Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Raiders organization, Raiders fans around the world and those of you that I will greet at the Stage Door Casino some time in the near future with "Viva Las Vegas":
"The greatness of the Raiders is in its future."
Al Davis used to say that, and it definitely rings true today. Davis was one of the most innovative minds in football history. He was the AFL commissioner and the maverick owner of one of the most beloved franchises in all of sports. He won three Super Bowls. But he never solved the stadium issue. He moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, then back to Oakland to build a state-of-the-art facility. But it's one thing that was never accomplished. Until now.
The vision of Davis is complete, thanks to his son, Mark Davis. The Raiders will play their first season in Las Vegas this fall. And again, there is no doubt that the greatness of the Raiders is in the future.
How the Raiders got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2019.
- A good start to the season. They defeated the Broncos to open the season and were 3-2 heading into the bye week after beating the Chicago Bears.
- The draft class was productive. Josh Jacobs looked like a stud. And fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby was amazing. (I'll expand on this a little later.)
- Darren Waller's career resurrection. Not only did Waller become a household name in NFL circles (at least in fantasy football circles), but fellow Raiders TE Foster Moreau (another rookie!) emerged, as well.
- Entering the final month and a half at 6-4. Yes, they were in the hunt for a playoff spot after a Week 11 victory over the Bengals.
- The Antonio Brown debacle.
- Losing four consecutive games down the stretch. This included back-to-back home losses to the Titans and Jaguars that devastated their playoff hopes. In fact, in those three games after beating the Bengals, the Raiders gave up 116 points to the Jets, Chiefs and Titans. The Raiders were even tied, 21 all, with the Titans -- the team that ended up securing the AFC's No. 6 seed in the playoffs -- at halftime in Week 14 before collapsing in a 42-21 defeat.
Head coach: Jon Gruden. The reboot of Jon Gruden hasn't quite lived up to the expectations set by the original. I mean, it's not The Tick or anything like that. But it's not Fuller House, either. I guess it's more like Hawaii Five-0. It seemed like a great idea at the time, but at some point, you had to wonder who really wanted to see it. And what's crazy to think about is that the Scott Caan-led reboot lasted 10 seasons on network TV before it was canceled. I would hate for Gruden's reboot to follow a similar fate, because Gruden has a 10-year contact. And I don't want to be here at the end of that run like I was at the end of Hawaii Five-0's decade-long existence and say, "Well, that was certainly fun and entertaining. But what did we really accomplish?"
The good news is, I still have a lot of faith in Gruden. The Raiders have improved under him. And if we're being completely honest, this was a huge undertaking when he was hired in 2018, and the job wasn't going to be done overnight. The Raiders have made some big investments via the draft and free agency in the last two offseasons. I'm not afraid to say this is the most talent this team has had since it was a Super Bowl contender during Gruden's original run with the club and in the year after he first departed. I'm not saying they are there yet. But Year 3 of this reboot should see better returns.
(And maybe I'm misremembering this, but isn't Scott Caan's dad, James, a huge Raiders fan who attended games at the L.A. Coliseum? Or am I getting him mixed up with James Garner? Yes, these are the conversations I have in my head. Let's move on to the quarterback position.)
Quarterback: Derek Carr. This is my dude right here -- which I feel like I write a lot. But I really do mean it with Derek. Forgive me if I'm kind of a stan, but it seems like the media (and even some Raiders fans) like to pretend that Derek isn't a franchise quarterback, which I feel is a pretty ridiculous conversation. Just look at what he did last season: He topped 4,000 passing yards, had 21 touchdowns against just eight picks, and his passer rating was north of 100 for the first time in his career. Like, what more were you expecting from him, especially with the fallout from the Antonio Brown situation (which I'm not going to get into)?
Those are the kind of numbers that you look at and get excited about for the future. Instead, some of you wanted the Raiders to bring in Tom Brady, Philip Rivers or even Andy Dalton, which, I don't even know how to make sense of that. Who watched this team last season and thought Derek was the problem? It's ridiculous that I even have to bring this up.
Of course, we've heard the chatter that Gruden and Carr don't always see eye to eye. Please, knock me over with a feather. That's like saying that sometimes people go to Las Vegas and have fuzzy recollections of their weekend. Because the notion of Gruden and his quarterback not getting along is so very on-brand for Gruden, even more so than visors, Spider 2 Y Banana and a disdain for the Tuck Rule. In fact, I would hate to be the quarterback who Gruden actually liked. But I don't think that person exists.
Derek is the Raiders' franchise quarterback. The sooner you understand that, the better.
Projected 2020 MVP: Derek Carr. I mean, he's a dark-horse MVP candidate for the entire league, so that goes without saying. Let's be real. But how about another one?
Projected 2020 MVP who isn't Derek Carr: Trent Brown, right tackle. Fun fact: Brown has the same cap number for the Raiders as Carr this season.
But will the offensive line be an issue for the Raiders in 2020? They are strong along the interior with Rodney Hudson and Richie Incognito. Kolton Miller, who I thought was a reach with the 15th overall pick in the 2018 draft, played pretty well last season. I'm not saying he's Art Shell, but Miller showed considerable improvement in Year 2. Still, it's important to get a full season from Brown, a Pro Bowler who missed five games last season.
2020 breakout star: Hunter Renfrow, wide receiver. This is sometimes where my fantasy bias gets the best of me. I love Renfrow, though, especially if your league offers PPR scoring. He was a very good player for the Raiders last season, ranking second on the team in targets and scoring four touchdowns despite starting just four games. The Raiders were pretty solid offensively last year (11th in total yards; ninth in passing), and now they've added 12th overall pick Henry Ruggs III. That selection might have shocked some people, because receivers Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb were more highly rated by a lot of folks. But Ruggs is a better fit for the offense as a vertical threat to take the top off the defense. With Ruggs and Tyrell Williams playing fast, areas underneath should be more amenable for Renfrow and of course, our guys Waller and Moreau. I should point out that Renfrow finished last season with consecutive 100-yard games against the Chargers and Broncos. And now I can't keep watching plays like the one below as I put together my fantasy big board.
New face to know: Cory Littleton, linebacker. The Raiders did pretty well in free agency. In addition to Littleton, the team also brought in 'backer Nick Kwiatkoski (a favorite in Chicago), defensive end Carl Nassib and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. But Littleton was the big prize, as the Raiders benefited from the Rams having to let some of their talent walk due to limited cap space. Littleton, a Pro Bowler in 2018, plays well all over the field. He can get up the field, as evidenced by 3.5 sacks and six tackles for loss last season, and he's exceptional in pass coverage, too, locking in two interceptions and nine passes defensed. He's going to be key in stopping the division-rival Chiefs, who have Travis Kelce and a bevy of pass-catching backs.
On a separate note, how cool is this? I want a print of this for my office.
The 2020 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Gruden does have the luxury of a 10-year contract, so it's not like this is a Super Bowl-or-bust situation. The Raiders have taken a bit of an unconventional route with some of their picks in the last couple drafts, to the dismay of many. But that's the kind of thing that should motivate you to put it back on the haters.
And the Raiders are moving into a new building and a new city. You would like to capitalize on that excitement.
Three key dates:
- Week 2 vs. Saints. This is a pretty tough opening stretch for the Raiders. The Week 1 game at Carolina is no gimme. Then they host the Saints to open Allegiant Stadium before traveling to New England and then returning home for Buffalo. After that, it's back on the road in Kansas City.
- Week 7 vs. Buccaneers. How many layers of revenge game is this for Gruden? He's facing the team that fired him. He's also playing against Tom Brady, who helped clear the way for his departure from Oakland in the first place with his play in the Tuck Rule game. And to those who thought Brady would play for Gruden, how did you think that relationship was going to work out?
- Week 10 vs. Broncos. The AFC West is going to be really tough this season. Every single game against a division rival will be key.
Will the Raiders be able to ...
Stop teams through the air? The Raiders went into the offseason hoping to sign Byron Jones, and they ended up with Prince Amukamara. Sometimes when you have your heart set on something, you're a little disappointed to have to settle for something else. Like the time I was at Pizza Rock late in the evening (fine, morning) and had my heart set on the purple potato pizza, and it was sold out. Not that there is anything wrong with the Chicago thin crust. I just had my heart set on something else. But Amukamara is a nice option for the Raiders, who ranked 25th against the pass last season.
The Raiders do have some other help arriving, too. The team selected safety Johnathan Abram with one of its three first-round choices in 2019. He played in only one game last season before tearing his rotator cuff and labrum. But the dude was balling out against the Broncos and looked like a real find. The staff is excited to have him back as an anchor in the secondary.
The Raiders also used a first-round pick on cornerback Damon Arnette in April. He has the size of a big-time corner, but many considered him a second-round talent heading into the draft. But if he's good enough for Mike Mayock, then I'm good with it. Arnette is a great tackler and can excel in man or zone coverage. He also brings that attitude that Gruden and Mayock have tried to instill with the Raiders.
See more of a return on Clelin Ferrell? I told you that I was going to explain this to you. Gruden and Mayock were torched on social media for selecting Ferrell with the No. 4 overall pick in 2019. It made matters worse when fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby lapped Ferrell in sacks. Crosby -- acting like he was the Raiders' Nick Bosa, which was amazing -- had 10 sacks last season, while Ferrell had 4.5. I mean, if you wanted to make yourself feel a little better, you could always pretend that Crosby was your first-round pick and Ferrell was the fourth-rounder. Though that's not fair, because Ferrell certainly wasn't a bust. There is obvious potential there, and the Raiders do have highly respected former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli joining the club as a defensive line coach. If there's one area where the Raiders really need to improve, it's getting to the quarterback. They ranked 24th in the league in sacks last season and second to last in takeaways. They need to create pressure on the quarterback to help the secondary so it can make some plays back there. But it starts with guys like Ferrell.
Get Josh Jacobs involved in the passing game? Fine, so we're just going to talk about all of the Raiders' first-round picks from last year. Jacobs was my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. He was an absolute beast carrying the football, finishing with 1,150 rushing yards and seven touchdowns (two during his debut against the Broncos in Week 1). He was among the leaders in broken tackles, yards after contact and runs of 15 yards or more. And, he played the second half of the season with a fractured shoulder. Now there's been talk this offseason that he could be more involved in the passing game in Year 2, which I will admit, once again lends itself to my fantasy football bias. But blame Mayock, who said that Jacobs was a three-down back when he drafted him. They also let DeAndre Washington walk this offseason. Sure, Jalen Richard and others loom, but Washington vacated 41 targets, which wouldn't be a bummer for Jacobs to inherit.
One storyline ...
... people are overlooking: The Raiders have been here before. The last time the Raiders moved from Oakland was in 1982, and they won the Super Bowl a couple years later. (Sorry, I thought it was the first year after they moved.) BTW, the Raiders went 8-1 in their first season in Los Angeles (the season was shortened because of a strike), beating the Browns in a wild-card game (I know), then losing to the Jets (!) in the Divisional Round. I know Jason Witten is the only current Raiders player who was alive in 1982, but I thought that would be a little fun to mention. Wait, you want a real one? Fine.
ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: The Raiders might have their Taysom Hill. They selected Lynn Bowden Jr. in the third round, and the gadget player draws comparisons to Randall Cobb. But what I find interesting is that he started the final eight games of his junior season at quarterback. He rushed for 1,468 yards and 13 touchdowns but was also the Wildcats' leading receiver. And I'm excited to see the kind of plays Gruden draws up for him.
But I swear to God, if you all start making jokes about how he's the best quarterback on the Raiders ...
... people are overthinking: Marcus Mariota was brought in for depth. As mentioned previously, the disrespect for Derek will not be allowed here. But people acting like Mariota was brought in to be anything other than a quality backup need to check themselves. Mariota (who I love) is not pulling a Ryan Tannehill here. He was Tannehilled last year, when his backup took over at midseason and led the Titans all the way to the AFC title game. This is an opportunity for him to learn and maybe get a starting gig in the future. You know, a Bridgewater.
ANOTHER storyline people are overthinking: Derek's air yards per target. Well, Tyrell Williams finished in the top 20 in air yards per target (for receivers with a minimum of 60 targets), so Derek can make the throws he needs to. But while I appreciate the deep dive into Next Gen Stats, I assure you, he's making all of the throws and Ruggs is going to make you eat those words.
For 2020 to be a successful season, the Raiders MUST:
Get to the playoffs. As I've mentioned, the Raiders are improving under Gruden. With five first-round picks over the last two years, the Raiders need to see some returns on those investments in the form of postseason football.
You can see that the spirit of Al Davis is still alive in the Raiders. They finally have a new stadium. They drafted their speed guy who will remind the old-timers of Cliff Branch (let's put him and Tom Flores in Canton, BTW). And they have a solid roster that should put them in the mix for a playoff berth this season. It's not hyperbole.
"The greatness of the Raiders is in its future."
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.