20 May 19
ALAMEDA — The Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock makeover of the Raiders is virtually complete, and even the most severe critic would concede the talent has been upgraded considerably.
It remains to be seen whether getting younger and faster will mean going from four wins to six or seven or perhaps even playoff contention with something above .500.
With full-squad voluntary organized team activity (OTA) underway this week and media access on Tuesday, a look at which position groups improved the most from last season’s week 17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs until now:
1. WIDE RECEIVERS
2019: Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Ryan Grant, Marcell Ateman, Hunter Renfrow, J.J. Nelson, Saeed Blacknall, Brian Burt, Keelan Doss, Rico Gafford, Keon Hatcher, Dwayne Harris
2018: Jordy Nelson, Seth Roberts, Marcel Ateman, Dwayne Harris, Keon Hatcher, Rico Gafford. Injured reserve: Martavis Bryant, Brandon LaFell
Not just the most improved position group on the Raiders, but very likely the most improved group of any team in the NFL.
The Raiders disputed the notion last season Jordy Nelson had lost a step. Once the season was underway, it was clear that while Nelson could still catch the ball, his game-breaking days were left behind.
Enter Brown via trade, the most explosive receiver in the NFL who has shown no signs of slowing down at age 30. And Williams from the Los Angeles Chargers, who can stretch the field with the best of them. It’s the best Raiders duo since Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, and much younger.
When the dust settles, it’s conceivable there won’t be a single receiver on the roster other than special teams savant Harris who played for the Raiders in 2018. So getting the timing down with quarterback Derek Carr during these OTAs is crucial.
2 (tie) CORNERBACKS, SAFETIES
2019: Gareon Conley, Daryl Worley, Trayvon Mullen, Nevin Lawson, Nick Nelson, Isaiah Johnson, Dylan Maybin, Montrel Meander, Kisean Nixon
2018: Rashaan Melvin, Gareon Conley, Marcus Gilchrist, Nick Nelson, Bene Benwikere. Injured reserve: Daryl Worley, Dexter McDonald, Tevin Mitchell, Leon Hall
2019: LaMarcus Joyner, Johnathan Abram, Karl Joseph, Erik Harris, Jordan Richards, Curtis Riley, Dallin Leavitt, Mackinton Dorleant
2018: Karl Joseph, Erik Harris, Dallin Leavitt, Montrel Meander. Injured reserve: Reggie Nelson
LaMarcus Joyner (20) moves from the Rams to the Raiders.
All those new receivers will have some new talent to work against in practice. Conley may be the best cover corner the Raiders have had since Nnamdi Asomugha. Worley, Mullen and Lawson give the Raiders the potential of four solid corners, which is a wealth of personnel given the fact that Joyner will spend much of his time in the slot.
Much is expected of Abram, the third of three first-round draft picks. You don’t get issued uniform No. 24 (Willie Brown, Charles Woodson, Marshawn Lynch) otherwise. Joseph showed he could be a viable NFL safety late last season and Harris was signed to an extension.
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The Raiders could conceivably put five or six defensive backs on the field at the same time this season without a glaring weak link. It’s been a long time since they could say that.
3. DEFENSIVE LINE
2019: DE Clelin Ferrell, DT Maurice Hurst, DT Justin Ellis, DE Arden Key, DE Benson Mayowa, DE Josh Mauro, DE Maxx Crosby, DE Quinton Bell, DE Alex Barrett, DT P.J. Hall, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Ronald Ollie, DT Eddy Vanderdoes, DT Gabe Wright
2018: DE Frostee Rucker, DT P.J. Hall, DT Johnathan Hankins, DE Arden Key, DT Gabe Wright, DT Justin Ellis, DE Kony Ealy, DT Clinton McDonald, DT Maurice Hurst. Injured reserve: DT Ahyta Rubin, DT Eddy Vanderdoes.
It’s a risky proposition to depend so much on rookies to account for an upgrade — witness Key’s struggle as a third-round pick a year ago. Gruden and Mayock pushed a lot of chips into the middle of the table on Ferrell, and Crosby will get a long look as an edge rusher as the Raiders seek to go 13 sacks to north of 30.
But this unit was so weak a season ago, particularly in terms of pass rush, that it’s hard to imagine it won’t be considerably better, rookies or no rookies. Quantum leap performances in Year 2 by Hurst and Hall will give the Raiders a considerable push inside.
4. OFFENSIVE LINE
2019: LT Kolton Miller, LG Denzelle Good, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Trent Brown, T Brandon Parker, T David Sharpe, T Tyler Roemer, T Justin Murray, T Andre James, C-G Jordan Devey, G Lukayus McNeil, G-T Denver Kirkland, G-T Chaz Green, G Lester Cotton Sr.
2018: LT Kolton Miller, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson, RG Denzelle Good, RT Brandon Parker, G Chaz Green, T David Sharpe, T Justin Murray, G Denver Kirkland, G Cameron Hunt. Injured reserve: T Donald Penn, T T.J. Clemmings, G Gabe Jackson.
If Miller and Brown can protect Carr’s flanks and perform somewhere in the realm of Hudson and Jackson, the Raiders can get their offensive line back on track. As recently as 2016, it was among the best in the NFL.
Considering right tackle has been the one spot that’s been a revolving door, Brown assuming that position makes some sense. Don’t overthink the whole left-right tackle thing in terms of pecking order. Lincoln Kennedy was the rock of the Raiders offensive line back in the day and he was basically just a smaller (believe it or not) version of Brown.
There’s a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of line coach Tom Cable, whose charges have long considered him a straight shooter and an excellent technician. The rap in Seattle was he didn’t adequately develop young talent. So Miller will be watched closely.
5. RUNNING BACKS
2019: Josh Jacobs, Doug Martin, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, Chris Warren III, Keith Smith (FB), Ryan Yurachek (FB), Alec Ingold (FB). Injured reserve: Isaiah Crowell.
2018: Doug Martin, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, Keith Smith (FB). Injured reserve: Marshawn Lynch, Chris Warren III
The big change was the selection of Jacobs in the first round, and the belief here is he could be the most talented all-round back since Marcus Allen since he’s bigger than the ultra-productive Charlie Garner.
Martin is back in case Jacobs needs to be spelled after never having been a carry-the-load back at Alabama, and Richard can be penciled in for another 60-plus receptions out of the backfield. Warren led the NFL in preseason rushing a year ago, but beware of big preseason rushing totals — the more yardage you get, the less likely you are to make the roster.
Yurachek and Ingold provide competition at fullback for Smith, who had a rough first season.
2019: OLB Tahir Whitehead, MLB Vontaze Burfict, OLB Brandon Marshall, OLB Nick Morrow, OLB-MLB Marquel Lee, MLB Jason Cabinda, OLB James Cowser, OLB Koa Farmer, OLB Kyle Wilber, MLB Te’von Coney
2018: WLB Nick Morrow, MLB Tahir Whitehead, LB Jason Cabinda, LB Marquel Lee, LB Kyle Wilber. Injured reserve: OLB Jacquies Smith
Brandon Marshall (54) is now Derek Carr’s teammate.
Whitehead may benefit greatly from a better supporting cast in terms of defensive talent. While it’s easy in May to think the best of free agent acquisitions, players who sign one-year “prove it” deals are in that position for a reason. And that’s both Burfict and Marshall. Neither is a lock to rekindle their glory days.
Morrrow came in as a Division III undrafted free agent, then switched defensive systems in Year 2. In Paul Guenther’s system for a second year could enable Morrow to take the next step from intriguing athlete to solid professional linebacker.
2019: Derek Carr, Mike Glennon, Landry Jones, Nathan Peterman
2018: Derek Carr, A.J. McCarron
No drama here, other than those who bought the whole ill-conceived idea of Gruden scrapping everything for a rookie quarterback.. The Raiders were all-in on Carr for a second season in Gruden’s system which will ultimately determine the direction of the franchise at the position heading in to Las Vegas in 2020.
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He’ll be the same Carr, only with a superior supporting cast and more of a mastery of the offense.
Snicker at the rest of the quarterbacks all you want, but Mike Glennon could be the best backup Carr’s ever had.
8. TIGHT ENDS
2019: Darren Waller, Luke Willson, Foster Moreau, Derek Carrier, Paul Butler
2018: Jared Cook, Lee Smith, Darren Waller, Derek Carrier, Paul Butler
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section”]The Raiders jettisoned their most productive offensive player in Cook (they never made a serious effort to re-sign him) as well as a team leader and ferocious in-line blocking tight end in Smith.
Darren Waller will be given the opportunity to take Cook’s role as far as he can, while Willson and Moreau are likely to stick on the 53. Carrier’s role as a “joker” tight never materialized in his first season with the Raiders.
9. SPECIAL TEAMS
2019: K Daniel Carlson, P Johnny Townsend, LS Andrew DePaola, P A.J. Cole, LS Trent Sieg
2018: K Daniel Carlson, P Johnny Townsend, LS Trent Sieg. Injured reserve: K Mike Nugent, K Eddy Pineiro, LS Andrew DePaola
Not much to see here unless Cole can unseat Townsend, whose rookie season as the Raiders punter was underwhelming considering the production of predecessors Marquette King and Shane Lechler.
Carlson converted 17 of 18 field goal attempts and currently has no competition. Place kicking can be tricky however, and Carlson’s height makes for a longer swing with more potential for hooks and slices. The long-snapping competition between DePaola and Seig could come down to cost.