning positive grades from PFF in each of his first 2 seasons in the league. He could have a breakout 3rd season in the league, in only his age 25 season. Nelson, meanwhile, is going into his age 35 season and finished as PFF’s 59th ranked safety out of 89 eligible last season, especially struggling in coverage. Prior to last season, he earned a positive grade in 5 straight seasons, but he could easily continue declining, given his age, which is why they signed Gilchrist.

Gilchrist comes over from the Texans on a one-year, 4 million dollar deal. His salary (vs. 2.5 million for Nelson who also got a one-year deal this off-season) suggests he’ll start, but that’s far from a lock. He’s made 74 starts in the past 5 seasons and has been a solid starter, but he’s going into his age 30 season and earned a below average grade from PFF in 2017 in his first season back after tearing his patellar tendon. Both he and Nelson are underwhelming options in a patchwork secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Raiders should have a better turnover margin and an improved passing game in 2018. They’ve never been as good as their record suggested in 2016, but they were better than their record suggested in 2017 and could easily make it back to the post-season in a weak AFC. It’s unclear how Jon Gruden will do in his first year as head coach, after nearly a decade away from coaching, but he did do a good job of assembling a staff and inherits a pretty talented roster. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

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