Three off-seasons ago, the Raiders hired their former head coach Jon Gruden out of the broadcasting booth after a decade away from the game and gave him 10-year, 100 million dollar deal and final say on the 53-man roster. Gruden immediately got to work overhauling this roster, to the point where just the Raiders have just one significant contributor from each side of the ball remaining from the 2017 roster, quarterback Derek Carr and strangely enough linebacker Nicholas Morrow.
The decision to hire Gruden and give him all that money was questionable, but overhauling the roster wasn’t a bad idea. The Raiders were just a season removed from a 12-4 campaign in 2016, but they benefited significantly from a league leading +16 turnover margin and a 9-2 record in one score games (5-0 in games decided by 3 points or fewer), actually finishing with a negative first down rate differential at -0.33%, just 19th in the NFL.
Predictably, the Raiders did not continue their strong turnover margin and dominant record in close games into 2017, finishing at -14 in turnover margin and 4-4 in one score games and, as a result, they fell all the way to 6-10, despite having a very similar first down rate differential at -0.67%. One strategy would have been to bring back the core of that 2016-2017 team, hoping they could be closer to 2016 than 2017 going forward, but a look behind the scenes at the numbers that led to their success in 2016 showed that to be unlikely.
Instead, with complete control and job security, Gruden began a rebuild, with his most notable move being his decision to send dominant edge defender Khalil Mack, just a year removed from winning DPOY, to the Chicago Bears for a pair of first round picks, rather than locking Mack up on an expensive long-term deal. Moving a player of Mack’s caliber is not always a smart decision, but given how much the Raiders would have had to pay him to keep him and the return they got for him, it was an understandable move and in line with the Raiders’ plans to trade some short-term success for long-term gain.
However, while those plans made sense at the start, that plan has gone awry due to consistently head scratching personnel decisions made by Gruden, which only got worse when long-time GM Reggie McKenzie went out the door, replaced by another broadcaster, NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, who, unlike Gruden, didn’t even have previous a track record of success in the NFL. The Raiders did a good job creating draft capital and financial flexibility on this roster early in their rebuild, but they have failed to take advantage of those assets.
The result has been three straight seasons without a winning record, four including their last season before Gruden, which is actually quite a bit considering the parity in the NFL. Going 4-12 in their first season with Gruden was to be expected, especially with Mack being traded on the eve of the season and the draft compensation they acquired for him not being able to be used until the following draft, but they’ve finished just 7-9 and 8-8 respectively over that past two years and it’s arguably been worse than that suggests.
In their 7-win season in 2019, all of their wins came by one score or fewer, as opposed to six losses by 18 points or fewer, giving them a point differential of -106 on the season (27th in the NFL) and a first down rate differential of -2.58% (also 27th in the NFL). In their 8-8 season in 2020, a similar thing happened as 7 of their 8 wins came by 10 points or fewer, while four of their eight losses came by 16 points or fewer, giving them a point differential of -44 (21st in the NFL) and a schedule adjusted first down rate differential of -1.28% (23rd in the NFL).
In total, the Raiders are 14-7 in games decided by 10 points or fewer over the past two seasons, which would be unlikely to continue going forward for any team, but especially for a team like the Raiders who is otherwise just 1-10 in games decided by more than 10 points. Including their 4-win season in 2018, the Raiders are one of just four teams to finish 23rd or worse in first down rate differential in each of the past three seasons, joining the Bengals, Jets, and Jaguars. Simply put, the Raiders will likely need to be significantly better than they’ve been to have a shot at the post-season in 2021, as they are unlikely to continue winning close games at as high of a rate as they have in recent years.
If there was a reason for the Raiders to be optimistic after the past two seasons it was that their issues were largely concentrated on defense, which ranked 32nd and 28th in first down rate allowed, while their offense has been pretty solid, ranking 14th in first down rate allowed in both seasons. Offensive performance tends to be much more consistent on a year-to-year basis than defensive performance, so teams with a profile like the Raiders typically see their defenses improve the next season while their offense is likely to remain around the same level.
That might not happen for the Raiders this season though because the strength of this offense, their offensive line, was basically dismantled this off-season to free up cap space. With a much worse group upfront this season, life will be much tougher for both the Raiders passing game and their running game. I’ll get most into their offensive line later, but, while most quarterbacks get much worse under pressure, the difference has been drastic for the Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in his 7-year career, as he has a 136/34 TD/INT ratio with a clean pocket and just a 34/37 TD/INT ratio when pressured.
Carr has mostly been well protected in recent years and it has led to some solid play from him, as he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season except his rookie season, including four finishes in the top-12 and a 9th ranked finish in 2020, while completing 65.6% of his passes for an average of 7.31 YPA, 149 touchdowns, and 59 interceptions over those six seasons. However, if he’s pressured more often this season, which seems likely, we could see him struggle a lot more than usual.
The most likely path the Raiders have to success this season actually is probably one that involves Carr being on another team, as the Raiders, despite the holes on this roster, reportedly join the Saints, Broncos, and 49ers as teams on the wish list of Packers quarterback and reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers, who is unhappy with the Packers and seeking a trade. The other three teams on Rodgers’ wish list are all better teams than the Raiders, but the 49ers got their quarterback of the future in the draft and the Saints probably don’t have the financial flexibility to acquire Rodgers, which only leaves the Broncos and Raiders as possible options.
It’s still pretty unlikely that Rodgers is actually able to force a trade when his only leverage would be sitting out what could be one of his last prime seasons rather than returning to a team he’s brought to back-to-back NFC Championships and if Rodgers does get moved, the Broncos give Rodgers a much better chance to win, but there is at least a possibility that the Packers would prefer to send Rodgers to the Raiders, given that Carr would give the Packers a better stopgap quarterback via trade than Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater.
It’s at least enough of a possibility that I held out on writing this preview until close to the end (the Broncos, Texans, and Packers are still left to do), but I would consider it a remote possibility at best at this point. Even acquiring Rodgers wouldn’t fix the significant problems on this roster and the upgrade from Carr to Rodgers alone would be unlikely to result in a deep playoff run, as the Raiders have a noticeably worse roster than the Packers. However, as it stands right now, they don’t seem to have much of a shot at all and acquiring Rodgers is the only possible move they could make to put themselves into any sort of real contention in 2021.
Regardless if they get Rodgers or not, Marcus Mariota figures to be the backup quarterback, taking a pay cut down to 3.5 million to stay on the roster this off-season. Mariota was the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and wasn’t that bad across 61 starts (29-32) with the Titans in the first five seasons of his career, completing 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.48 YPA, 76 touchdowns, and 44 interceptions, with his best seasons coming in 2017 (14th on PFF) and 2018 (18th on PFF), but he’s drawn little interest as a starter over the past two off-seasons and instead gives the Raiders one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league.
Carr has missed very little time with injury in his career, making all but two career starts, despite bogus rumors about teammates questioning his toughness, so it wouldn’t seem like the Raiders would need a high level backup quarterback, but all it takes is one fluke injury for the backup quarterback position to become the most important position on the roster and Mariota was also likely originally brought to town to potentially push Carr for the starting job.
Mariota hasn’t done that, but he did play pretty well in relief of an injured Carr in one game last season and it’s possible the Raiders wouldn’t see much drop off at the quarterback position even if Carr missed time with injury, although it’s hard to see Mariota leading this roster to many wins. The quarterback position isn’t the problem with the Raiders, but they’re unlikely to get good enough play to compensate for the rest of this roster unless they can swing a deal for Aaron Rodgers.
As mentioned in the opening, the Raiders’ revamped offensive line will be the group to watch this season, after moving on from a trio of highly paid 2020 week one starters. Right guard Gabe Jackson was traded to the Seahawks ahead of a 9.6 million dollar salary, after making all 16 starts and finishing slightly above average on PFF. Center Rodney Hudson was traded to the Cardinals ahead of a 10.85 million dollar salary and he was PFF’s 8th ranked center last season in 16 starts. Right tackle Trent Brown was traded to the Patriots ahead of a 14 million dollar salary and, while will be missed the least, that is only because injuries limited him to 5 games in 2020, as he was an above average starter when healthy and had obvious bounce back potential in 2021 if he could have stayed healthy.
Even though the Raiders would have just released them if they couldn’t find trade partners, those trades still netted the Raiders draft picks in the 3rd and 5th round in 2021 and the 5th round in 2022, in exchange for 7th rounders in 2021 and 2022, and they freed up significant money as well, which could help in the long-term, but it’s hard on paper to see how they plan on effectively replacing them in the short-term.
The money they freed up allowed them to make some additions to their defense this off-season, but they also had to use their first round pick on an offensive lineman just to stop the bleeding after losing three above average starters and, makes matters worse, they reached on one, in typical Raiders fashion, taking a player generally considered to be a late first round pick at best in Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood. That doesn’t mean he won’t become a starter long-term, but he could struggle to adjust to the NFL in year one.
The Raiders similarly reached on an offensive tackle in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Kolton Miller 15th overall and, while his career got off to a shaky start, he has developed into a solid starter, even if the Raiders still probably would have been better off taking one of the next five players off the board who have all since made a Pro Bowl. Miller’s rookie year was a disaster as he finished 81st out of 85 eligible offensive tackles, but he jumped up to 44th in 2019 and then 35th in 2020, while making 46 of a possible 48 starts in his career. Going into his age 26 season, he may still have further untapped potential and, even if he levels off, he should remain a solid starter for at least the next few seasons. The Raiders are betting on the former, paying him at the top of the left tackle market on a 3-year, 54 million dollar extension this off-season, adding on to the two years remaining on his rookie deal.
Along with Miller, the Raiders also brought back left guard Richie Incognito, who is more of a re-addition than a re-signing, as he missed all but 74 snaps due to injury last season. Incognito played at a high level in that limited action and has earned an above average grade from PFF in each of his past 11 seasons, including a 11th ranked finish among guards in 12 starts in 2019, but now he’s going into his age 38 season and coming off of a significant injury, so it’s hard to see him continue playing at the level he has played at throughout most of his career. He could have another strong season, but I think it’s more likely he falls off entirely. If he does, the Raiders are already pretty thin upfront, but they could turn to 2020 4th round pick John Simpson, even though he struggled mightily across 252 rookie year snaps last season.
Simpson could also push to start at right guard, where the Raiders otherwise seem likely to start Denzelle Good, who struggled in 14 starts in place of Incognito last season, finishing 64th out of 92 eligible guards on PFF. Good had only made 28 starts in 5 seasons in the league prior to last season as a career reserve and he was never more than a middling starter in spot start action, so he seems likely to struggle as a season long starter, if he does in fact win the job for the first time in his career at age 30. Fellow veteran Patrick Omameh also has some starting experience (58 starts in 7 seasons in the league), but he was an underwhelming starter even in his prime, he’s played just 226 snaps in the past two seasons, and he’s going into his age 32 season, so he would likely struggle as well if pressed into action. Whoever starts will almost definitely be a downgrade from Gabe Jackson.
The Raiders will likely be downgrading even more at center, even how well Hudson still played last season, despite getting up there in age. Veteran Nick Martin was signed in free agency and he has plenty of experience for his age, making 62 starts over the past 4 seasons and now heading into his age 28 season, but he’s never finished higher than 19th among centers on PFF and finished last season 33rd out of 39 eligible, leading to the Texans releasing him just 1 year and 17.5 million into a 3-year, 33 million dollar extension that he never deserved. Only signing with the Raiders on a 1-year, 1.25 million dollar contract suggests he is far from a lock to win the starting job, particularly with in house backup Andre James being kept on a more lucrative 2-year, 8.65 million dollar deal this off-season as a restricted free agent.
James has struggled mightily across just 117 snaps as Hudson’s backup since going undrafted in 2019, but the Raiders like him enough to pay him more than Martin, so he could easily find himself in the starting lineup. James would almost definitely struggle in a season long role though, unless he takes a huge step forward in his third season in the league. While Martin is likely their best option, he could be an underwhelming starter as well at what has become a position of weakness at center. Right guard should also be a position of weakness and the Raiders are relying on a rookie at right tackle and a 38-year-old at left guard. This is far from the consistently above average units the Raiders are used to having upfront in recent years.
Making the Raiders’ dismantling of their offensive line even weirder, they also used some of their new found financial flexibility to give a fully guaranteed 2-year, 11 million dollar deal to ex-Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake. Offensive line play is more important than running back play when it comes to running the football, so if the Raiders’ goal is to improve their running game, they are going about it wrong, but, beyond that, they already committed a first round pick to a running back two years ago, selecting Joshua Jacobs 24th overall.
It’s always questionable when a team commits a first round pick to a running back, especially one who didn’t figure to be a significant threat through the air, which he hasn’t been (1.07 yards per route run average for his career), but Jacobs has at least been a threat on the ground, so making another significant investment in a running back didn’t seem necessary. Jacobs did see his YPC average drop from 4.75 as a rookie to 3.90 last season, but a lack of long runs was the primary culprit, which is something that varies significantly year-to-year.
As a rookie, Jacobs had 32.3% of his yardage on 16 carries of 15+ yards or more, but in 2020 he never surpassed 28 yards on a single carry and had just 17.6% of his yardage on 10 carries of 15+ yards or more. However, his above average 51% carry success rate stayed steady in both seasons, which is a metric that tends to be much more consistent year-to-year than long breakaway runs. PFF charted Jacobs as more explosive, breaking more tackles, and having more yards per carry as a rookie, but he still earned well above average grades as a runner in both seasons, finishing 2nd among running backs in rushing grade in 2019 and 14th in 2020.
Had they brought back most of his offensive line and kept him as the primary back, Jacobs could have easily had a season resembling his rookie campaign in 2021, still only his age 23 season, but with a downgraded offensive line in front of him and a likely timeshare with Kenyan Drake, now Jacobs’ projection is a lot shakier. I would still expect him to lead this team in carries and he could be very effective in a more limited role, but he won’t reach the 18.4 carries per game he has averaged in his career and he’s unlikely to see much usage in the passing game either.
Drake comes in with a much less impressive track record than Jacobs, but he has had some success in his 5-year career, since being selected by the Dolphins in the 3rd round in 2016. Drake was a rotation back for the first three seasons of his career, only averaging 6.2 carries per game, but he did average an impressive 4.60 YPC, leading to the Cardinals acquiring him for a late round pick at the trade deadline in 2019, the final year of Drake’s rookie deal. With the Cardinals, Drake broke out as a feature back, seeing 123 carries over just 8 games and averaging 5.23 YPC with 8 touchdowns.
It was enough for the Cardinals to want to keep him as a free agent, but rather than committing significant money to him long-term, the Cardinals opted to give him the transition tag, keeping him for 8.483 million on a one-year deal. That proved to be the correct call as Drake couldn’t live up to his strong 8-game stretch over a full season, averaging just 4.00 YPC on 239 carries. He also continued to underwhelm in the passing game (1.05 yards per route run average for his career) with just a 25/137/0 slash line and overall finished a career worst 55th out of 63 eligible running backs on PFF. He could be more effective again in a limited role in 2021 and he and Jacobs should form a strong tandem, but they will be held back by their offensive line and the Raiders have a lot of resources committed to two backs who don’t contribute in a big way in the passing game.
The Raiders could continue giving passing game work to long-time passing down specialist Jalen Richard, who has an impressive 1.78 yards per route run average for his career, but he was being phased out of this offense even before Drake’s addition, as he averaged just 1.12 yards per route run and had just a 19/138/0 slash line in 2020. With just 255 carries in 77 career games, Richard is not going to make this roster for his running ability, so if he can’t earn a passing game role, he might not even make this final roster. This is a good backfield, albeit one that will likely be hampered by their blocking.
The Raiders wide receivers were a weakness a year ago and this group isn’t significantly improved this year, so, along with their offensive line being a concern, the Raiders wide receivers remain a concern as well. In fact, the Raiders actually lost their top wide receiver from a year ago, Nelson Agholor, who had a 48/896/8 slash line, averaged 2.04 yards per route run, and then subsequently signed with the Patriots this off-season. They still have slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, they brought in a pair of veterans in John Brown and Willie Snead, and they are hoping for more out of second year receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, but this is an underwhelming group overall.
Ruggs should have the most upside of the bunch, as he was selected 12th overall in 2020, but his rookie year went pretty badly, as he averaged just 1.32 yards per route run and was PFF’s 110th ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible, while playing just 581 snaps and totaling just a 26/452/2 slash line. He could be a lot better in year two, but, if he isn’t, he could struggle in what will likely be a larger role. Edwards, meanwhile, was the better of the two in year one, despite being just a third round pick, earning a middling grade and averaging 1.41 yards per route run. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue being better than Ruggs in year two, but he doesn’t have the same upside that Ruggs has.
John Brown is the more promising of their two veteran off-season additions, given that he is just a season removed from a thousand yard season in 2019, when he finished with a 72/1060/6 slash line, averaging 1.97 yards per route run, and finishing 23rd among wide receivers on PFF. That was the second 1000 yard year of Brown’s 7-year career, but he’s been pretty inconsistent overall, not topping 715 yards in any of his other seasons and falling to 33/458/3 in nine games in an injury plagued 2020 season.
Injuries have also been a problem for Brown throughout most of his career, part of why his production has been so inconsistent, as he’s only played all 16 games in a season twice. Now going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him, but he still averaged 1.60 yards per route run last season, albeit on a much better passing offense in Buffalo, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him bounce back somewhat and have a solid season in 2021.
Snead, meanwhile, is a middling slot option. He averaged 1.75 yards per route run early in his career in three seasons with Drew Brees and the Saints, but he struggled away from Brees, averaging just 1.37 yards per route run in three seasons with the Ravens. Working against his chances of earning playing time is Hunter Renfrow, the Raiders’ top returning wide receiver, who plays almost exclusively on the slot. The 5-10 185 pounder isn’t an option to play outside, but he’s averaged 1.90 yards per route run in two seasons in the league since being drafted by the Raiders in the 5th round in 2019, leading to slash lines of 49/605/4 and 56/656/2 respectively. He doesn’t have a huge upside, but I would expect more of the same from him in year three.
With their wide receivers remaining a question mark, the Raiders will continue focus on the tight end position in the passing game, particularly tight end Darren Waller, who operates as this team’s #1 receiver and finished with a 107/1196/9 slash line on 145 targets in 2020. That followed Waller having an improbable breakout season in 2019, finishing with a 90/1145/3 slash line, after playing sparingly in the first four seasons of his career from 2015-2018, totaling 335 snaps and 18 catches in 22 games and missing significant time while dealing with substance abuse issues.
Now past his issues, Waller has broken out as one of the top tight ends in the league. He isn’t much of a run blocker, but the 6-6 255 converted wide receiver is a matchup nightmare in the passing game, averaging 2.35 yards per route run over the past two seasons, leading to him finishing 5th and 3rd among tight ends overall on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, despite his deficiencies as a run blocker. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, despite being a late bloomer, I wouldn’t expect any drop off from him in 2021. He’s one of the top few tight ends in the entire league.
The Raiders also gave 27 targets to backup tight ends last season and, even though veteran Jason Witten (404 snaps, 13 catches) retired, those targets should remain open and the Raiders are still likely to give #2 tight end Foster Moreau at least some role in the passing game. That’s especially true because Moreau, a 4th round pick in 2019, has shown some promise in two seasons in the league, averaging 1.41 yards per route run. He won’t see much action behind a dominant tight end like Waller though. Waller’s presence elevates this group as a whole by a significant amount, making up for some of their issues at wide receiver.
With their offense likely to take a step back this season, from ranking 12th in first down rate over expected in 2020, the Raiders will need their defense to take a big step forward from ranking 27th in first down rate allowed over expected in 2020. The biggest effort they made towards that end this off-season was using a big chunk of the financial flexibility created from moving on from half of their offensive line to sign free agent edge defender Yannick Ngakoue to a 2-year, 26 million dollar deal in free agency.
Ngakoue has mostly struggled against the run and, as a result, he hasn’t finished higher than 33rd among edge defenders on PFF since 2017 when he finished 9th, now back four seasons ago in his second season in the league, but he’s been a very productive pass rusher over the past four seasons overall, totaling 37.5 sacks, 57 hits, and a 11.8% pressure rate over 62 games. He’s also still relatively young, going into his age 26 season and, had this been a normal off-season without a reduced cap, Ngakoue could have broken the bank in free agency. He wouldn’t have necessarily been worth huge money because of his issues against the run, but he looks like a good value on his current contract just based purely off his pass rush ability alone. He should help this defense in a significant way.
Ngakoue will start opposite Maxx Crosby, who has totalled 17 sacks over the past two seasons for the Raiders since being selected in the 4th round in 2019, but, despite his sack total, he has been in many ways part of the problem for this defense over the past two seasons. His peripheral pass rush stats are significantly worse than his sack totals, as he’s added just 15 hits and a 9.1% pressure rate and he’s been a liability against the run as well.
As a result, he’s earned underwhelming grades from PFF overall, including a 91st ranked finish out of 124 eligible edge defenders in 2020, when he had just a 9.0% pressure rate on the season. He’s seen very high snap totals (750 and 906) and could benefit from playing a smaller role in what the Raiders are hoping will be a significantly improved edge defender group, but he hasn’t been nearly as good on a per snap basis as his raw sack totals would suggest.
The Raiders also used a 3rd round pick on edge defender Malcolm Koonce, who could earn a significant role as a rookie. His addition doesn’t seem like good news for holdovers Clelin Ferrell (461 snaps) and Carl Nassib (463 snaps), but both could still see roles. Ferrell’s best path to playing time is probably playing on the interior more often, after already playing there on 36.1% of his pass rush snaps in 2020. Ferrell was widely panned when the Raiders selected him 4th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, but he’s not quite the bust you would think he was when you see his career sack total is just 6.5.
Ferrell struggled as a pass rusher as a rookie (7.4% pressure rate), but he’s consistently been a solid run stopper and his pass rush ability took a big step forward in year two, probably in part because of him playing on the interior more often. His sack total of 2 isn’t impressive, even compared to his rookie total of 4.5, but when you add the 8 hits and 10.9% pressure rate he had in just 11 games and take into account how often he was rushing the passer from the interior, he actually had a solid season as a pass rusher. Ferrell was never worth being the 4th overall pick, but if he had gone 20th, no one would consider him a bust yet, as he’s generally held up well across 42.7 snaps per game and he has the potential to have his best year yet in 2021, especially if he continues to benefit from lining up on the interior more often.
Nassib, meanwhile, is likely to be locked into a rotational role on the edge by virtue of the Raiders opting not to release him ahead of a 9.5 million dollar salary that has since fully guaranteed. Nassib was an overpay on a 3-year, 25.25 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and didn’t seem to be worth the investment in year one with the Raiders, when he posted a middling grade across just 33.1 snaps per game across 14 games as a rotational player.
Nassib has proven himself over larger snap counts of 643, 598, and 630 in 2017-2019 respectively, but he’s never been better than a middling player in his 5-year career and he has just a 8.9% pressure rate over the past four seasons, even discounting his rookie year when he struggled mightily. Nasib should continue giving them middling play as a rotational player in a group that is noticeably improved from a year ago, but still has noticeable concerns.
Clelin Ferrell will be needed more on the interior this season, as the Raiders did not bring back Maliek Collins (505 snaps) and Maurice Hurst (277 snaps), while fellow rotation player Kendall Vickers (315 snaps), struggled mightily in his limited action in 2020, finishing 119th among 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF in the 2018 undrafted free agent’s first career action. Collins struggled mightily as well last season, finishing 132nd among 139 eligible interior defenders, so he won’t be missed, but Hurst not returning is another strange move by the Raiders in recent years.
Hurst saw limited action in an injury plagued 2020 season, but he fared well when on the field, earning his 3rd straight above average grade from PFF in three seasons since being selected by the Raiders in the 5th round in 2018. Hurst saw more significant action in his first two seasons with 472 snaps in 2018 and 522 snaps in 2019 and, only going into his age 26 season, seemed more likely to have a fourth year breakout year than to get cut, but the Raiders released him to free up just 2.183 million. He’ll be most significantly missed as a pass rusher, as his 7.9% pressure rate from the interior is well above average.
The Raiders did make some other additions on the interior this off-season, signing veterans Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas in free agency. Along with Ferrell, holdover Johnathan Hankins, and possibly deep reserve Kendall Vickers, Jefferson and Thomas figure to see a role this season. Johnathan Hankins was the Raiders’ most consistent and dependable player at the position in 2020, but he only earned a middling grade over 665 snaps.
The 6-3 325 pound Hankins has earned an above average grade from PFF as a run defender in all eight seasons in the league, but his 5.9% career pressure rate leaves something to be desired and he’s only earned middling grades from PFF in three seasons with the Raiders, a stretch in which his pressure rate has fallen to 4.6%. Hankins is still only going into his age 29 season and could remain a solid starter, but his best days are probably behind him at this point.
Jefferson was the better of their two free agent additions, coming over from the Bills on a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, but he has some issues as well. The 6-4 291 pound converted defensive end is a solid pass rusher, with 9.5 sacks, 23 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate over the past three seasons combined, but he’s left something to be desired as a run stuffer and has never topped 589 snaps in a season. He should be a useful player for the Raiders, but only in a situational role.
Thomas was a more questionable signing though, especially on a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal. Thomas was the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but that is his only real selling point at this point in his career, after struggling across four seasons with the 49ers, including a 2020 season cut short to 49 snaps by a torn ACL. Thomas has played both inside and outside, but has earned below average grades from PFF in three of four seasons in the league, showing little against the run and totaling just 6 sacks, 19 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate as a pass rusher.
Thomas still has theoretical upside in his age 26 reason, but coming off of a major injury just dampens his outlook even more. I would be surprised to see him be significantly improved in 2021, even if he is moving to the interior full-time. This isn’t a bad interior defender group, but unless Ferrell moves inside full-time, their depth is suspect behind Hankins and Jefferson, who are an underwhelming starting duo in their own right. Why they kept Kendall Vickers, signed Solomon Thomas, and released Maurice Hurst I don’t understand, as Hurst could have been their best player in a now underwhelming position group overall in 2021
The Raiders’ big attempt at improving this defense last off-season was signing ex-Rams off ball linebacker Cory Littleton to a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal, but that went horribly in year one, as Littleton finished just 79th among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. Littleton took some time to develop in four seasons with the Rams, but after barely playing in his first two seasons in 2016 and 2017, totaling 400 snaps, Littleton was PFF’s 36th ranked off ball linebacker across 964 snaps in 2018 and their 6th ranked off ball linebacker in 2019 across 1,039 snaps, so Littleton’s terrible 2020 season kind of came out of nowhere.
Littleton did benefit from the coaching of Wade Phillips with the Rams, while the Raiders had less than stellar defensive coaching last season, which they hope to have improved with the hire of new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who is a big part of the Raiders’ plan to be significantly better on defense in 2021. It’s unclear how much of an impact, if any, Bradley will have, either on Littleton or the defense as a whole, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Littleton bounce back somewhat either way. It’s unlikely he’ll show his 2019 form again, but he could easily show his 2018 form and it’s not hard to see how Littleton could be significantly improved over 2020, even if he still isn’t worth his large salary.
Aside from Littleton, the rest of this linebacking corps was solid last season, with Nick Kwiatkoski and Nicholas Morrow playing 651 snaps and 723 snaps respectively and finishing 21st and 29th respectively among off ball linebackers. Kwiatkowski also was a free agent acquisition last off-season and he worked out a lot better, especially since his deal was significantly cheaper at 21 million over 3 seasons. A 4th round pick of the Bears in 2016, Kwiatkoski never got a chance to be a starter in Chicago, but he flashed as PFF’s 10th ranked off ball linebacker across 382 snaps in 2017 and their 16th ranked off ball linebacker across 512 snaps in 2019 and he mostly carried that into a larger role in his first year as a season long starter in 2020. He should remain an above average starting option, even if he doesn’t quite play an every down role in this defense.
Morrow, meanwhile, is a home grown player and one of the Raiders longest tenured players, dating back to being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Morrow was re-signed on a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season, receiving below average grades from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league across snap counts of 553, 416, and 723 respectively, including a 87th ranked finish out of 100 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF in 2019. It’s possible Morrow has permanently turned a corner and will remain a solid starter, but he could also easily regress to his pre-2020 form. Still, this should be a solid linebacking corps overall, especially if Littleton can bounce back in a big way.
The Raiders secondary was probably their worst unit as a whole on defense last season. The Raiders gave 100 snaps or more to five cornerbacks and three safeties and only reserve safety Jeff Heath, who played 415 snaps, earned an average or better grade from PFF and he’s no longer with the team. The Raiders made a couple notable additions to this group this off-season, but overall will be counting on better play from holdovers and young players exceeding expectations.
The one exception to that is free agent cornerback Casey Hayward, who is going into his age 32 season, but he comes with his own question marks. Hayward was one of the best cornerbacks in the league in his prime, with five seasons in the top-8 among cornerbacks on PFF in nine seasons in the league, including a 5th ranked finish as recently as 2019. However, he fell all the way to 75th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, which is especially concerning when you take into account his age.
Hayward was a worthwhile flyer on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal, given how good he was in his prime and that he isn’t totally over the hill yet, but that doesn’t mean he’ll pan out, as he could easily continue struggling. My bet would be on him bouncing back at least a little bit and remaining a solid starter for another couple seasons or so, but Hayward comes with a high variance, same as the Raiders’ young cornerbacks.
Damon Arnette will probably start opposite Hayward, but that’s not a guarantee even though the Raiders invested the 19th overall pick in him in the 2020 NFL Draft. Arnette was considered a reach like most of the Raiders’ recent first round picks and he did not do anything to prove that assessment incorrect as a rookie, struggling through 343 snaps in an injury plagued season in which he was PFF’s 126th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible. It’s possible Arnette could find himself behind both Hayward and 2019 2nd round pick Trayvon Mullen, although Mullen hasn’t established himself yet either. Mullen held up across 675 snaps as a rookie, but fell to 89th out of 136 eligible across 933 snaps in year two in 2020. He still has upside, but like Arnette, he’s not a guarantee to make good on that upside.
The Raiders also bring back veteran Nevin Lawson, but he struggled as well across 737 snaps, finishing 87th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and he doesn’t have the upside to be significantly better in 2021, now in his age 30 season, having never been more than a middling starter in seven seasons in the league. He will likely compete for the #4 cornerback job and might not even make this final roster, with 2020 4th round pick Amik Robertson (35 career snaps), 2019 4th round pick Isaiah Johnson (195 career snaps), and 5th round rookie Nate Hobbs all possessing more upside as depth options, even if they are totally unproven.
At safety, the Raiders big addition was using their 2nd round pick on TCU’s Trevon Moehrig, who is likely to start as a rookie, even if he could struggle through growing pains in year one. That should tell you a lot about the rest of this group which consists of disappointing 2019 1st round pick Jonathan Abram, veteran journeyman Karl Joseph, and 4th round rookie Tyree Gillespie. Another first round reach, Abram missed all but 48 rookie year snaps and then struggled mightily across 856 snaps in year two, finishing dead last out of 99 eligible safeties.
Abram has the athletic profile to potentially develop into a starting safety, but he isn’t good in coverage and tackles recklessly, leading not just to missed tackles, but to injuries that have caused him to miss 18 of 32 games and limited him in others. He’s probably still the favorite to start next to Moehrig, but only by default and he won’t be guaranteed anything. It’s possible he could be a lot better in year three and it would be hard for him to be worse, but he could also continue struggling mightily.
Joseph is probably the most serious challenger for the starting job that Abram will have to compete with and he is a former first round pick of the Raiders himself, selected in 2016 and then returning to the team this off-season, with a one year stint in Cleveland in 2020 in between. Joseph wasn’t bad in his four seasons with the Raiders, but he never finished better than 28th among safeties on PFF, he missed 15 of 64 games with injury, and the Raiders opted not to bring him back on his 5th year option, leading to his one year in Cleveland.
Things got even worse for Joseph with the Browns, as he missed another 13 games and struggled when he was on the field, finishing 85th out of 99 eligible safeties across 660 snaps and losing playing time down the stretch. He might not be a bad starting option in 2021, but he probably won’t be a good one either and he’s almost a sure bet to miss at least some time with injury. It’s also possible his injuries have sapped his ability to the point where he will continue struggling going forward. The Raiders are better by default in the secondary and have the upside to be a solid unit if multiple young players exceed expectations, but there is also significant downside here as well.
The Raiders are coming off of seasons of 7 wins and 8 wins respectively, but their reliance on winning close games suggests they’re more likely to be a team about to regress than a team about to take that next step. They have gone 14-7 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, while going 1-10 in games decided by more than 10 points and blowout wins tend to be much more predictive year-to-year than close wins.
The Raiders defense should be better this season, but their offense will probably take a step back after getting rid of high priced, but mostly still effective offensive linemen. It’s possible their defense could be improved by a degree that is greater than their degree of decline on offense, but the Raiders finished last season 23rd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at -1.28%, so they are starting from a lower base point than their 8-8 record last season would suggest.
The Raiders best shot at being legitimate contenders in 2021 would be to try to trade Derek Carr and some draft picks for Aaron Rodgers, a potentially short-sighted move, but one that would obviously make them better in the short-term. There is no indication the Packers are planning on honoring Rodgers’ trade request though and even if they do, the Broncos still seem like the better fit, which would especially be a problem for the Raiders, who share a division with the Broncos.
If Rodgers went to Denver, the Raiders would be an easy pick to come in last in a division with the Rodgers led Broncos, the back-to-back AFC Champion Chiefs, and the up and coming Chargers. Even with Rodgers, the Raiders would still have other significant issues and would not become instant contenders, as they don’t even have as good of a supporting cast as the Packers, making it strange that Rodgers would reportedly prefer to play with the Raiders. I will have a final prediction for the Raiders at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.