Las Vegas Raiders 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After the 2017 season, the Raiders decided to take things in a drastic new direction. They were coming off of a 6-10 season and, while they were 12-4 the season before, they were never as good as their record suggested that season (19th in first down rate differential at -0.49%) and that was their only playoff appearance since 2002. To try to turn back the clock to their recent glory days, the Raiders gave former head coach (1998-2001) and at the time ESPN Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden a 10-year, 100 million dollar deal that not only gave him total job security, but complete control over the roster. 

Even though Gruden didn’t inherit a bad roster, he wasted no time starting to rebuild the team the way he wanted to, armed with complete job security. He made several major personnel changes in his first off-season, but none were bigger than trading Khalil Mack, one of the top defensive players in the league, to the Bears for a pair of first round picks. Obviously losing a player like Mack is a significant blow, but the Raiders would have had to pay him upwards of 22 million annually to keep him long-term and the money they saved by not extending him and the draft picks they received by trading him gave Gruden significant long-term flexibility with this roster.

The short term results have not been good. In Gruden’s first season, the Raiders fell to 4-12 and finished 28th in the league in first down rate differential at -4.96%. In his second season, the Raiders seemed better, winning 7 games, but they still ranked 29th in the league in first down rate differential at -5.27%. All 7 of their wins were close games, decided by 8 points or fewer, including a few that easily could have gone the other way, while 6 of their 9 losses came by 18 points or more, giving them a -106 point differential on the season, which is much more in line with a 4-5 win team than a 7-win team. The offense wasn’t really the problem last season, as they ranked a middle of the pack 17th in first down rate at 35.39%, but their defense ranked dead last in first down rate allowed at 40.66%. I’ll get into their defense later, but it will be impossible for the Raiders to take a step forward in 2020 if their defense continues to play at that level.

Given how much has changed since Gruden arrived and that Gruden’s background is with quarterbacks, there has been constant speculation since Gruden arrived that he would look for an alternative to starting quarterback Derek Carr. Instead, Carr has actually started all 32 games since Gruden took over, one of the few parts of this team that hasn’t changed. A 2nd round pick by the Raiders in 2014, Carr has started 94 of 96 possible games in 6 seasons in the league and has generally been a solid starter, finishing in the top-21 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons, including a 5th ranked finish in 2016 and a 10th ranked finish in 2015. Carr’s first season in Gruden’s system was one of the worst of his career, as he finished 21st among quarterbacks on PFF, but he was noticeably improved in his second season with Gruden, moving back up to 12th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2019.

That doesn’t mean Gruden hasn’t looked for alternatives though, as it’s simply that none of the reclamation projects Gruden has taken on (Mike Glennon, Nathan Peterman, DeShone Kizer, AJ McCarron) have even developed into capable backups and that Gruden hasn’t found a quarterback to his liking in the draft yet. This off-season, Gruden added a quarterback that has the best chance of anyone yet to dethrone Carr as the starter, signing Marcus Mariota from the Titans and paying a high price to do so, giving him a 2-year, 17.6 million dollar deal that suggests he’s viewed as a little bit more than a true backup. 

The Raiders have publicly backed Carr this off-season and he figures to be the week 1 starter, but as Mariota knows from being on the opposite side of this last season when the Titans added Ryan Tannehill in the off-season, sometimes things can change quickly when you have an experienced veteran backup behind you on the depth chart. Titans’ offense got much better when Tannehill was inserted into the lineup for Mariota last season and Mariota typically did not lead effective offenses in 61 starts in Tennessee, but he also showed some promise, including 14th and 18th ranked finishes among quarterbacks on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Still in his age 27 season, the former #2 overall pick definitely has the upside to end up under center for another team at some point and it’s very possible his eventual second stint as a starter will end up being better than his first, so he was a worthwhile flyer for the Raiders, even though he didn’t come cheap. He’s not a guarantee to dethrone Carr this season and he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade if he did, but I don’t expect Mariota’s days as a starter to be totally finished. With a solid starter and a capable alternative, this is a pretty good quarterback situation.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with getting an improved season from Derek Carr from 2018 to 2019, another big reason why the Raiders’ offense was better in 2019 than 2018 was the addition of talented running back Josh Jacobs with the 24th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, one of the two first rounders they got in the Khalil Mack trade. Jacobs was limited to 13 games by injury and was not 100% for most of the season, but he still rushed for 1,150 yards and 7 touchdowns on 242 carries (4.75 YPC), with 3.48 YPC of his yardage coming after contact and a position leading 69 broken tackles as a runner. He wasn’t just breaking big runs either, as he also had the 14th highest carry success rate of any running back in the league at 51%, consistently keeping this offense on track. All in all, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back in rushing grade.

The one area where Jacobs wasn’t a factor as a rookie was in the passing game, totalling just 20 catches on 27 targets all season. Jacobs wasn’t used much in the passing game in college either, but there was some speculation he could see a bigger role in the passing game in his second season in the league in 2020. The chances of that happening would seem to have dropped significantly when the Raiders used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden. 

One of the most interesting prospects in the draft, Bowden played both receiver and option quarterback in college, but he saw carries at both of those positions and the Raiders are expected to use the 5-11 204 pounder as a passing down running back, a role he’s likely to see action in immediately. The Raiders could also use him on some trick plays, especially with his ability to play wildcat quarterback and at least keep teams honest in the passing game.

Aside from trick plays, the Raiders didn’t really seem to need Bowden because they have Jalen Richard, who had a 68/607/0 slash line in 2018 and then followed that up with a 36/232/0 slash line in 2019 and who also has a career 5.02 YPC average on 233 carries in 4 seasons in the league. However, there are enough targets for running backs in this offense for both Bowden and Richard to have a role, with DeAndre Washington also adding a 36/292/0 slash line last season. Both Bowden and Richard could surpass 30 catches, but neither is likely to have a big role as a runner behind Jacobs, who could surpass 300 carries and push for the rushing title if he can stay healthy this season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

This offense also got good play on the offensive line last season, with all five starters earning average or better grades from Pro Football Focus. In 2020, not only do they return all five starters, but they also could be even healthier, as only one of the five played all 16 games last season and they only had their expected starting five together for 4 full games all season. If they can stay relatively healthy, they should be an even better offensive line this season.

Left tackle Kolton Miller was their only 16-game starter last season and he was arguably their worst starter, though he still earned an average grade from PFF, which was a big step forward from his rookie year in 2018 when he finished 81st out of 85 qualifiers at his position. Miller was a reach as the 15th overall pick, but he still profiles as a solid starter long-term and could take another step forward in his third season in the league in 2020.

On the other side, right tackle Trent Brown was the most banged up starter they had upfront, as he was limited to 582 snaps on the season and frequently played through multiple injuries even when on the field. He still finished 35th among offensive tackles on PFF, his third straight season with an above average grade (40th among offensive tackles in 2018 and 27th in 2017), but he’s also missed 11 games with injury over that stretch. He’s still in his prime in his age 27 season and he should remain a solid starter when on the field this season, but he’s not as good as his 4-year, 66 million dollar contract suggests, as he’s the 2nd highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary, only behind the Eagles’ Lane Johnson. He’s a good player, but not on that level.

At guard, Richie Incognito made 12 starts on the left side, while Gabe Jackson made 11 starts on the right side. Jackson was only about an average starter, but he’s been better in the past, finishing in the top-32 among guards on PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last season, including a pair of top-15 finishes in 2016 and as recently as 2018. Injuries were likely part of the reason for his struggles last season and he has obvious bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, but it’s worth noting that injuries have kind of piled up for him in recent years (10 games missed over the past 3 seasons, while being limited in several others), so even if he bounces back a little bit, it’s very possible his best days are behind him. 

Incognito, meanwhile, is coming off of a better season, finishing 11th among guards on PFF, but he’s going into his age 37 season. Incognito has had a crazy career that has included two full seasons missed for off-the-field reasons, among other missed time, but he’s continued to get chances because of how well he’s played, finishing in the top-23 among guards on PFF in each of the past 8 seasons in which he’s played, dating back to 2010 (115 starts). He’s hardly a reliable player, especially given his age, but unless his abilities significantly fall off or he gets in serious trouble again, he should remain at least a capable starter in 2020.

Center Rodney Hudson was mostly healthy last season, missing only about a game and a half. He was once again one of the top centers in the league, ranking 11th among centers on PFF, his 6th straight season in the top-11 among centers, including a pair of top-5 finishes in 2016 and 2018. Hudson’s age is becoming a minor concern in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down yet and he’s been pretty healthy in recent years, missing just 4 games over the past 7 seasons. He anchors an offensive line that should be at least an above average unit again, returning their starting five from last year, hopefully getting better health, and also still having top reserves like David Sharpe and Denzelle Good around just in case.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The one group that didn’t help Derek Carr much last season was this receiving corps. Tight end Darren Waller had a 90/1145/3 slash line, which gave him the second most yards of any tight end in the league, while slot receiver Hunter Renfrow averaged 2.09 yards per route run, 11th most among wide receivers, but Renfrow is a slot only option who was limited to 13 games last season and the Raiders really lacked consistent play at the outside receiver spots. 

In order to try to correct that, the Raiders used a first round pick on Alabama’s Henry Ruggs and a third round pick on South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards. They also hope to get a healthier season from Tyrell Williams, who was held to 1.58 yards per route run and a 42/651/6 slash line in the first year of a 4-year, 44.3 million dollar contract the Raiders signed him to as a free agent last off-season. With Renfrow locked in on the slot, those three will compete for outside receiver snaps.

Edwards will have a shot to earn time, but is likely a long-shot for a top-3 role, given that Ruggs went higher than him in the draft and that Williams is highly paid. Williams isn’t a guarantee to play as well as his contract, however, even if he can stay healthier than he did last season. Williams had a 69/1059/7 slash line in 2016 as Philip Rivers’ #1 option and he ranked 30th among wide receivers on PFF that season, but he’s averaged just a 42/677/5 slash line over the past 3 seasons, while earning middling grades from PFF, so he’s more of a complementary receiver than a #1 receiver. He may need to be their de facto top outside receiver for another year though, as Ruggs may be too raw for that role as a rookie. The Raiders should be better at the outside receiver spots in 2020 than 2019, but this is still a questionable group.

Renfrow still looks like their most reliable wide receiver, given how much promise he showed as a mere 5th round rookie last season, and he could easily see more playing time this season, after seeing limited snaps early last season and then missing time with injury later in the season, but he’s capped on the amount he can play because he’s only a slot option at 5-10 185 and he was pretty NFL ready when he came into the league and, already going into his age 25 season, without high end athleticism, it’s possible he’s already very close to his ceiling. He could easily develop into an above average slot option, but he’s hardly true a #1 option.

Tight end Darren Waller will likely remain their #1 option, though he may not have the same target share as he had last season, when he ranked 2nd among tight ends with a 22.4% target share (117 of 523 pass attempts), given that this should be a more talented receiving corps overall. Waller showed very little as a blocker, but his performance as a receiver was so good that he still finished 5th overall among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Given where Waller was a couple years ago, he’s really come a long way, in more ways than one.

A 6th round pick by the Ravens in 2015, Waller was very raw when he entered the league, only catching 44 passes as a big wide receiver on a run heavy wishbone offense at Georgia Tech, but he’s always had the upside to develop into a mismatch at the tight end position because of his combination of size and athletic ability. However, he never developed in Baltimore due to drug problems, catching just 12 passes in 2015 and 2016 before being suspended for all of the 2017 season and ultimately getting released by the Ravens ahead of the 2018 season.

Waller eventually got clean and signed with the Raiders, who he played 42 snaps for late in the 2018 season (6 catches), before having a breakout off-season and a breakout season in 2019, with his drug problems behind him, hopefully for good. He’s still a one-year wonder and might not be as productive in 2020 due to sheer regression, even if he does get the same target share as last season, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and he should continue being an above average pass catching tight end for years to come if he can avoid relapsing.

The Raiders signed veteran tight end Jason Witten this off-season, but he’s unlikely to eat into Waller’s targets as much as the wide receivers. Witten was one of the best receiving tight ends in the league in his prime, averaging a 90/994/5 slash line from 2007-2013, but now he’s going into his age 38 season. He still had a 63/529/4 slash line last season, but that was primarily due to opportunity, as he averaged just 1.19 yards per route run on a good Cowboys offense last season and earned a below average grade from PFF overall. 

Witten is still a capable blocker who can catch some passes as an underneath option in two tight end sets, but he’s much more of a replacement for Foster Moreau, who had a 21/174/5 slash line last season as a 4th round rookie, than a threat to any of Waller’s playing time. With Moreau moving into the #3 role, I would expect similar production from Witten in a receiving corps that is improved, but still lacks a legitimate #1 receiver.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

Given that the Raiders had the worst defense in the league last season in terms of first down rate allowed, there is nowhere to go but up for this unit. The interior defender spot was their best position last season, as Maurice Hurst and PJ Hall had the two highest grades on Pro Football Focus of any Raiders defender last season, finishing 30th and 46th respectively among interior defenders on PFF, while Johnathan Hankins earned a middling grade. Those three split snaps pretty evenly, with Hurst playing 522 snaps, Hall playing 551 snaps, and Hankins playing 670 snaps and this season they add ex-Cowboy Maliek Collins to the mix on a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. All four could see pretty equal playing time if all four can stay healthy.

Hurst is still the best of the bunch, earning above average grades from PFF on 522 snaps and 472 snaps in two seasons in the league. He’s a capable run stuffer, but he brings the most value as an interior pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate in his career. Hurst was just a 5th round pick in 2018, but could have gone much higher if not for a medical condition that has yet to be a concern, so he projects as a long-term above average starter. Hall, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in that same draft and, while he hasn’t been quite as good as Hurst, he still earned an average grade from PFF on 512 snaps as a rookie in 2018 before taking a step forward in 2019 and he could easily keep getting better. He’s more of a base package player than a sub package rusher, but he can play in both situations.

Hankins figures to continue to see a significant role in base packages. The 7-year veteran has never been much of a pass rusher, with 13.5 sacks and a 6.2% pressure rate in 98 career games, but he’s earned an above average grade as a run stuffer in every season he’s been in the league and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he should be able to keep it up. Collins, meanwhile, struggles against the run, but has developed a capable interior pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 8 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate last season. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being that level of a player, but he has a 7.9% pressure rate for his career and the 2016 3rd round pick could theoretically keep getting better, still only in his age 25 season. This is a deep position group.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Raiders also added edge defender Carl Nassib this off-season on a 3-year, 25.25 million dollar deal. A 3rd round pick by the Browns in 2016, Nassib was pretty underwhelming in his first two seasons in Cleveland, leading to him being released ahead of final cuts in 2018, but he proved the Browns gave up too early on him, earning slightly above average grades from Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons with the Buccaneers, on snap totals of 598 and 630. He’s best against the run, but has also added 12.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate over the past two seasons as well.

Nassib may not start at defensive end in this 4-3 defense, but he’ll at least be heavily involved as a rotational player, at a position group where reserves Arden Key, Benson Mayowa, and Josh Mauro all struggled last season. Nassib may even rotate evenly with nominal starters Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, who are both going into their second season in the league. Crosby led this team with 10 sacks, but his peripheral pass rush snaps (6 hits, 9.4% pressure rate) weren’t as good and he struggled against the run, so he only ended up with an average grade overall from PFF on 750 snaps. He still exceeded expectations for a 4th round rookie and he projects as a solid starter long-term, but he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested and he’s not a guarantee to get better this season.

Ferrell, meanwhile, should be better this season, as the 2019 4th overall pick has a high upside and, though he earned a middling grade overall for his rookie season, he was significantly better down the stretch, ranking 8th among edge defenders on PFF from week 12 on. He might not be able to continue that over a full 16 game season and he was primarily a run stuffer, with a mediocre 7.4% pressure rate overall as a rookie, but he projects as an above average starter and could take a step forward both as a pass rusher and against the run in 2020. Nassib, Ferrell, and Crosby should play the vast majority of the snaps at this position, but Arden Key, a 2018 3rd round pick who has struggled on 823 career snaps, would be the top reserve if needed. Even though he hasn’t played well yet in his career, he still has upside and he’s not a bad #4 end in what is a decent position group overall, even if they lack a high level player at the position.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Raiders’ big off-season addition this year was middle linebacker Cory Littleton, who comes over from the Rams on a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal that makes him the 9th highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL in average annual salary. An undrafted free agent in 2016, Littleton worked his way from a reserve and practice squadder in his first two seasons in the league to a capable starter in 2018, when he finished 35th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, to a dominant season in 2019, in which he finished 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF, leading to the Raiders signing him to a big contract. Littleton is a one-year wonder as a top level player and may not be able to repeat his career best year from 2019, but he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season and should remain an above average every down off ball linebacker at the very least.

The Raiders also signed ex-Bear Nick Kwiatkoski to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal and he figures to play every down outside in this 4-3 defense. A 4th round pick in 2016, Kwiatkowski has never been a regular starter, making just 22 starts in 4 seasons in the league as a spot starter, but he’s fared well in his last two extended starting stints, finishing 10th among off ball linebackers on PFF on 382 snaps in 2017 and 16th on 512 snaps last season. He deserves to get a shot at a full-time starting role and the Raiders will give it to him. He’s a projection to that role, but could easily end up as an above average starter, still only in his age 27 season.

Littleton and Kwiatkowski are big additions because the Raiders’ linebacking corps was led by Tahir Whitehead (941 snaps) and Nicholas Morrow (728 snaps) last season and they finished 68th and 90th respectively among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF. Whitehead is gone, but Morrow remains on the team and will compete for the 3rd linebacker job, which would play only in base packages. Morrow isn’t a lock for that role though, as the 2017 undrafted free agent has struggled mightily throughout his 3 seasons in the league and will have to fend off 3rd round rookie Tanner Muse to even keep a part-time role. This is a solid group thanks to off-season additions.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Raiders also made a few additions to their secondary this off-season. At cornerback, they signed veteran Prince Amukamara to a deal that barely pays him more than the league minimum, which could be a steal for a player who was still a solid starter last season in Chicago and who was only released because the cap-strapped Bears didn’t want to pay his 9 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. 

Amukamara is going into his age 31 season and has only played all 16 games in a season once in 9 years, but he’s also played at least 13 games in 6 of 9 seasons and he has earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of his past 8 seasons as a starter (99 starts), including a 13th ranked finish as recently as 2018. Even if he declines in 2020, he should be able to be at least an average starter. 

Amukamara was signed after the Raiders drafted Damon Arnette 19th overall this past April and, with Arnette still being a raw prospect, Amukamara should at least open the season as the starter, unless Arnette has a big training camp. It’s possible both Amukamara and Arnette could start outside, but that’s unlikely, as 2019 2nd round pick Trayvon Mullen is likely locked into a starting role after holding his own on 675 snaps (10 starts) as a rookie. Mullen could easily take a step forward in 2020 after a middling first season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee.

At safety, the Raiders added veteran Damarious Randall on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal and he could prove to be a steal as well, as he has started and has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons with the Browns. The former first round pick struggled earlier in his career at cornerback with the Packers, but is a more natural fit at safety. Injuries that cost him 5 games last season may have depressed his market and he’s never made it through a full 16 game season without missing at least a game in 5 seasons in the league, but as long as he’s healthy he should be at least a solid starter.

The Raiders also get 2019 first round pick Johnathan Abram back, after an injury limited him to 48 snaps as a rookie. Abram is still unproven, but he has a high upside and getting him back is like having an extra first round pick. The Raiders also have plenty of depth options at safety, as Erik Harris, who has held his own in 18 starts over the past two seasons with the Raiders, and free agent signing Jeff Heath, who has been a capable starter over the past three seasons in Dallas (44 starts), are both available as depth options.

Given how deep they are at safety, the Raiders are likely to leave LaMarcus Joyner at slot cornerback, even though he struggled mightily there last season, in the first year of a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal, and even though his best days with the Rams prior to signing with the Raiders were at free safety. Joyner finished 2nd among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 28th in 2018, but fell to 126th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks last season. 

A 2014 2nd round pick, Joyner also struggled at cornerback earlier in his career, so it should be clear that safety is his best spot, but he looks likely to remain at slot cornerback given the other personnel in this secondary. Other slot options would include 4th round rookie Amik Robertson and 2019 4th round pick Isaiah Johnson, who played 14 snaps as a rookie, and neither of those players would be reliable options. Much like this defense as a whole, this secondary still has some problems, but looks to be significantly improved from last year’s league worst unit.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Oakland Raiders were not as good as their record in 2019, with all seven of their wins coming by 8 points or fewer and 6 of their 9 losses coming by 18 points or more, but there are reasons to believe this team can play significantly better than last season, now in their first season in Las Vegas. The big one is simply that they’re more talent after some smart off-season additions, particularly on defense, where they still have problems, but figure to be much improved from last year’s league worst season. 

The Raiders also should be healthier this season, after losing the 7th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, which will especially matter on offense, where their desired offensive line and top running back Josh Jacobs rarely all were on the field at the same time. Led by this running game and offensive line and Derek Carr setting up play action off the run, this offense could take a big step forward this season along with their improved defense. They’re starting from a lower base point than most realize because they were much worse than their record suggested last season, so they might not have a big increase in win total, but they should be in the mix for one of the three wild cards in the AFC.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.57

Defensive Score: 72.29

Total Score: 74.43 (3rd in AFC West)

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