Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) at Las Vegas Raiders (3-2)

The Raiders have had a tough start to their season. The easiest game they’ve had so far was on the road in Carolina against a capable Panthers team and in their other four games they’ve had to face the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints, and Bills. Despite their tough schedule and despite missing two key offensive linemen in Richie Incognito and Trent Brown for most of the season, the Raiders have still gone 3-2 over their first 5 games, including wins over the Saints and Chiefs, and their two losses (Bills and Patriots) were both games in which the Raiders were competitive in the first down rate battle. On the season, the Raiders rank 10th in first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule at +2.05% and it stands to reason that they’ll be better than that going forward when they have their offensive line healthy.

Unfortunately, things are not getting any easier for the Raiders this week, as not only are they not getting their offensive linemen back, but most of their offensive line didn’t practice this week due to potential COVID exposure. At one point this week, it looked like the Raiders may have to play this game with backups across the whole line, which is why this line is just being posted now. The Raiders should have everyone except Incognito and Brown available, but the lack of practice time will hurt. On top of that, the Raiders schedule doesn’t get any easier with the Buccaneers coming to town.

The Buccaneers have a pair of losses on the season, but one was a one-point loss in Chicago and the other came in a game in New Orleans in which they won the first down rate battle by 8.18% and only lost the game because they lost the turnover battle by 3, which was never going to happen every week. The Buccaneers lead the league by more than a full percent with a +7.11% first down rate differential and they are even better when strength of schedule is taken into account, as they are at +8.06%, while no other team is better than +5.46% (Chiefs). 

The Buccaneers lost stud defensive tackle Vita Vea for the season with injury, but they got a solid replacement for him on early downs in veteran Steve McLendon and they are otherwise healthy, particularly on offense, where they’ve only had their dominant wide receiver duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin healthy in the same game once this season, last week’s blowout victory over the Packers. The Buccaneers also rank first in my roster rankings and should be favored by about a touchdown in this game, as the Raiders are a capable opponent, but probably won’t be able to overcome the tough situation they are in and the Buccaneers large talent advantage, especially since they also won’t have the benefit of having any fans in the stadium. We’re not getting great line value with the Buccaneers at -4, but they’re worth a bet.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31 Las Vegas Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -4

Confidence: Medium

Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (2-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-0)

The Raiders got some early hype after their 2-0 start, including a nationally televised win over the Saints week 2, but they barely beat the Panthers week 1 and their win over the Saints wasn’t as impressive as it seemed, as the Saints were banged up, typically start seasons slow, and still won the first down rate battle by +8.77%, despite the final score. Over the past two weeks, the Raiders have been exposed more against a pair of tough teams in the Patriots and Bills.

Injuries have been part of the problem over the past two weeks, as the Raiders were without a pair of starting offensive lineman and their starting outside wide receivers last week. They’re expected to get right tackle Trent Brown and wide receiver Henry Ruggs back from injury this week, but left guard Richie Incognito and their other outside wide receiver Bryan Edwards remain out and they’ll also be without a key player on defense in defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. Overall, they rank just 26th in my roster rankings in their current state.

That’s going to be a problem for the Raiders on the road in Kansas City against arguably the top team in the league. Dating back to week 11 of last season, the Chiefs have won 13 straight games, including 3 playoff games, and they’ve won those games by an average of 14.4 points per game with a +8.57% first down rate differential over that stretch, including a 2nd ranked +7.04 first down rate differential through 4 games of this season. They’re also very healthy relative to the rest of the league, both top cornerback Chavarius Ward and top defensive lineman Chris Jones set to play this week after missing some time earlier this season. The Chiefs should be able to win with relative ease over the Raiders, though this line is high enough at -11.5 that I wouldn’t want to bet this one.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Las Vegas Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -11.5

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (3-0) at Las Vegas Raiders (2-1)

The Bills got a huge victory last week at home over the Rams. Coming into the season, the big question was whether or not this team could elevate their level of play against tougher competition. The Bills made the post-season last year, but they had a very easy schedule and did not perform well in their tougher games. They went just 1-5 against teams that finished with a winning record, with their only win coming against the Marcus Mariota-led Titans in a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals and lost by 7. Even with that win against the Titans included, quarterback Josh Allen completed just 51.7% of his passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions against winning teams, as opposed to 62.6% completion, 7.26 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions against .500 or worse teams. 

With their schedule getting much tougher this season, the Bills needed to take a step forward against winning competition if they wanted to make it back to the post-season. I thought they had a chance to, given the addition of Stefon Diggs at wide receiver and the likely improvement of quarterback Josh Allen in his third season, and the Rams last week were their first chance to test that, after the Bills opened they season by taking care of business against a pair of bad teams in the Jets and Dolphins. 

It wasn’t a convincing win for Buffalo, as they blew a 28-3 lead to allow the Rams to pull ahead at one point late, but ultimately they got the win by closing the Rams out with a late touchdown drive. Now 3-0, the Bills might not be an elite team, but they seem to have taken a step forward from last season. How much of a step forward might not be clear until they face tougher competition, and they’ve been lucky to avoid injuries thus far, but they currently rank 9th in my roster rankings, so they’re not going to be an easy team for anyone to defeat unless injuries strike.

The Bills won’t be tested as much this week as it looks as first glance. They are traveling to face a 2-1 Raiders team, but the Raiders have a negative first down rate differential at -0.15% and are really beat up in this game. In total, they are missing a pair of starting offensive lineman in left guard Richie Incognito and right tackle Trent Brown, their top-two outside receivers in Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, and top cornerback Damon Arnette, pushing them down to 22nd in my roster rankings.

The Raiders are also in a tough spot, as they have another big game on deck in Kansas City, a game in which they are currently projected to be 11.5-point underdogs. Teams are 40-74 ATS since 2016 before being underdogs of 10 points or more, as that tends to serve as a big upcoming distraction. At far less than 100% health wise, in a tough scheduling spot, the Raiders could struggle against a team like the Bills, even at home, where they won’t have the benefit of fans. I have this line calculated at Buffalo -4.5 even before taking into account that the Raiders could get caught looking ahead this week, so the Bills are worth a play this week at -3. The Raiders have had a tendency to get blown out over the past two seasons (7 of 10 losses coming by 16 points or more) and Buffalo is good enough to give them another big loss this week.

Buffalo Bills 24 Las Vegas Raiders 17

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -3

Confidence: Medium

Las Vegas Raiders at New England Patriots: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) at New England Patriots (1-1)

As crazy as it might seem, the Patriots seem to have found an upgrade on Tom Brady. In Brady’s final season in New England, the Patriots struggled to get consistent offense, finishing the season 21st in first down rate. That wasn’t Brady’s fault entirely, given his lack of downfield weapons, but the Patriots switched to Cam Newton this off-season and so far this offense is #1 in the NFL in first down rate through the first two weeks of the season at 48.12%, despite not adding any real downfield weapons. It’s not that Brady is a bad quarterback at this stage of his career, but this Patriots offense is much more oriented towards being a run heavy offense, with a good run blocking offensive line and a lack of downfield weapons, and Cam Newton is a better fit for a run heavy offense that lacks downfield playmakers than Brady because of his ability to make plays with his own feet. 

The Patriots defense isn’t what it was last year, but the Patriots still rank 2nd in the league in this early season in first down rate differential at +7.44%, only behind the Ravens. The Patriots lost in Seattle last week, but that was a tough situation playing a night game on the road on the west coast against a strong Seahawks team and the Patriots still came within inches of winning it and likely would have had a shot at an easy game winning field goal had they not missed a makeable attempt early in the season. The Patriots also won the first down rate battle in that game slightly, despite a tough situation, showing they still belong with some of the top teams in the league even without Brady.

This week, the Patriots return to New England to face a Raiders team that is getting some hype after a 2-0 start. The Raiders went back and forth in a close win over a very mediocre Panthers team week 1, but in week 2 they pulled an upset in their first game in their new stadium over the Saints. That win could prove to be a sign of things to come for this Raiders team, but it’s worth noting the Saints traditionally don’t start the season well, as they are just 4-17-1 ATS in the first two weeks of the season since 2010, as opposed to 85-53-2 ATS in weeks 3-17. Over the previous three seasons, the Saints won more regular season games than any team in the league, but they were just 2-4 in the first two weeks of the season, including a pair of losses to eventual non-playoff qualifiers. 

The Raiders also lost the first down rate battle in that game and have a negative first down rate differential (-1.20%) on the season, despite their 2-0 record, and they enter this game banged up, missing a pair of offensive linemen in Richie Incognito and Trent Brown, starting linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski, starting wide receiver Henry Ruggs, and will likely have their top-two offensive playmakers Darren Waller and Josh Jacobs at less than 100% after barely practice all week due to injury. It’s worth noting that the Patriots are also missing center David Andrews, a key player on their offensive line, but overall they’re in better injury shape than the Raiders and they’re in a better spot too. 

While Bill Belichick is 51-29-2 ATS off a loss since taking over as head coach in 2000, including 10-6 ATS without Tom Brady, the Raiders could be flat off their big home upset win, as teams are 45-69 ATS since 1989 as underdogs of 3 or more after a win by 10 or more as home underdogs of 3 or more. I’ll need this line to drop below 6 for the Patriots to be worth betting without Andrews, but I have a feeling this will drop before gametime and even if it doesn’t, the Patriots are the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

New England Patriots 31 Las Vegas Raiders 23

Pick against the spread: New England -6

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (1-0) at Las Vegas Raiders (1-0)

The Raiders went 7-9 last season, but they were not nearly as good as their record suggested, as all seven of their wins were 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 same is true of their 29th ranked first down rate differential of -5.27%.

I was expecting the Raiders to be better this season, even if it didn’t necessarily translate into more wins, for a couple reasons. The first was off-season additions, most notably linebacker Cory Littleton, who signed on a big contract this off-season after being one of the best linebackers in the league with the Rams last season. The second reason was that I expected their offensive line to be healthier. The strength of this team along with the running game they block for, the Raiders have average or better starters at all five spots upfront, but those five starters played just four games together in 2019.

Unfortunately, this year is not off to a much better start in that category, with right tackle Trent Brown expected to miss this game. Without him and off-season addition Nick Kwiatkowski, who is also injured, the Raiders are starting to resemble last year’s team and the timing is not good, with the Raiders set to face the Saints, one of the top teams in the league and the kind of team that would have blown them out pretty easily last season.

Fortunately for the Raiders, the Saints come in pretty banged up too, missing wide receiver Michael Thomas, one of the best offensive players in the game, and talented starting defensive end Marcus Davenport. The Saints also didn’t play that well in week 1, beating the Buccaneers by 11, but losing the first down rate battle by 8.18% and winning primarily because of a +3 turnover margin, which is highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. 

Their relative struggles last week were likely in part due to injuries, particularly Thomas who did not appear healthy all game, but Drew Brees also had one of his worst games in years by a number of advanced metrics, a concern for a quarterback at an age where quarterbacks can drop off very quickly. This could just be a case of the Saints’ typical early season struggles, as even with last week’s turnover-aided win they are just 4-16-1 ATS in weeks 1 and 2 of the season since 2010 (85-53-2 ATS in weeks 3-17), but history suggests that’s not likely to go away for at least another week. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -6.5, so we’re getting some line value with them at -5.5, but there’s not enough here to take the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Las Vegas Raiders 27

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -5.5

Confidence: Low

Las Vegas Raiders at Carolina Panthers: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (0-0) at Carolina Panthers (0-0)

The Raiders should be better this season than last season, especially since their offensive line figures to be significantly healthier, but that won’t necessarily translate to more wins, as the Raiders were not as good as their 7-9 record suggested last season. 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. That is also the case with first down rate differential, in which they ranked 29th at -5.27%.. 

The Raiders start their 2020 season with a relatively easy one. They have to travel across the country, but the Panthers will have an empty stadium due to pandemic restrictions and the Panthers enter the season as one of the worst teams in the league. We’re not getting real line value either way with the Raiders favored by a field goal, which is my exact calculated line. I would take the Raiders if I had to, but the most likely result might be a push.

Las Vegas Raiders 34 Carolina Panthers 31

Pick against the spread: Las Vegas -3

Confidence: None

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.

Final Update: The Raiders lost Tyrell Williams for the season to injury and surprisingly cut defensive backs Prince Amukamara and Damarious Randall, which hurts their depth. This is still a borderline playoff team, but I have them right on the outside.

Projection: 7-9 (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