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)

Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (7-8) at Denver Broncos (6-9)

The Raiders are just 7-8, but are actually still alive for a wild card spot in the AFC. They’ll need to win this game and have several other things break their way (the Steelers and Titans both losing and the Colts winning to force a 4-way tie at 8-8 for the second wild card spot). However, the most likely scenario is the Raiders losing this game outright and ending their season. The Raiders have won 7 games, but all 7 games have come by one score or fewer, while all but two of their losses have come by at least 18 points, with the only exceptions being a game in Houston in which they lost the first down rate battle by 9.28% and a home loss to the Jaguars, who are arguably the worst team in the NFL. The Raiders rank 28th in the NFL in point differential at -105 and 29th in first down rate differential at -5.33%, so they haven’t played nearly as well as their record suggests. 

Getting back top receiver Hunter Renfrow from a 3-game absence last week certainly helps this offense, but at the same time they are missing a pair of talented offensive linemen in Richie Incognito and Trent Brown and stud feature back Josh Jacobs, a big loss for a team that wants to run the ball and be a physical offense. They managed to win in Los Angeles against the Chargers last week, but that was essentially a home game for them, given that 95% of the crowd was Raiders fans. The Chargers, who are totally out of the playoff race, seemed demotivated playing yet another home game in front of a road crowd and did not give their best effort as a result. 

Things will be different this week in Denver. The Broncos have one fewer win than the Raiders, but are significantly better in both point differential (-35) and first down rate differential (-1.44%). The Broncos also have injuries on the offensive line, missing right guard Ronald Leary and right tackle Ja’Wuan James, but James has missed most of the season and the Broncos have gotten better quarterback play in recent weeks since second round rookie Drew Lock returned from injury and took over the starting job. He’s still a raw quarterback, but it’s not hard to be an upgrade over washed up Joe Flacco and bottom of the roster talent Brandon Allen and the Broncos’ defense is what has carried them this season anyway.

This line, favoring the Broncos by 3.5 at home, suggests the Broncos are a slightly better team, so the odds makers seem to recognize that the Raiders’ record is not reflective of how they’ve actually played for most of the season, but I think we’re still getting some line value, as my calculated line is Denver -5.5. I’d need this line to go down to a field goal for this game to be worth betting, but it seems like that’s where it’s trending. It’s very possible I update this pick before gametime.

Denver Broncos 23 Oakland Raiders 17

Pick against the spread: Denver -3.5

Confidence: Low

Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (6-8) at Los Angeles Chargers (5-9)

The Chargers have had a very disappointing 5-9 season, a year after going 12-4, but they’ve been much better than their record suggests, entering this game 6th in first down rate differential at +4.08%, especially impressive when you consider they basically play 16 road games, as they completely lack a fan base in Los Angeles. Most of their losses have been close, with their only loss by more than a touchdown coming last week against the Vikings, a game against one of the best teams in the league that was closer than the final score (Chargers lost the first down rate battle by just 4.36% in a 29-point loss). 

Turnovers have killed the Chargers more than anything, as they rank dead last in the NFL with a -16 turnover margin and have had more than a couple losses that have swung on turnovers. Fortunately, turnover margin tends to be very unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Chargers’ awful turnover margin doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll continue losing the turnover battle going forward.

One of their losses that swung on the turnover battle was their first matchup with the Raiders, back in week 10 in Oakland, a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 7.58%, but ended up losing by 2 because of a -3 turnover margin. Outside of those 3 snaps, the Chargers outplayed the Raiders significantly. The Chargers don’t have a homefield advantage, but I like their chances a lot in the rematch in Los Angeles, assuming turnover neutral football, which should almost always be assumed. 

Not only did the Chargers outplay the Raiders for most of the previous rematch, but they also have stud safety Derwin James available this time around, while the Raiders are missing a trio of key contributors on offense, running back Josh Jacobs and offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Trent Brown. The Chargers are without left tackle Russell Okung, which is a significant absence for them, but Okung only played 7 snaps in the previous matchup before getting hurt and has been absent for most of the season, so his absence is not anything new.

The Raiders, meanwhile, have had Incognito, Jacobs, and Brown on the field for most of the season, and, despite that, the Raiders have been significantly worse than their 6-8 record suggests. While their largest margin of victory this season is just 8 points, but all 2 of their losses have come by at least 18 points, with the only exceptions being a game in Houston in which they lost the first down rate battle by 9.28% and last week’s game at home against the Jaguars, who are arguably the worst team in the NFL and had lost their previous 5 games by at least 14 points prior to last week’s win. 

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders rank 29th in the NFL at -5.31%, a long way behind the 6th ranked Chargers. Their defense has been the biggest problem, ranking dead last in the NFL with a 41.36% first down rate allowed, but their offense, which ranks 36.06% in first down rate at 17th, could have a lot of trouble this week too without their feature back and a pair of talented offensive linemen. 

I typically don’t like betting on the Chargers at home, but I would expect this to be yet another blowout loss for the Raiders. Despite these teams records, the Chargers have significantly outplayed the Raiders on the season and they are also in a significantly better injury situation. We’ve lost line value with the Chargers going from 6.5-point favorites on the early line last week to 7.5-point favorites this week, but I still like the Chargers enough to bet on them. If this line drops back down to a touchdown before gametime, I’ll probably increase this bet.

Los Angeles Chargers 31 Oakland Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Jacksonville Jaguars at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9) at Oakland Raiders (6-7)

The Jaguars won some games against bad teams early in the season, but they’ve been awful in recent weeks, losing their last 5 games by at least 17 points. They’ve fallen to dead last in first down rate differential at -7.26% and don’t do much of anything well on either side of the ball. Their offense ranks 30th in first down rate at 31.12%, as Minshew Mania has fallen back to earth and the rest of this offense is not nearly good enough to compensate, especially without top wide receiver DJ Chark. Meanwhile on defense, the Jaguars have just 3 players left from their top-11 in terms of snaps played from their dominant 2017 defense and rank 28th in first down rate allowed at 38.38%.

The Jaguars do have a pretty easy matchup this week though. The Raiders have played much worse than their 6-7 record suggests and since week 7 the only team worse than them in first down rate differential has been the Jaguars. While all 6 of the Raiders’ wins have come by 8 points or fewer, all but one of their losses have come by at least 18 points, with the one exception being a 3-point loss in Houston in which they lost the first down rate battle by 9.28%, but managed to score from 46 and 65 yards out to keep the game close. 

Given that, I don’t think the Raiders deserve to be favored by more than 6.5 points against anyone, so we are getting some line value with the Jaguars. I wouldn’t recommend betting on that for two reasons though. For one, this is the Raiders’ last home game in Oakland, so we should see their best effort in front of a crazy crowd. Last year, when it looked like it was the Raiders’ last game in Oakland, they had their best performance of the season against the Broncos. The second reason is that the Jaguars may have legitimately quit on head coach Doug Marrone and have shown little effort in games once down by a couple scores. I expect this game to be close, but if it’s not close the Jaguars could end up getting blown out again, even though the Raiders haven’t blown out anyone all season.

Oakland Raiders 30 Jacksonville Jaguars 24

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville +6.5

Confidence: None

Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Tennessee Titans (7-5) at Oakland Raiders (6-6)

The Titans saved their season by benching Marcus Mariota for veteran Ryan Tannehill after week 6. After finishing last season 24th in first down rate at 34.12% and ranking 26th at 32.69% through 6 games this season, the Titans have had a 40.76% first down rate in 6 games with Tannehill under center, 2nd best in the NFL over that time period, only behind the Ravens. During that stretch, the Titans have lost just once and even in that game they won the first down rate battle, losing by 10 to the Panthers in a game in which they missed 3 field goals and lost the turnover battle by 2. The Titans probably won’t continue being the 2nd best offense in the league the rest of the way, but they have a strong supporting cast around the quarterback on both sides of the ball and don’t need elite quarterback play to be competitive. 

This week, the Titans face a 6-6 Raiders team that hasn’t played nearly as well as their record suggests. While all 6 of their wins have come by 8 points or fewer, all but one of their losses has come by at least 18 points, with the one exception being a 3-point loss in Houston in which they lost the first down rate battle by 9.28%, but managed to score from 46 and 65 yards out. They rank 27th in point differential at -87, 29th in first down rate differential at -5.56%, and they have been even worse in recent weeks. 

Dating back to week 7, the Raiders rank dead last in the NFL in first down rate differential at -8.32%, more than 12% worse than the Titans over that span. The Raiders’ record is a farce and the Tannehill led Titans should be able to beat them pretty easily, even in Oakland. I have this line calculated at Tennessee -7, so we’re getting good line value with them as only favorites of a field goal. It’s concerning that the Titans are missing top cornerback Adoree Jackson, but they haven’t been healthy on defense for most of the season and the Raiders will be without talented right tackle Trent Brown, so that sort of evens out. I like the Titans a lot this week.

Tennessee Titans 31 Oakland Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: High

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (6-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)

The Raiders are 6-5 and are very much in the mix for a playoff spot, but all of the Raiders’ wins have come by 8 points or fewer, while most of their losses have been blowouts, with the exception of a 3-point loss in Houston. As a result, they have a point differential of -56 that ranks 25th in the NFL and a first down rate differential of -5.26% that ranks 27th in the NFL. Last week, they arguably hit their lowest point of the season, getting blown out in New York by the Jets in a 34-3 loss.

That being said, I actually kind of like the Raiders this week because I think they’ll view this as a much bigger game than the Chiefs will. The Chiefs already blew out the Raiders earlier this season and they have a much tougher game on deck in New England, a game in which they will almost definitely be underdogs, so they might not bring their best effort. Favorites of 10 or more are just 65-86 ATS before being underdogs since 2002. Meanwhile, the Raiders are coming off of an embarrassing loss (probably in part because they were looking forward to this matchup) and now have an opportunity to not only gain a game in the standings on the division leader, but also to make a statement to the rest of the league with a signature win.

I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because of the Raiders’ tendency to get blown out, but 11 points gives us a good cushion and the Chiefs actually have just two wins by more than 5 points at home in the past calendar year (a 10-game span), primarily due to a very underwhelming defense (27th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 38.01%) that is easy to get garbage time yards against. A likely more focused Raiders team should be able to keep this game close, similar to their game against the Texans earlier this season.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Oakland Raiders 27

Pick against the spread: Oakland +11

Confidence: Medium

Oakland Raiders at New York Jets: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (6-4) at New York Jets (3-7)

The Raiders are 6-4 and very much in the mix for a playoff spot in the AFC, but they haven’t been as good as their record suggests, as their six wins have come by a combined 34 points, while the four losses have come by a combined 59 points. In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders rank just 26th at -3.66%, not far ahead of the Jets, who rank 28th at -4.86%. Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Jets as field goal underdogs at home.

The Jets are also in a much better spot. While they have arguably their easiest game of the season next week in Cincinnati against the winless Bengals, the Raiders have arguably their hardest in Kansas City against the Chiefs and could easily look past the Jets with a key divisional matchup on deck. Underdogs are 71-36 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs. On top of that, home underdogs are 44-23 ATS before being road favorites since 2012. I like the Jets a lot this week.

New York Jets 31 Oakland Raiders 30 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +3

Confidence: High

Cincinnati Bengals at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Cincinnati Bengals (0-9) at Oakland Raiders (5-4)

The Raiders are 5-4, but they haven’t played as well as that suggests. While their 5 wins have come by a combined 27 points, their 4 losses have come by a combined 59 points, giving them a -32 point differential that ranks 24th in the NFL. Their offense has played pretty well, ranking 12th in the NFL in first down rate at 37.43%, but their have the worst first down rate allowed at 41.81% and rank just 27th in first down rate differential at -4.38%. They rank a little higher in my roster rankings, coming in 20th, and they’ve faced a tough schedule (3rd in opponents DVOA), but any way you look at it the Raiders haven’t been as good as their record suggests.

The Bengals have also faced a tough schedule (1st in opponents DVOA) and, while they haven’t won a game, they haven’t necessarily been the worst team in the league this season. Despite their tough schedule, four of their nine losses have come by 6 points or fewer and they rank 29th in first down rate differential at -7.03%, obviously not good, but not the worst in the league. Winless teams tend to be good bets this late in the season anyway, going 55-32 ATS since 1989 in week 9 or later, as they tend to be overlooked and undervalued.

If Andy Dalton was still starting for the Bengals, they’d be an obvious bet as 11.5-point underdogs against a Raiders team that hasn’t won by more than 8 points all season, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet them confidently with fourth round rookie Ryan Finley under center. Dalton’s statistical production had been the worst of his career, but he also had the worst supporting cast of his career around him. Benching him was more about the Bengals wanting to evaluate Finley in an otherwise lost season than it was about Dalton’s performance and, while that may be the right move long-term, with the opportunity to draft a franchise quarterback atop the draft in reach, it doesn’t help them cover this spread, as Finley is an unprepared backup caliber talent with a horrendous supporting cast. I have this line calculated at Cincinnati +10, so the Bengals are still the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but there’s not enough here to bet the Bengals confidently. 

Sunday Update: This line has moved all the way up to 13, a massive jump from the early line last week, which had Oakland favored by 8. The Raiders haven’t won more by more than a touchdown all season and winless teams like the Bengals tend to be good bets this late in the season, so the Bengals are worth a small bet at +13.

Oakland Raiders 27 Cincinnati Bengals 17

Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +13

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (4-5) at Oakland Raiders (4-4)

The Chargers had an impressive 26-11 victory over the Packers last week, but that wasn’t necessarily surprising. The Chargers, who went 12-4 last season, are as healthy as they’ve been all season. Left tackle Russell Okung, edge defender Melvin Ingram, and tight end Hunter Henry all healthy back healthy and playing well after missing significant time, leaving safety Derwin James as their only key injury absence. 

James was one of the top safeties in the league last season, but even without him the Chargers are a playoff caliber team. They rank 12th in my roster rankings and, despite their early season injuries, the Chargers actually rank 11th in first down rate differential on the season at +2.54%, albeit against an easy schedule. With all five of their losses coming by a touchdown or less, the Chargers rank 13th in point differential at +15, despite not benefiting from turnovers, at -3.

The most impressive part of the Chargers’ win was that they played so well at home, in front of a crowd that had so many Packers fans that the game might as well have been in Lambeau. The Chargers have underwhelmed at home since moving to Los Angeles, where they have no fans, going 7-12-1 ATS, but the flip side of that is they’ve traveled well, going 14-6-2 ATS away from Los Angeles. 

Despite the Chargers’ impressive win, this line has not moved significantly in the past week, going from Oakland -2.5 on the early line last week to Los Angeles -1 this week, which barely matters because only about 8% of games are decided by 2 points or fewer. Using 1 point for homefield advantage instead of the standard 3 points because the Chargers travel so well, this line suggests that the Chargers are only a couple points better than the Raiders, which I disagree with.

While the Chargers are a playoff caliber team now that they are healthier, the Raiders still are a middling team at best, ranking 24th in point differential at -34 and 26th in first down rate differential at -3.98%. They’ve faced a tougher schedule than the Chargers and could have their starting five offensive linemen together for this game for the first time all season if center Rodney Hudson can return from a one-game absence, but both Hudson and right tackle Trent Brown are dealing with injuries that could limit them or be re-aggravated mid-game. Their defense, meanwhile, is still horrendous, allowing the second highest first down rate differential in the league at 41.53%. I have these two teams about four points apart, suggesting the Chargers should be favored by a field goal on the road (and by five points if this game was in Los Angeles). In a game the Chargers just need to win to cover, they’re worth a small bet this week.

Los Angeles Chargers 23 Oakland Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers -1

Confidence: Medium

Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 9 NFL Pick

Detroit Lions (3-3-1) at Oakland Raiders (3-4)

The Raiders only lost by a field goal in Houston last week, but they lost the first down battle 29-15. While the Texans’ three touchdowns came on long drives, the Raiders scored twice on plays of 46+ yards, which is very tough to do week-to-week. Even with that loss being close on the scoreboard, the Raiders’ four losses this season have come by an average of 14.75 points per game, while their three wins have come by an average of 6.00 points per game, giving them a -41 point differential that ranks 24th in the NFL. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank 27th at -4.15%.

The Lions aren’t much better, but we’re getting some line value with them as 3-point road underdogs, especially if Raiders center Rodney Hudson is unable to play through an ankle injury. The Raiders are also on a tight turnaround before next week’s Thursday game against the division rival Chargers and favorites only cover about 45% of the time before Thursday Night Football. The Lions have some key players uncertain with injuries as well (defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Damon Harrison), so I may ultimately end up deciding to make a bet on the Lions. I’ve been saying this a lot this week, but this is another game that I might update tomorrow morning.

Sunday Update: There has been no update on Hudson this morning and I think all the +3s will disappear if he doesn’t play, so I’m leaving this as is.

Final Update: Hudson is inactive, while Harrison and Robinson are active for Detroit. I have this line calculated at Oakland -1 and, with the Raiders in a tough spot before another game in 4 days, I think the Lions have a good spot to pull the small upset

Detroit Lions 27 Oakland Raiders 26 Upset Pick +125

Pick against the spread: Detroit +3

Confidence: Medium