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Time for Jon Gruden to step it up; Hall of Fame candidates under 30

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

But first, a look at why the Raiders have struggled in the second Jon Gruden era ...

Just win, baby!

Those words were made famous by the Raiders' late, legendary owner, Al Davis. Unfortunately for the team, they've largely failed to follow Davis' edict since Jon Gruden began his second stint as the franchise's head coach in 2018.

Gruden, who initially coached the Raiders from 1998 to 2001, was inked to a 10-year, $100 million deal to return this once-proud franchise to prominence. Instead, the coach has posted a 19-29 mark over the past three seasons, with the Raiders unable to reach the playoffs or notch a winning record even once.

Considering Gruden's predecessor, Jack Del Rio, compiled a 25-23 record with a playoff appearance before his surprising dismissal, it appears the Raiders have taken a step back under Gruden. It would not be a stretch to say the experience has been a failure thus far.

But the one-time Super Bowl winner's star has apparently not dimmed in the eyes of Raiders owner Mark Davis. Because according to Peter King of NBC Sports, Gruden is not "under a win-now mandate" from Davis.

This is shocking. NFL coaches are routinely dumped in three years or fewer if they are unable to put Ws on the board, but Las Vegas is giving a coach with a mediocre recent record every opportunity to succeed, despite the spottiness of his resume. That statement is not a personal dig at Gruden -- the fact is, since he won Super Bowl XXXVII with the Bucs (after the 2002 season), Gruden has gone 64-80 without a single playoff victory. Moreover, he has not logged a winning season since 2008 (with the Bucs).

Gruden is paid at an elite level -- but the performance of his squads falls well below the standard. And the team's futility (they are one of five AFC teams with a playoff drought of four-plus seasons) has coincided with a notable exodus of blue-chip talent.

From Khalil Mack to Amari Cooper to Trent Brown to Rodney Hudson to Gabe Jackson, the Raiders have traded away impactful starters for little in return. Sure, the team has collected several draft picks that appeared valuable on paper -- but Gruden and Co. (general manager Mike Mayock arrived in December of 2018) have struggled to turn picks into players through on-field development.

As a result, the Raiders' roster is underwhelming at first glance. The team lacks blue-chip players (that is, players rated among the top 10 at their position), outside of running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller. Meanwhile, the franchise quarterback (Derek Carr) is not quite capable of putting the team on his back.

The dearth of elite talent has put the team's spotty draft record under the microscope. The Raiders have drafted just one Pro Bowler (Jacobs) since Gruden's return, instead spending a slew of first-round selections on players (Clelin Ferrell, chosen fourth overall in 2019; Johnathan Abram, chosen 27th overall in 2019; Damon Arnette, chosen 19th overall in 2020) who have had uninspiring careers thus far. Frittering away first-round picks can crater a roster -- as evidenced by the Raiders' inability to remain a viable contender in a very competitive AFC. Between drafting poorly and bungling free agency, the team lacks balance. And the subpar results on and off the field should lead to more questions about Gruden's performance as a football czar.

When King asked Gruden if he was "pissed" about his recent record, Gruden insisted he wasn't, and that he was instead "excited about the progress we've made."

"We weren't very good," Gruden told King. "We had, I think, 20 new starters my first year. Our second year, we got off to a pretty good start. We lost our right tackle. We lost our right guard. We lost our featured back down the stretch. We struggled. And we lost games against Jacksonville and Denver late in the year. You gotta really see it to believe how we lost those games. Got off to a good start last year. Decimated at times because of the virus. We had a tough schedule. But we were in the playoff hunt the last couple of years until the latter part of the season. I think we are improving. But I don't like to lose. I don't like hearing 19-29. I do like the feeling of progress."

The Raiders have the potential to make a run at a playoff berth this season, but it will take a Herculean effort from the offense to get it done. Jones, Waller and Carr will need to carry the load for a ball-control offense that protects a vulnerable defense by playing "keep away" with opponents.

This brings me to the reshuffled offensive line, where a rookie (Alex Leatherwood, drafted 17th overall) is projected to replace Trent Brown at right tackle, and Andre James and Nick Martin will battle it out at center to join returnees Richie Incognito, Denzelle Good and Kolton Miller. The Raiders are counting on the unit to come together quickly to replicate the dominant performance of its previous iteration, which featured a pair of former Pro Bowlers (Brown and Hudson) and a solid veteran starter (Jackson). The O-line will have to play at an A-plus level to help Gruden win the shell game against top teams.

Defensively, new coordinator Gus Bradley is expected to utilize a simplified scheme to coax better performance and production out of a group that has struggled since Gruden's return. The Raiders are banking on simplified coverage schemes and straight-forward pass-rush tactics to enable the defense to play faster on the grass. In addition, the team is hoping for fewer mental blunders all over the field.

Although the unit's talent level is up for debate, getting the defense to play at a respectable level is a big part of the Raiders' bounce-back plan. If Bradley can mask the defense's talent deficiencies with a "play hard" mentality that emphasizes effort and energy over everything, the pressure will be on Gruden to scheme the Raiders to the playoffs.

If Gruden is unable to win with clever tactics and schemes, it might be time for Mark Davis to reconsider his decision to hand over his franchise to a coach with a record that does not match his reputation.

HALL OF FAME: Gold-jacket candidates under 30

The annual induction ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame provide coaches, scouts and executives an opportunity to watch highlights of some of the greatest to ever play the game.

While some observers will get caught up in the nostalgia of the event, astute evaluators will study the film and raise their standards for blue-chip players. With that in mind, I believe this is the perfect time to survey the league and project which players are potential gold-jacket guys based on their performance, production and playmaking ability at this stage of their respective careers.

To make it a more compelling list, I have left out the sure-fire Hall of Fame prospects like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt and focused on the younger generation of blue-chip players in the league.

With my eyes focused on players 29 or younger, here are five stars destined for the Hall of Fame at the end of their careers:

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

The Chiefs' QB1 might be the only quarterback capable of challenging Tom Brady's status as the G.O.A.T. The former NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP has already made a pair of Super Bowl appearances, with one ring on the mantel. The most gifted playmaker at the position, Mahomes is a magician with the ball in his hands. Whether he's executing sleight of hand maneuvers, delivering no-look passes or dropping dimes on improbable throws, the one-time All-Pro is raising the artistic bar for quarterbacks. With Mahomes also putting up ridiculous numbers (307.7 passing yards per game with a 114:24 TD-to-INT ratio over 46 career starts) and victories (38-8 career record) while providing spectacular entertainment for the football world, the Pro Football Hall of Fame should basically just go ahead and reserve a spot for No. 15. 

Quenton Nelson
Indianapolis Colts · OG

It is hard for an interior lineman to garner enough accolades and honors to merit Hall of Fame consideration, but Nelson is a unicorn at the position, as an athletic mauler/brawler with light feet and a nasty attitude. The three-time first-team All-Pro pummels defenders at the line of scrimmage with knockout power while also displaying a polished overall game that enables him to shadowbox when needed. As Nelson (who will miss time with a foot injury that requires surgery) continues to flex his muscles against overwhelmed opponents, the Colts' All-Pro guard will build on a resume that should already have him considered a shoo-in as a gold-jacket candidate.

Jalen Ramsey
Los Angeles Rams · CB

The loquacious Ramsey has plenty of bite to match his bark as the premier shutdown corner in the league. The 6-foot-1, 208-pounder completely erases WR1s on the perimeter with a physical game that tests the courage, concentration and route-running skills of elite pass catchers. As a true lockdown corner, Ramsey can follow the path of Darrelle Revis, who will certainly earn a Hall pass when he becomes eligible. Considering the two-time All-Pro is already pondering making the position switch that helped Rod Woodson and Charles Woodson earn gold jackets, the Rams' all-star defender is destined to be a first-ballot selection after he hangs up the cleats. 

T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB

The baby brother of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt has quietly put together a Hall of Fame-worthy resume that rivals that of his all-star older sibling. T.J. Watt has amassed 49.5 sacks over four seasons, including three straight seasons with at least 13 sacks. In addition, the Steelers' disruptive playmaker has emerged as one of the NFL's premier turnover machines, logging 17 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and four interceptions. With No. 90 thriving as an elite pass rusher off the edge, the Steelers' All-Pro sack master is well on his way toward earning a bronze bust in Canton. 

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB

The former MVP is on the fast track to Canton, knocking down records and piling up wins as an electrifying playmaker. Jackson is the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and he is the first player to log 5,000 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards in the first three years of a career. In addition, in his spectacular MVP campaign of 2019, Jackson joined Hall of Famer Steve Young and Cam Newton as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to produce at least 35 passing touchdowns and seven rushing scores in a single season (Josh Allen followed suit last season). Considering the Ravens have reached the postseason in three straight seasons under Jackson while the QB has compiled a 30-7 regular-season record, the fourth-year pro is in prime position to make a run at a gold jacket.


The Falcons' new No. 1. Julio Jones has a gold jacket in his future, but the emergence of Calvin Ridley ensures the Falcons' offense will not take a step back even with Jones shipped to Tennessee

The fourth-year pro is coming off a breakout season in which he tallied 90 catches for 1,374 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games. Jones was out of the lineup for nearly half of last season, so Ridley had a chance to step into the lead role and thrive despite facing double coverage and loaded zones tilted in his direction. 

Ridley's success as a part-time No. 1 not only gave the Falcons' staff enough confidence to appoint him as the team's No. 1 receiver but it enabled the young pass-catcher to see himself as the focal point of the passing game.

"I think I'm ready for that role, more than ready for that role," Ridley said on Tuesday, per The Associated Press.

Although the jump to the lead role is drastically different than thriving as a sidekick, Ridley certainly possesses the tools to crush it as a No. 1 receiver. From his crafty route-running ability and sneaky RAC (run after catch) skills to his strong hands and exceptional hand-eye coordination, Ridley displays all of the requisite traits of a lead receiver. He'll also have the help of a new sidekick in No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts, the first non-QB selected in this year's draft. Moreover, Ridley is mentally ready for the role and his confidence comes through when skeptics question his ability to thrive without Jones. 

"I don't want to say it's different," Ridley said. "I had some games without Jones. ... I just can't wait to make plays and do what I have to do for my teammates."

Given the opportunity in front of him in 2021, Ridley has a chance to prove to Falcons fans and casual observers that he is a true No. 1 with a game that puts him in the discussion as a top-five player at his position.

Position change pays off. It took Logan Thomas a few years to embrace a move from quarterback to tight end, but the decision was a wise one for the Washington Football Team veteran. Thomas recently agreed to a three-year, $24 million contract extension that rewards him for his emergence as a playmaker after a long, winding road to the position.

After being drafted as a quarterback in the fourth round of the 2014 draft by the Arizona Cardinals, Thomas found himself struggling to stick on a roster midway through the 2016 season, bouncing between the Dolphins and Giants practice squads. That's when he made the position change, playing tight end for Bills (2017-2018) and Lions (2019) before landing in Washington. The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder enjoyed a breakout year in 2020, posting 72 catches for 670 yards and six scores. Thomas accounted for 36 first downs while settling in as a reliable target between the hashes. The strong performance validated the opinions of scouts who had long viewed tight end as a good fit for the former Virginia Tech QB.

Thomas earned a four-star rating from 247Sports as a 6-foot-5, 220-pound pro-style quarterback in high school. Analysts raved about his impressive combination of size, strength and explosiveness as an elite athlete, and those reviews matched the evaluations of several NFL scouts after watching Thomas' impressive showing at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine (4.61-second 40-yard dash, 35 1/2-inch vertical jump, 118-inch broad jump and 4.18-second 20-yard shuttle).

Despite failing to make a mark as a quarterback for the Cardinals, Dolphins and Giants, Thomas' athletic traits piqued the interests of coaches and scouts searching for a big-bodied pass-catcher. Considering Thomas' recent success and the NFL's history with tight-end conversions (see: WR-turned-TE Darren Waller and former basketball players Jimmy Graham and Mo Alie-Cox, among others), scouts should continue to utilize their imaginations when evaluating long, rangy athletes with intriguing physical tools.

Walker Little: Training camp sensation. The Jaguars have not yet played a preseason game, but Little is on his way to earning all-star accolades as a training camp phenom.

In fact, the No. 45 overall pick of this year's draft has created quite a buzz throughout the offseason. Observers have raved about his size (6-foot-7, 309 pounds) and refined technique as a prototypical left tackle prospect. During a summer visit to Jaguars practices, I heard glowing reports on his development from staffers and even received a thumbs-up evaluation from Jaguars legend Tony Boselli after he spent some time studying the rookie on the field.

Scouts certainly are not surprised by positive reports on a player once considered a near-perfect high school prospect. Ranked as the No. 1 overall player of the 2017 recruiting class by 247Sports, Little possesses all of the traits that evaluators covet in offensive tackle prospects. From his size and length to his refined footwork and technique, he looks the part at first glance and his performance throughout camp has made some evaluators forget about his two-year layoff at the end of his Stanford career due to injury (torn ACL in 2019) and an opt-out in 2020.

With the rookie showing no signs of rust or underdevelopment as a player, the Jaguars might have uncovered a gem that gives them an insurance policy for Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor on the edges. If Little continues his impressive performance in preseason games, the Jaguars could be forced to reconsider their lineup plans heading into the regular season.

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