The Raiders qualified for the post-season in 2021, which was surprising in a couple ways. For one, most didn’t expect much out of the Raiders going into last season, with their pre-season odds to make the post-season being around +350. Those odds were even lower at the end of week 14, when the Raiders sat at just 6-7, coming off of a humiliating 48-9 loss in Kansas City the following week, having already fired head coach Jon Gruden earlier in the season, but the Raiders managed to win out to finish 10-7 and with a wild card berth.
In some ways, the Raiders were lucky to win those four games, walking a tightrope by winning all four games by four points or fewer, with their -65 point differential being worst among playoff qualifiers, but in other ways, the Raiders were unlucky last season, as they had several unpredictive metrics go against them. Their -9 turnover margin was 6th worst in the NFL and worst among playoff qualifiers, but turnover margins tend to be highly unpredictive on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Underperforming on third down is also not predictive and the Raiders ranked 22nd in third down conversion rate and 15th in third down conversion rate allowed, despite ranking 17th in offensive efficiency and 8th in defensive efficiency, which is much more predictive.
The Raiders lost in the first round of the playoffs in a close game against the Bengals, a game in which they again were the more efficient team on a per play basis, but lost the turnover battle by two in a one-score loss. Going into the off-season, the Raiders were at a bit of a crossroads, not only needing to find a new head coach, but with their long-time quarterback Derek Carr going into the final year of his contract. Carr was due a reasonable 19.9 million in 2022, but would likely command a significant raise on a long-term extension.
The Raiders could have opted to join this off-season’s quarterback carousel and traded Carr, which would have given them a significant return. Instead, they doubled down on Carr, extending him on a 3-year, 121.5 million dollar deal, which will make him the 5th highest paid quarterback in the league in average annual salary. That could easily prove to be a mistake, as the track record of paying non-elite quarterbacks top level money is not good.
In fact, Since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players. It’s close to impossible to win with a highly paid starting quarterback unless he is an elite player under center, as it becomes very tough to surround a non-elite quarterback with enough talent to win with if that quarterback is taking a significant percentage of the cap.
Carr’s cap hit is set to significantly exceed that 11% threshold in every season 2023-2025, but he hasn’t shown himself to be a consistently top level quarterback. In eight seasons in the league, he’s finished above average on PFF five times, but he’s finished in the top-5 just once, in a career best year back in 2016. He’s coming off three straight above average finishes on PFF, completing 68.7% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 71 touchdowns, and 31 interceptions, and he should continue that above average play into 2022, but he’ll likely never produce at a high enough level to justify his new raise.
Carr has been very durable in his career, playing every game in six of eight seasons in the league and only suffering one serious injury that cost him extended time, when he broke his leg in 2016 at the end of that career best season. The Raiders will need Carr to remain healthy in 2022, without a good backup option behind him. Over the past two seasons, the Raiders’ backup quarterback has been Marcus Mariota, who was overqualified in the role, but he signed with the Falcons as a starter this off-season and the Raiders don’t have anywhere near as good of an alternative.
To compete for the backup job, the Raiders have added Nick Mullens and Jarrett Stidham this off-season. Mullens has started 17 career games, but has been underwhelming and was the Browns’ 3rd string quarterback for most of last season. Mullens has at least played though, which is more than you can say about Stidham, a 2019 4th round pick who could never get on the field in New England, backing up three different starters in three seasons and attempting just 48 regular season pass attempts, before following former Patriots offensive coordinator and new Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels to Las Vegas in a swap of late round picks. Mullens’ experience probably makes him the favorite for the job, but Stidham does have a greater knowledge of the system. Regardless of who wins the job, the Raiders would be in trouble if Carr missed significant time.
The Raiders got Derek Carr some help in a big way this off-season, making an aggressive move to add one of the best wide receivers in the league in Davante Adams, in exchange for a first and second round pick, and then giving the previously franchise tagged Adams a massive 5-year, 140 million dollar contract that makes him the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL. Between the excess value loss from the draft picks and Adams’ actual salary, the Raiders are paying upwards of 35 million annually for Adams and that number would be even higher if Adams didn’t make it to the end of the contract.
In some ways, this move is the Raiders going all in on 2022, before Carr’s cap number jumps in 2023 and beyond. Carr and Adams will be making more than 70 million combined annually on their new contracts and it’s going to be very tough to build a competitive supporting cast around that duo going forward, especially without a steady stream of cheap young talent coming in through the draft. Adams also isn’t that young anymore, now going into his age 30 season.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s about to decline significantly, but a wide receiver in his age 30 season is 21% less likely to surpass 1,000 yards than a wide receiver in his age 29 season. After age 30, the drop off gets even more pronounced, with a wide receiver in his age 33 season being 67% less likely to surpass 1,000 yards than a wide receiver in his age 30 season and 80% less likely than a wide receiver in his age 26 season. Adams also will probably see a statistical hit just going from Aaron Rodgers to Derek Carr, though Carr is not a bad quarterback and will have some pre-existing chemistry with Adams, from their time together at Fresno State.
All that being said, Adams should remain one of the best wide receivers in the league, at least for 2022, even if he does decline a little bit, because he’s starting from such a high base point. Adams has finished in the top-13 among wide receivers on PFF in five straight seasons, including four straight top-10 finishes and back-to-back #1 finishes in 2020 and 2021. In total, he’s averaged 2.53 yards per route run over the past four seasons, with averages of 2.96 yards per route run (1st in the NFL) and 2.82 yards per route run (3rd in the NFL) in 2020 and 2021 respectively. He probably won’t reach either of those numbers with his new team, but I would still expect him to be among the league’s best as long he doesn’t suffer an unexpected injury.
In addition to his age and a quarterback downgrade from Rodgers to Carr, another reason why Adams could see his statistical production drop with the Raiders is that he probably won’t get quite the same target share. In Green Bay, Adams was usually the Packers only above average receiver on the field and, as a result, he leads the league with 614 targets over the past four seasons, with just five other wide receivers surpassing even 500 targets over that span. Adams produced a lot, but he had the benefit of being the most targeted wide receiver in the league and catching those passes from one of the best quarterbacks in the league, two benefits he probably won’t have in Las Vegas.
With the Raiders, Adams will cede more targets to slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller, both of whom have been focal points of this passing game in the past and who will now take on more secondary roles. One of the best stories in the NFL, Waller was a 6th round pick by the Ravens in 2015, drafted on the potential of his 4.46 speed at 6-6 238, after hardly producing as a collegiate wide receiver in the run heavy Georgia Tech offense, totaling just 51 catches in his college career. The Ravens moved Waller to tight end, but, despite his physical tools and upside, Waller barely got on the field for the Ravens, with his career nearly getting derailed because of drug problems.
Waller caught just 12 passes in 18 games in three seasons with the Ravens and, after being suspended for all of 2017, Waller got clean, got his life together, and got another chance from the Raiders. Now bulked up to 6-6 256 to play tight end, Waller didn’t see much action as a mid-season addition in 2018, but in 2019 he surprised everyone and broke out as one of the top tight ends in the league, finishing with a 90/1146/3 slash line, ranking 5th among tight ends with 2.42 yards per route run, and overall being PFF’s 5th ranked tight end. The following season in 2020, Waller proved he wasn’t a fluke, totaling 107/1196/9, ranking 4th among tight ends with 2.28 yards per route run, and finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end overall.
However, in 2021, Waller was limited to 11 games by injury, which is when Hunter Renfrow took over as the focal point of the offense, finishing with a 1,000 yard season of his own, with a 103/1038/9 slash line and a 1.94 yards per route run average. Renfrow was especially productive with Waller out of the lineup. Including the week 12 game where Waller left after 21 snaps, Renfrow caught 50 passes for 559 yards and 3 touchdowns in seven games without Waller last season (121/1358/7 extrapolated over 17 games), averaging 2.37 yards per route run.
Renfrow’s role will be scaled back with Waller returning and Adams being added, but Renfrow has averaged 1.92 yards per route run in three seasons in the league, so he’s been an efficient weapon his whole career, regardless of his role. Waller will also see his role scaled back as well and his production was declining last season even before his significant late season injury, as his 1.86 yards per route run average through week 12 was still good, but it was also a significant drop off from 2019 and 2020. That’s especially concerning because Waller is now heading into his age 30 season and could decline further, but he should remain at least an above average tight end, albeit with less of a target share in the passing game.
Renfrow and Waller should still remain heavily involved in this offense behind Adams though, in large part because they are still significantly better options than the rest of this receiving corps, which drops off significantly after their top-3 targets. Zay Jones (638 snaps) and Bryan Edwards (811 snaps) had significant roles on this offense last season, but are now elsewhere and, even though they weren’t great players (1.38 and 1.12 yards per route run respectively), the Raiders don’t have good replacement options.
Veterans DeMarcus Robinson and Keelan Cole were added in free agency on near minimum contracts and they’ll compete for the #3 wide receiver job, playing outside opposite Adams when Renfrow moves to the slot. Cole has been the more productive of the two in his career, but he’s never been anything more than a middling #3 receiver, with a 1.27 yards per route run average for his 5-year career, but that’s substantially better than the 0.82 yards per route run that DeMarcus Robinson has averaged in his 6-year career. Making Robinson’s average even worse is the fact that he’s gotten to play with Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City for most of his career. Cole should be the favorite to start as the #3 receiver over Robinson, but Cole isn’t a great option either.
The Raiders may run more two-tight end sets to compensate for their lack of depth at wide receiver and backup tight end Foster Moreau isn’t bad, but he’s not likely to command a significant target share either, barring another injury to Waller. Moreau was a 4th round pick in 2019 and his 1.26 career yards per route run average isn’t bad for a tight end, but that dropped to 1.15 in 2021 when forced into a larger role. The 23/251/1 slash line he had in the 7 games Waller missed all or most of extrapolates to 56/610/2 over 17 games, which aren’t bad numbers for a starting tight end, but he was still a significant downgrade from Waller. Moreau is an above average #2 tight end, but would likely be overmatched if forced into a significant role again. Adams, Waller, and Renfrow lead a talented, but top heavy receiving corps.
While the addition of Davante Adams will obviously help this offense, the Raiders’ biggest weaknesses on offense around Derek Carr last season were their offensive line and, by extension, their running game, with the Raiders ranking 29th in team run blocking grade on PFF and, largely as a result, averaging just 3.91 YPC on the ground, 27th in the NFL. The Raiders also were a below average pass blocking team, ranking 22nd on PFF in team pass blocking grade, something that could hold their passing game back in 2022 if they don’t improve.
The Raiders didn’t do much in the way of finding upgrades this off-season, with limited cap space and no picks in the first two rounds of the draft, as a result of the Adams trade, so it’s likely they’ll continue to struggle upfront. They used a third round pick on Memphis’ Donald Parham and, while he could push to start as a rookie at either guard or center, that says more about the Raiders’ other options than it does about him.
The only veteran addition they made was Jermaine Eluemanor, a journeyman who has never been much more than a backup in five seasons in the league (14 starts), since entering the league as a 5th round pick in 2017. Eluemanor can play either guard or right tackle and his best play came when he started a career high 8 games for new Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels’ New England Patriots in 2020, but he’s generally been a mediocre player in his limited action and would likely struggle as a season long starter, regardless of what position he plays.
The Raiders also have a pair of young players they are hoping to get more out of this season in Alex Leatherwood and John Simpson. Leatherwood was a first round pick by the Raiders in 2021 and, while he was widely regarded as a reach who was expected to be a second round pick, few expected him to be quite as bad as he was as a rookie, struggling mightily at both right tackle and right guard, with the Raiders changing his position after week 5 in an unsuccessful attempt to get more out of him.
Leatherwood did start every game as a rookie and he could be better in year two, even if only by default, but his selection looked bad from the start and he’s increasingly looking like he’s going to be a bust. Simpson, meanwhile, was a 4th round selection and finished as PFF’s 74th ranked guard out of 90 eligible in his first full season as a starter (17 starts), after struggling in limited action as a rookie in 2020. Simpson also could take a step forward this season, but 4th round picks don’t pan out as starters that often, so it definitely wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t turn into a capable starter long-term.
Right tackle Brandon Parker was also drafted relatively recently, taken in the 3rd round in 2018, but he’s struggled across 32 career starts and the 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal he signed to stay with the Raiders this off-season doesn’t lock him into a starting role. Parker made 13 starts at right tackle last season after Leatherwood moved inside and actually had the best season of his career, but still finished 81st out of 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF, which shows you how bad he’s been through most of his career. He would almost definitely continue struggling mightily if he had to start at right tackle again in 2022, running out of time to make good on his upside, now in his age 27 season.
The Raiders also get veteran Denzelle Good back from a torn ACL that cost him all but 17 snaps last season and he was expected to be their starting right guard for the whole season before that happened, but he’s also struggled throughout his career and coming off of a significant injury doesn’t help matters, especially now going into his age 31 season. Good has 43 career starts, but has never been more than a middling starter and as a 14-game starter for the Raiders in 2020 he finished just 64th out of 92 eligible guards on PFF. He would also be an underwhelming starting option.
Center Andre James is likely locked into a starting role, after being the Raiders’ 2nd best offensive lineman last season, but he still only finished 22nd out of 41 eligible centers in his first season as a starter, after the 2019 undrafted free agent struggled mightily in 117 snaps as a backup in his first two seasons in the league. James could potentially face competition from Donald Parham, but, most likely, Parham will compete for the starting guard jobs with John Simpson and Denzelle Good, with Jermaine Eluemanor and Alex Leatherwood also being options at guard, in addition to right tackle, where they would compete with Brandon Parker. All six offensive linemen would likely be below average if forced to start at any of the three open spots and it’s very possible center Andre James will be below average as well.
The Raiders’ only reliable offensive lineman is left tackle Kolton Miller, who saved this offensive line with a strong season in 2021, ranking 8th among offensive tackles on PFF. A first round pick in 2018, Miller’s career got off to a tough start, as he finished his rookie season 81st out of 85 eligible offensive tackles on PFF, but he has improved in every season of his career to get to where he is now. He’s still a one-year wonder as an elite tackle for a whole season, with his next highest finish among offensive tackles on PFF being 34th in 2020, but even if he regresses, Miller should remain at least an above average tackle, on an offensive line otherwise devoid of reliable options.
As I mentioned, the Raiders struggled on the ground last season. The Raiders were probably expecting their running game to be a strength, given that they invested a 2019 1st round pick in Josh Jacobs and then signed veteran Kenyan Drake to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season to pair with Jacobs, but Jacobs and Drake were not good enough to overcome poor blocking, averaging just 4.02 YPC and 4.03 YPC respectively.
Drake was also used pretty sparingly given how much the Raiders signed him for, giving him just 63 carries in 12 games before he went down for the season with injury. He wasn’t even their primary passing down back, as many thought he would be when he signed a significant contract with the Raiders, as he played fewer passing down snaps and saw fewer targets than Jacobs, who has always been an underwhelming pass catcher. Drake was the more efficient of the two in passing situations and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take over more of the passing game work this season, but his career 1.17 yards per route run average is underwhelming and barely better than Jacobs’ career 1.11 yards per route run average.
Drake does have a career 4.46 YPC average, but he’s unlikely to achieve that mark in 2022 unless the Raiders’ blocking improves. He’s also been at his best in his career as a complementary player, struggling with a 4.00 YPC average in 2020 in the only season of his 6-year career in which he’s surpassed 200 carries. Fortunately, Drake won’t be more than a complementary player behind Josh Jacobs. Jacobs’ didn’t have a good YPC average last season either, but he did finish above average with a 54% carry success rate, with his YPC average being largely the result of a lack of big plays, with just 15.4% of his rushing yardage coming on 7 carries of 15+ yards or more.
Jacobs had largely the same result as 2020, when he had 3.90 YPC, with just 17.6% of his rushing yardage coming on 10 carries of 15+ yards or more, and a 51% carry success rate. Jacobs also had the same 51% carry success rate as a rookie in 2019, but he added 16 runs of 15+ yards or more for 32.3% of his total rushing yardage, leading to a 4.75 YPC average overall. Long runs tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and Jacobs’ YPC average will likely be held back by his blocking even if he has more long runs, but it is impressive that he’s consistently kept the offense on schedule at an above average rate in all three seasons of his career, despite declining blocking.
If Jacobs misses significant time with injury, the Raiders would likely give 4th round rookie Zamir White, their likely #3 back, a significant role, rather than overloading Drake as a feature back. White likely won’t have much of a role as long as both Jacobs and Drake are healthy, but he’s an injury away from seeing at least some action and both Jacobs and Drake are in the last year of their contracts, so White will have the opportunity to earn the long-term starting job. For now, Jacobs and Drake headline a solid backfield, albeit one that is likely to again be held back by its blocking.
With the Raiders’ offense having problems on the offensive line and on the ground, the biggest reason why they made the playoffs last season was their defense, which ranked 8th in efficiency. That was a big change for a defense that had consistently struggled since trading Khalil Mack before the 2018 season. The reasons why they were so much better last season are complicated, as is whether or not they can continue that into 2022, but the biggest reason was the emergence of edge defender Maxx Crosby.
Crosby’s 8 sacks don’t jump off the page and are in line with the 10 sacks and 7 sacks he had in his first two seasons in the league prior in 2019 and 2020 respectively, but in his first two seasons, he combined for just 15 hits and a 9.1% pressure rate, while struggling against the run, leading to overall middling grades from PFF. In 2021, the 2019 4th round pick took a huge step forward, with 21 hits and a ridiculous 16.9% pressure rate, while playing at a much higher level against the run and finishing as PFF’s 2nd ranked edge defender overall. He also played the 4th most snaps in the league by an edge defender with 926, after ranking 5th at the position with 906 snaps played in 2020.
Crosby is a one-year wonder in terms of being an elite edge defender and it’s definitely possible he won’t be quite as good this season as last year’s dominant season, but he’s also still only in his age 25 season and could easily develop into one of the best edge defenders in the league for years to come. Even if he does regress a little bit, I would still expect a well above average season from him. The Raiders clearly believe in him long-term, locking him up on a 4-year, 94 million extension deal ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2022, making him now the 5th highest paid edge defender in the NFL in average annual salary. He has a good chance to live up to even that lofty price tag.
The Raiders also gave out a big contract this off-season to ex-Cardinals edge defender Chandler Jones, who comes in as a free agent on a 3-year, 51 million dollar deal. The Raiders signed Yannick Ngakoue to a 2-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season and he was effective as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 13 hits, and a 11.2% pressure rate, but he struggled so much against the run that he finished as PFF’s 123rd ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible overall, including a league worst run defense grade for an edge defender.
Jones is an upgrade at not that much higher of a price and the Raiders were able to flip Ngakoue to the Colts for Rock Ya-Sin, who is inexpensive in the final year of his rookie deal and figures to start at cornerback in 2022. I’ll get into Ya-Sin more in the secondary section, but Jones gives the Raiders someone who is as effective as Ngakoue as a pass rusher, while also holding up as a run defender. In total, Jones has 107.5 sacks, 97 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate in 10 seasons in the league, while also playing among the most snaps in the league on an annual basis like Crosby, playing 60.6 snaps per game in his career, with 14 games or more played in 8 of 10 seasons in the league.
Jones is going into his age 32 season and could start to decline soon, but he hasn’t shown many signs of decline yet, having double digit sacks in a season for the 7th time in his career last season and finishing as PFF’s 34th ranked edge defender overall. Even if Jones does decline, he should remain at least an above average option, especially if the Raiders scale his snaps back a little bit, something they can afford to do, given how infrequently Crosby comes off the field.
The Raiders also released the highly paid Carl Nassib this off-season, saving 8 million ahead of the final year of his 3-year, 25 million dollar contract. Nassib isn’t a bad player, but only saw 251 snaps in 13 games as a reserve last season, so moving on from him was an easy decision, with a replacement veteran like Kyler Fackrell available at a much cheaper price, 1.1875 million on a 1-year deal. Fackrell has never been more than a middling player and has just a 9.2% career pressure rate, but he’s generally been a solid rotational reserve option and, even going into his age 31 season, he could still be a solid reserve in a relatively small role.
The Raiders also have 2021 3rd round pick Malcolm Kounce, who played just 48 snaps as a rookie, but could take a step forward in his second season. Clelil Ferrell played a little bit of a role at the edge defender position last season with 261 snaps, but he struggled mightily and has proven to be a bust since being selected 4th overall by the Raiders in 2019, as he’s averaged just 457 snaps per season and a 9.5% pressure rate in three seasons in the league. He’s not guaranteed much, if any role this season, with Fackrell and Kounce possibly both ahead of him on the depth chart as a reserve. Ferrell played on the interior a little bit in the past and might find an easier path to playing time there, as the Raiders have a strong edge defender position, led by Crosby and Jones.
Unlike their edge defender position, the Raiders’ interior defender position was a major position of weakness last season, with every player who saw significant action at the position finishing below average on PFF. The Raiders overhauled this position group this off-season, with only veteran Johnathan Hankins (568 snaps) returning from last year’s group. However, most of their additions are very underwhelming, so roles are definitely up for grabs in this group, which is part of why Clelin Ferrell might find more playing time available on the interior, where he’s shown at least some promise in the past, as opposed to his struggles on the edge.
Hankins will likely remain in a significant role, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 120th out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and now the 9-year veteran heads into his age 30 season, so his best days could easily be behind him. Hankins has never been much of a pass rusher, with a 5.5% career pressure rate, but that has fallen to 4.2% over the past four seasons and even his run defense has fallen off in recent years, after he was one of the best in the league at his position against the run earlier in his career. He might not be quite as bad in 2022 as he was in 2021, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he was just as bad and the Raiders should consider it a win if he even is a capable starter for them this season.
Bilal Nichols was the best of the Raiders’ free agent signings and, while he was the most expensive, he was reasonably paid on a 2-year, 8.625 million dollar deal. A 5th round pick by the Bears in 2018, Nichols has developed into a solid starter, seeing snap counts of 618 and 679 over the past two seasons and proving capable as a pass rusher and run stopper. Nichols wasn’t quite as good in 2021 as he was in 2020, when he finished 27th among interior defenders on PFF in overall grade and totaled 5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate as a pass rusher, but he still finished above average on PFF and had 3 sacks, 7 hits, and a 8.3% pressure rate. Still only in his age 26 season, Nichols may have further untapped upside and, even if he doesn’t, he should remain at least a solid starter in his new home.
The rest of the Raiders’ free agent additions at the position all signed deals close to the minimum, most notably Tyler Lancaster, Vernon Butler, and Andrew Billings, who come to the Raiders from the Packers, Bills, and Browns respectively. None are inspiring options, which is why they came so cheaply. Lancaster has been a decent run stopper in four seasons as a reserve in Green Bay, after signing there as an undrafted free agent in 2018, but he never played more than 381 snaps in a season, struggled mightily as a pass rusher (3.3% pressure rate), and is coming off of a career worst year as a run stopper.
Butler also has mostly been a reserve in his career, maxing out at 440 snaps in 2019 and only playing 285 snaps last season, despite being a first round pick back in 2016. He’s never shown himself to be worth more playing time, finishing below average on PFF in all but one season in the league and now he’s coming off arguably the worst season of his career, finishing 144th among 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF in 2021. Even if he bounces back a little in 2022, he’s unlikely to be anything more than a decent reserve.
Billings probably has the most upside of the bunch, because he earned above average grades from PFF in 2018 and 2019 as a starter with the Bengals, on snap counts of 632 and 657 respectively, holding up as a run defender and totaling 3.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 7.4% pressure rate as a pass rusher between the two seasons. Billings sat out the 2020 season though and was not nearly the same upon his return in 2021, struggling to get on the field in a weak position group with the Browns and looking like a shell of his former self on the 72 snaps he did play.
Billings is still only in his age 27 season, so there is some bounce back potential here, but he’s nothing more than a flyer for a team desperate for talent at the interior defender position. Given their lack of good veteran options, the Raiders may have to turn to 4th round rookie Neil Farrell or 5th round rookie Matthew Butler, but both would likely struggle if forced into a significant role in year one. This figures to be a position of weakness once again in 2022, even if the personnel is very different than a year ago.
The Raiders’ off ball linebackers were somewhat of a strength last season. They didn’t have any great performances at the position, but three of the four players who saw significant snaps at the position for them last season finished in the 65th percentile or higher of off ball linebackers on PFF, with Denzel Perryman (863 snaps), KJ Wright (426 snaps), and Divine Deablo (297 snaps) finishing 33rd, 29th, and 31st among eligible players at the position. The only one who didn’t, Cory Littleton (663 snaps), is no longer with the team, but Wright is also gone, so the Raiders had to retool this group a little bit this off-season. Their best addition to the group is ex-Titan Jayon Brown, who figures to be a starter and possibly play every down.
Brown was very inexpensive on a 1-year, 1.25 million dollar, after finishing just 57th among 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season on 421 snaps in 10 games. He was an above average starter in every season from 2018-2020 though, maxing out at 8th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2018 and finishing 24th as recently as 2020, and he’s still only in his age 27 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential and could easily prove to be a free agent steal. Durability has been a concern for Brown for years, as he’s missed 17 games total over the past three seasons, and there is some concern that either he will miss more time or that injuries have permanently sapped his abilities and he won’t be able to bounce back, but his age and the recency of his last above average season give him a strong chance to return to form at least somewhat.
Perryman figures to be the other starter, after showing well in that role last season. He’s a one-year wonder as an every down player though, as a combination of injury problems (27 games missed in his first six seasons in the league) and his deficiencies in coverage limited him to a max of just 481 snaps in a season across his first six seasons in the league from 2015-2020, despite originally entering the league as a second round pick. Perryman has always been a solid run stopper and was better in coverage last season, but he now heads into his age 30 season, so it’s fair to wonder if he can repeat last season’s performance, or if his problems in coverage will return, once again in a big role. Durability also remains a concern, as he missed another 2 games last season, even while playing a career high 15 games.
Fortunately, the Raiders have good depth at the position, with Deablo expected to open the season as the third linebacker, after flashing a lot of potential in a limited role as a third round rookie last season. Perryman and Brown both have the potential to be solid every down players, but they’re also shaky options with serious injury histories, so Deablo is great insurance to have and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he found himself in the starting lineup one way or another by the end of the season.
The Raiders also added veterans Micah Kiser and Kenny Young in free agency this off-season, but I wouldn’t expect either to have much of a role, barring a rash of injuries. Kiser played a significant role in 2020 with the Rams (559 snaps), but struggled mightily, finishing 92nd out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF and was limited to just defensive 98 snaps in 2021. Kiser was a 5th round pick in 2018, but, aside from his terrible 2020 campaign, he’s played just 99 other defensive snaps in his career.
Young has more experience, but the 2018 4th round pick has finished below average on PFF in all four seasons in the league, including a 59th ranked finish out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on a career high 645 snaps last season. Even still, last season might have been the best season of Young’s career, which should tell you how bad he’s been in other seasons. There are some questions at the top of this linebacker group, but their three best linebackers all have the upside to be above average starters and they have some experienced depth as well.
The position where the Raiders figure to see the most decline on defense this season is cornerback. I mentioned they traded Yannick Ngakoue for Rock Ya-Sin and that he will likely start at cornerback. Ya-Sin was a 2nd round pick in 2019 and has shown some promise in three seasons in the league, albeit as more of a reserve than a regular starter, starting 29 of the 41 games he played in his career and finishing above average on PFF in two of his three seasons in the league, including a career best 29th ranked finish on 592 snaps in 2021. It’s better for the Raiders to have Ya-Sin at a 2.54 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal than Ngakoue at 13 million in the final year of his contract, but Ya-Sin is effectively replacing Casey Hayward, who was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback last season, while making all 17 starts, and Ya-Sin will almost definitely be a significant downgrade from Hayward.
Slot cornerback Nate Hobbs also had a strong season last year, finishing 11th among cornerbacks on PFF on 837 snaps, with 83.8% of those snaps coming on the slot, where he allowed just 0.78 yards per route run, 4th best in the NFL. It’s fair to wonder if he can be that good again though, given that he was just a 5th round pick a year ago. It’s possible he could develop into consistently one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league, but the fact that most of the league passed on him 4-5 times a year ago isn’t irrelevant yet. If he declines significantly, along with Ya-Sin being a downgrade from Hayward, this cornerback group would go from a significant strength to a much more underwhelming group. Hobbs is also likely a slot only option and not a strong candidate to play a significant role outside.
The Raiders do get Trayvon Mullen back from injury after he missed all but 229 snaps in five games last season, but the 2019 2nd round pick has been underwhelming in his career, including a 89th ranked finish out of 136 eligible cornerbacks in 2020 in his lone full season as a starter. He may still have untapped potential, only in his age 25 season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t improve. He should be an upgrade on his backup last season Brandon Facyson though, even if only by default, as Facyson was PFF’s 120th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible in nine starts in 2021 as an injury fill-in for Mullen.
If injuries strike again this season, the Raiders have veteran Anthony Averett as their 4th cornerback, signing him from the Ravens this off-season. Averett struggled in the first extended starting experience of his career last season though, making 14 starts after making 7 starts in the first three seasons in the league and finishing as PFF’s 107th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible. He would be an underwhelming option if he had to see significant action, so the Raiders need Mullen to stay healthy as the other starting outside cornerback opposite Ya-Sin, with Hobbs as the slot cornerback.
Like Nate Hobbs, fellow 2021 draft pick safety Trevon Moehrig was a big part of the reason for the Raiders’ success in the secondary last season, finishing 24th among safeties on PFF and, unlike Hobbs, Moehrig was a high draft pick, going 43rd overall in the 2nd round, so he has a much better chance of continuing his high level of play going forward. Development isn’t always linear and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had a little bit of a sophomore slump, but he looks likely to develop into consistently one of the better safeties in the league long-term. He’s probably their best defensive back now that Hayward is no longer on the team.
Johnathan Abram is likely to remain as the other starting safety, even though he was a liability in 14 starts in 2021, finishing 79th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF. Abram was a first round pick in 2019, but last season was actually by far the best season of his career, even though he struggled, which should tell you how much he struggled in his first two seasons. He also played more snaps in 2021 than he did in his first two seasons in the league combined, playing 955 snaps, after playing 904 total from 2019 to 2020. He still missed three games last season, but that’s nothing compared to the 18 games combined he missed in his first two seasons in the league.
Abram still theoretically has upside, in his age 26 season, but his career so far has been filled with injuries and struggles and it would be a surprise if he was even able to be a consistently solid starter for most of the season without getting hurt. He’ll likely keep his job in 2022, but that’s mostly for lack of a better option and he could be on a short leash if he regresses to his 2020 form, when he finished dead last out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF.
Abram’s biggest competition for the starting job is veteran Duron Harmon, who was signed to a near minimum contract as a free agent this off-season. Harmon is plenty experienced, with 62 starts in 144 games in 9 seasons in the league, while missing only one game ever. Harmon has made every start over the past two seasons, first for the Lions in 2020 and then in 2021, but he was underwhelming in 2020 and then struggled mightily in 2021, finishing 77th out of 98 eligible safeties.
Now going into his age 31 season, it’s unlikely Harmon is going to bounce back significantly, but it’s possible he could be a capable starter if needed and he’s not a bad backup option. The Raiders also have 2021 4th round pick Tyree Gillespie, but he played just 11 snaps as a rookie, so he would obviously be a projection to a larger role. This isn’t a bad secondary, but, with Casey Hayward gone and Nate Hobbs a regression candidate, this is unlikely to be nearly as good as last year’s group, especially if either of their starting safeties can’t repeat what they did last season.
The Raiders had slightly below average special teams last season, ranking 21st in special teams DVOA. Kicker Daniel Carlson and punter AJ Cole both had above average seasons again, but their return game was underwhelming, especially in kickoff return, ranking 25th in the NFL with 19.8 yards per kickoff return, and they lacked special teams depth outside of their two top special teamers, Foster Moreau and Divine Deablo. Their depth should be somewhat better this season and, though they could still struggle in the return game, this could end up being an average special teams unit overall.
The Raiders made two splash additions this off-season with Davante Adams and Chandler Jones, but those moves left them limited in what else they could do this off-season, leaving needs largely unaddressed on the offensive line and at the interior defender and safety positions, while not adequately replacing their departed top cornerback Casey Hayward. This was a playoff team a year ago and they have a chance to make it back in 2022, but they play in the tougher of the two conferences in the toughest division in football, so it’s very possible they could end up on the outside looking in at the end of the season. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: The Raiders will compete for a playoff spot even in the loaded AFC, but ultimately they’re likely to be on the outside looking in, especially when you consider they have to play six games in the toughest division in football, with all three other AFC West teams looking better than them right now.
Prediction: 8-9, 4th in AFC West