Oakland Raiders 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s hard to believe the Raiders won 12 games in 2016. They were never as good as their record suggested that season, finishing 19th in first down rate differential and winning 12 games largely because of an unsustainably high turnover margin (+16) and a 8-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, but they fell from grace very quickly. In 2017, they went 6-10 with largely the same roster, going just 4-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and finishing the season with a -14 turnover margin. 

That led to them firing head coach Jack Del Rio and replacing him with former head coach and long-time ESPN commentator Jon Gruden. In order to get Gruden, the Raiders had to commit to a ten year deal that basically gives him total control over the roster. With total control and complete job security, Gruden decided to take apart the team and rebuild it with his own guys, particularly on defense. 

Of their top-11 in terms of snaps played on defense in 2017, only 4 returned for 2018, with only two (Reggie Nelson and Bruce Irvin) starting week 1. Irvin was then later released mid-season in order to free up playing time for younger guys, while Nelson got benched quickly and finished the season with just 370 snaps played. Their biggest move on defense was sending away contract year edge defender Khalil Mack to the Bears for a pair of first round picks, rather than giving him the big money deal he wanted (Chicago re-signed him for 141 million over 6 years). 

On offense, they didn’t make quite as many changes, with 8 of their top-11 in terms of snaps played in 2017 returning as starters for week 1 of 2018, but they made a big splash move at last year’s trade deadline to send #1 receiver Amari Cooper, who was going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, to the Cowboys for another first round pick. The result of their teardown was a treasure chest of draft picks, including a trio of 2019 first round picks, and among the most cap space in the NFL this off-season, but it also led to an ugly product on the field in Gruden’s first year as head coach. They Raiders went just 4-12 and finished 28th in the NFL in first down rate differential. 

There was a lot of speculation that Gruden would move on from highly paid quarterback Derek Carr as well, but it doesn’t look like that was ever a serious consideration. Carr wasn’t bad last season all things considered, completing 68.9% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while finishing 21st among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, and his 20 million dollar salary isn’t cost prohibitive for a team with plenty of financial flexibility. He has a poor supporting cast around him on both sides of the ball, as they finished 24th in first down rate allowed on defense and just 26th in first down rate on offense, despite Carr’s decent season. Carr is not the problem with this team. 

In 5 seasons in the league, Carr has started 78 of 80 games for the Raiders and he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a career best 5th ranked finish in 2016. It’s possible Gruden could change quarterbacks at some point in the future if one that really catches his eye is available, but for now Carr’s job looks very safe. The Raiders only ended up signing veteran backup Mike Glennon (84.0 QB rating in 22 career starts) this off-season, so Carr doesn’t have a legitimate challenger for his job and should start all 16 games if he stays healthy. Whether or not he leads this team back into post-season contention depends on how improved his supporting cast is from 2018 to 2019.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

One of Carr’s big problems was his receiving corps. Amari Cooper only had a 22/280/1 slash line in 6 games and he was inconsistent throughout his tenure in Oakland, but without him and with veterans Martavis Bryant and Brandon LaFell going down for the season, Carr was left with veteran Jordy Nelson, slot receiver Seth Roberts, and 7th round rookie Marcell Ateman as his top-3 receivers down the stretch. As a result, Carr went from a 72.3% completion percentage, 7.79 YPA, and 10 touchdowns in his first 8 games to a 65.3% completion percentage, 6.83 YPA, and 9 touchdowns in his final 8 games, though his interceptions did drop from 8 to 2 as he grew more comfortable in Gruden’s system.

Tight end Jared Cook led the team with a 68/896/6 slash line and was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end overall, while Jordy Nelson was their leading wide receiver with a 63/739/3 slash line, but had just 1.41 yards per route run. Both Cook and Nelson are no longer with the team, Cook signing with the Saints as a free agent and Nelson retiring ahead of what would have been his age 34 season, but the Raiders are still expecting to have a better receiving corps, after making some splash moves this off-season.

Their biggest move was trading a 3rd and 5th round pick to the Steelers for disgruntled wide receiver Antonio Brown, who they then gave a new 3-year, 50.125 million dollar deal to make him the second highest paid wide receiver in the league in average annual salary. Brown caused distractions in the locker room in Pittsburgh, but has been one of the best wide receivers in the league for years, as he’s topped a 100/1250/8 slash line in 6 straight seasons, with an average slash line of 114/1524/11 over those 6 seasons and a 104/1297/15 slash line in 2018. He’ll likely see his numbers go down in a worse offense in Oakland and his age is becoming a concern in his age 31 season, but he undoubtedly makes this offense better. Whether or not he becomes a problem in the locker room if the Raiders struggle remains to be seen. 

The Raiders also signed ex-Charger Tyrell Williams to a 4-year, 44.3 million dollar deal in free agency to start opposite Brown. Williams was the Chargers’ #1 receiver in 2016 with Keenan Allen injured and put up a 69/1059/7 slash line, but he’s seen that dip to 43/728/4 and 41/653/5 in the past 2 seasons as the #2 receiver with Allen back healthy. With Antonio Brown hogging targets opposite him on a worse offense in Oakland, it’s hard to see him putting up much better numbers than that, but he should get plenty of one-on-ones with Brown being the focus of opposing defenses and he has the speed and size to make some big plays down the field. His 16.3 yards per catch average over the past 4 seasons is 4th in the NFL among players with at least 150 catches. 

Depth is still a problem behind Brown and Williams though. The Raiders only used a 5th round pick on the position in the draft, but 5th round rookie Hunter Renfrow is a natural slot receiver and could push to start as a rookie at a thin position. Last year’s 7th round pick Marcell Ateman could be in the mix, but he showed very little as a rookie, averaging just 0.69 yards per route run and finishing as PFF’s 8th worst ranked wide receiver. The Raiders also have veterans Ryan Grant and JJ Nelson in the mix, but they’ve never topped 573 yards in a season in a combined 9 seasons in the league and neither is a lock for the final roster.

Tight end is also a problem. Not only did they lose Jared Cook, who had 68 of their 91 catches by a tight end last season, but they also lost blocking specialist Lee Smith, who excelled as a blocker on 284 snaps last season. With no real starting options added this off-season, this is a wide open position group. Derek Carrier is a blocking specialist who has never topped 404 snaps in a season and has just 43 career catches in 7 seasons in the league. Foster Moreau is a fourth round rookie who could play a significant role in year one for lack of a better option. 

Darren Waller has earned a lot of praise this off-season, but that could just be off-season hype for a player with 18 career catches in 22 games in 4 seasons in the league. The 2015 6th round pick has never played more than 237 snaps in a season, including just 42 snaps last season, and he missed all of 2017 with suspension. The Raiders also added veteran Luke Willson, but he’s never topped 22 catches in 6 seasons in the league and isn’t a great run blocker either. Erik Swoope has shown a lot of promise as a receiver in his career in very limited action, averaging 2.63 yards per route run, but he missed all of 2017 with injury and played just 78 snaps last season. It’s unclear if any of these players can emerge as starting caliber. Outside receivers Brown and Williams figure to get the lion’s share of the targets in a thin receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Carr also didn’t get much help on the ground last season, as the Raiders finished 23rd in the NFL with 4.21 YPC. Week 1 starter Marshawn Lynch lasted 6 games (90 carries) before going down for the season with injury. In his absence, ex-Buccaneer Doug Martin wasn’t bad, averaging 4.20 YPC on 172 carries, but he’s going into his age 30 season, doesn’t do much in the passing game (99 catches in the past 6 seasons), and has a history of inconsistency on the ground (below 4 YPC in 4 of 7 seasons in the league), so the Raiders shot higher at the position this off-season, taking Alabama’s Josh Jacobs with the 24th overall pick. Jacobs was the first running back off the board. 

Jacobs has feature back potential long-term, but might not have a huge workload immediately as a rookie. Doug Martin is still on the team and, while it’s unlikely he has the 172 carries he had in 2018, he’ll likely still be involved in a rotational role as an early down runner unless Jacobs starts to completely outperform him. The Raiders also still have passing down back Jalen Richard, who had a 68/607/0 slash line last season and could be similarly productive in 2019 in an offense that really lacks a 3rd option in the receiving corps. Richard also provides a change of pace on the ground and has averaged 5.28 YPC on 194 carries in 3 seasons in the league. This is a solid group.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Raiders also had serious problems on the offensive line last season, leading to Derek Carr taking 51 sacks, 3rd most in the NFL. Part of that was Carr holding the ball a little too long and he ranked 4th in the NFL by taking a sack on 27.3% of his pressured drop backs, but the offensive line had a lot of problems as well and ranked 26th in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency. The biggest problem was the offensive tackle position, where veteran Donald Penn was limited to 188 snaps in 4 games by injury, leaving rookie first and third round picks Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker to start on the left and right side respectively for most of the season. A big part of Gruden’s first draft class in Oakland, Miller and Parker struggled mightily, finishing 81st and 83rd respectively out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and allowing 26 sacks combined. 

Penn is no longer with the team, but the Raiders made a big financial investment at the offensive tackle position this off-season, signing Trent Brown to a 4-year, 66 million dollar deal that makes him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL. He’s been a solid starter over the past 3 seasons (42 starts), but has never finished higher than 27th among offensive tackles on PFF. On top of that, he’s expected to play right tackle, which is generally the lesser valued offensive tackle position. Only 5 other right tackles make at least 8 million annually. Brown makes more than double that annually on his new deal (16.5 million). He played the left side in New England last season, but the Raiders seem to want to keep Kolton Miller there, despite his disastrous rookie season. He still has upside and could easily be better in his second season in the league, but he was a questionable pick at the time (especially over Derwin James and Leighton Vander Esch) and his career has gotten off to a rough start.

In part to free up money to sign Brown, the Raiders sent incumbent left guard Kelechi Osemele to the Jets in what amounted to a salary dump, getting out of the final 2 years and 22.9 million of his contract. Osemele struggled in an injury plagued 2018 season, finishing 64th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF on 735 snaps, but he’s been a much better player in the past and the Raiders don’t have an obvious replacement for him. They could move Brandon Parker inside with Brown taking his spot at right tackle, but he was horrendous as a rookie and wouldn’t necessarily be better at a new position.

Veteran Richie Incognito is penciled in as the starter at left guard, but he comes with plenty of uncertainty. Incognito has earned an above average grade from PFF in his past 9 seasons, maxing out at 6th among guards in 2015 and finishing 18th at his position as recently as 2017, but he has a history of discipline issues, he spent 2018 out of the league, and is now going into his age 36 season. He could give them solid play, especially as a run blocker, but that’s far from a guarantee. Along with Parker, Incognito also could face competition from Denzelle Good, who started the final 3 games of the season at right guard last season and has 23 career starts in 4 seasons in the league. He’s always been an underwhelming player though and it’s very possible left guard remains a position of weakness in 2019.

At center and right guard, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson remain as starters. Hudson is their best offensive lineman, even with the addition of Brown in free agency. He was PFF’s 4th ranked center in 2018, his 5th straight season in the top-9 at his position (75 starts). Going into his age 30 season, his age is becoming a concern, but interior offensive linemen can often play well into their 30s, so he isn’t necessarily about to start declining. Even if he does a little bit, he should still remain one of the top centers in the league.

Gabe Jackson isn’t the same caliber player, but he’s a solid starter at the very least, making 72 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2014 and finishing in the top-32 among guards on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a 17th ranked season in 2018. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Jackson should continue giving them solid play. The left side of this offensive line is a big question mark, but Trent Brown upgrades the right tackle spot significantly and Hudson and Jackson are also strong starters at center and right guard respectively.

Update: Richie Incognito will be suspended for the first 2 games of the season, but that won’t have a significant effect on this line.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

By far the Raiders’ biggest weakness on defense last season was their pass rush. In a season in which no other team finished with fewer than 30 sacks, the Raiders had a league low 13. For comparison Khalil Mack had 12.5 by himself in 14 games with the Bears. In Mack’s absence, the Raiders’ pass rush production from their edge defenders was pathetic as they managed just 4 sacks on the season, with 3 of them coming from Bruce Irvin, who was cut mid-season. Third round rookie Arden Key was the only edge defender with a sack still on the roster by season’s end and he had just 1 sack and a 9.1% pressure rate, while leading the team with 644 snaps played at the position. 35-year old Frostee Rucker finished second at the position with 549 snaps played, but didn’t have a single sack and had just a 6.1% pressure rate.

Despite having cap space, the Raiders didn’t do much to address the edge defender spot in free agency, but they did in the draft, using their 4th overall pick on Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and then adding Eastern Michigan’s Maxx Crosby in the 4th round as well. Ferrell was a surprise pick at #4, over players like linebacker Devin White, interior defender Ed Oliver and fellow edge defender Josh Allen, but he’s a great fit for the Raiders’ 4-3 defense.

Even if Ferrell isn’t as good of a pass rusher as Allen, he still has great upside as a pass rusher and can play the run in the NFL from day 1. He was a reach, but should have come off the board from like 8-12, so it’s not like he was huge reach and he could easily still develop into a great player. Crosby, meanwhile, was a good value in the 4th round and should be able to contribute as a rotational player as a rookie. He’ll rotate with Ferrell and Arden Key, who the Raiders are hoping can be better in his 2nd season in the league, after a disappointing rookie season. 

The Raiders’ one free agent edge defender addition was veteran Benson Mayowa, who was signed to just a one-year, 1.7 million dollar deal. Mayowa has the potential to exceed his contract value though, especially at an unsettled position group. He played a career high 550 snaps last season with the Cardinals and has a career best year as well, playing the run well and finishing with 4 sacks, 7 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a starting caliber player, but he wasn’t bad as a rotational player from 2014-2017, averaging 375 snaps per season, and, in his age 28 season, could easily continue being an effective rotational player. He’s the veteran of a very young group and definitely has opportunity for playing time.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

The Raiders didn’t make a big addition at on the interior of their defensive line in free agency either, nor did they address the position through the draft. They didn’t necessarily need to make a big splash addition at the position though. They return their top-3 defensive tackles from last season in terms of snaps played and, as much as this defense struggled, they weren’t a bad group. Two of those three defensive tackles are going into just their second year in the league as well, so they have the potential to be better in 2019. 

PJ Hall was the higher pick, going in the 2nd round, but 5th round pick Maurice Hurst was the better of the two players. Hall was a solid run stuffer, but didn’t have a sack and managed just a 5.0% pressure rate. Hurst, meanwhile, played well in both aspects and led the team with 4 sacks on just 472 snaps. He only fell in the draft because of concerns about his heart, but as long as he stays on the field the Raiders appear to have gotten a steal. Both he and Hall could take another step forward in their second season in the league in 2019.

Veteran Johnathan Hankins led this position group with 573 snaps played last season and returns on a 2-year, 8.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. He struggled mightily as a pass rusher, with just a 2.9% pressure rate, but he’s a strong run stuffer and has been a slightly better pass rusher in the past, with 12 sacks, 22 hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate in 82 career games. Still only in his age 27 season, he should have another solid season in 2019 and could easily bounce back as a pass rusher. 

Fourth defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (419 snaps) is no longer with the team, but he won’t really be missed and the Raiders should get a healthier year from Justin Ellis. A foot injury limited Ellis to poor play over 133 snaps in 6 games last season, but he’s been better in the past. He’s not much of a pass rusher, with a 3.9% career pressure rate, but the 6-2 330 pounder is a strong run stuffer when he’s right and he’s still only going into his age 29 season. If healthy, he should be valuable in a situational role as a base package run stuffer. This is a decent group, but they lack a standout player.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Raiders also didn’t make a big addition at linebacker in free agency either, opting inside to take flyers on a pair of veterans in Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall on one-year deals worth just 2 million and 1.2 million respectively. Both players have seen better days and the Raiders are hoping one or both of them can bounce back. Marshall was a top-14 off ball linebacker on Pro Football Focus in 3 straight seasons from 2014-2016, but he’s missed 12 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and has only been a middling starter in the past 2 seasons when on the field. Going into his age 30 season, with the injury history that he has, it’s likely his best days are behind him.

Burfict has had injury issues as well. He was a Pro Bowler in 2013, but has missed 37 of 80 games in 5 seasons since and, while he’s played well for stretches since when on the field, including a 21st ranked finish among off ball linebackers on 589 snaps on PFF as recently as 2017, the injuries seemed to catch up to him in 2018, as he finished 83rd among 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on 298 snaps. Only going into his age 29 season, Burfict could bounce back at least to his 2017 form, but that’s far from a guarantee and he’s likely to miss at least some time with injury. He’s the victim of his own violent playing style and adds yet another mercurial personality to this locker room with Richie Incognito and Antonio Brown. 

Tahir Whitehead led this linebacking corps with 1,025 snaps played last season, playing all but 3 snaps, but he struggled and is likely to take on a much smaller role with Marshall and Burfict coming in. He’s a solid run stuffer, but has a lot of trouble in coverage and would ideally be a 3rd linebacker in base packages and come off the field in obvious passing situations for a 5th defensive back. In order for that to happen, Marshall and Burfict will both need to stay healthy.

Marquel Lee and Nicholas Morrow played 448 snaps and 416 snaps respectively last season, but both struggled. Added in 2017 as a 5th round pick and an undrafted free agent respectively, neither has shown much in 2 seasons in the league and would be best as reserves. They could be pressed back into action though if Marshall and/or Burfict get hurt or struggle. This group has upside, but they didn’t add a true difference maker this off-season.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The one big free agent addition the Raiders did make on defense this off-season was safety LaMarcus Joyner, who comes over from the Rams on a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal. Joyner was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety in 2017, but is largely a one-year wonder, never finishing higher than 27th at his position in his other 3 seasons. He should have a solid season at the very least though and he’s especially valuable because he can play both free safety and slot cornerback. The Raiders also used their final first round pick, 27th overall, on safety Johnathan Abram, who is expected to be the strong safety. He could easily be an every down player as a rookie.

Fourth year safety Karl Joseph could also have a role as the third safety, when Joyner moves to the slot. A first round pick in 2016, Joseph was a solid starter in his first 2 seasons in the league (21 starts), but Gruden benched him and he played just 55 snaps in the first 8 games of the 2018 season, before moving into the starting lineup and playing 454 snaps in the final 8 games. He actually had the best stretch of his career during those 8 games, but the Raiders still declined his 5th year option for 2020 this off-season and added a pair of safeties to start over him. 

Joseph could still see a significant role though, since Joyner could be on the slot a fair amount in sub packages. Cornerback was a position of weakness for the Raiders in 2018, when they started 6 different players, and only 3 of those players remain. In addition to drafting a safety in the first round, they also used a second round pick on Clemson cornerback Travyon Mullen. He’ll compete for the outside cornerback spots with holdovers Gareon Conley, Daryl Worley, and Nick Nelson. 

Conley seems to have the best shot to lock down a starting job. Injuries have limited him to just in 14 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but he was a first round pick in 2017 and has played pretty well when on the field. He played a career 679 snaps last season and, only in his age 24 season, could easily take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league in 2019 if he can stay healthy. That’s far from a guarantee though.

Daryl Worley and the rookie Trayvon Mullen have the best shot to win the other starting job. Worley has made 34 starts in 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2016 and is still only in his age 24 season, but has been an underwhelming player and finished last season as PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying on 505 snaps. He could easily lose a training camp competition to Mullen, though Mullen wouldn’t necessarily be a huge upgrade.

2018 4th round pick Nick Nelson could also be in the mix for a role outside, but mostly likely he’ll try to carve out a role on the slot, where he played 230 of 311 snaps as a rookie. Nelson struggled mightily as a rookie and doesn’t have the size or speed to play outside, so he may be best as a dime cornerback. The Raiders have some promising young defensive backs and the addition of LaMarcus Joyner in free agency should help, but this isn’t a great group either. By default, it’s their best defensive unit.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Raiders are rebuilding from the ground up around Derek Carr. Their offense should be better with the additions of Trent Brown, Antonio Brown, and Tyrell Williams, but most of their defensive additions were either rookies and washed up veteran flyers, with defensive back LaMarcus Joyner being the one exception. They have some upside on defense and it wouldn’t be hard for them to be better than they were last season defensively, but this still looks like one of the least talented teams in the league on paper.

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in AFC West

Team Score: 72.00 (29th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 73.67

Defensive Score: 70.33

Team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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