By Flint Wheeler
Mercifully the Raiders laid to rest their 2018 NFL campaign as the first to officially be eliminated from Playoff Contention. First let’s take a look at all that went right this season.
#1 – There’s a real case to be made that head coach–de facto GM–Oakland Overlord Jon Gruden’s strategy for blowing up the Raiders makes sense. Dealing Amari Cooper for a first-round pick just as the wide receiver was set for a raise was a win, and the Khalil Mack trade may even look good with a few years of hindsight as well. Nah, that’s not even close to true but I found myself after one positive thing to already be out of positives for the Raiders this year. But the Raiders have too many bridges to cross this offseason to declare anything a success just yet.
What Went Wrong
How long do you have? The first year of Gruden’s decade-long reign was the NFL’s “Father Knows Best?” experiment: How much can a coach antagonize his fan base if given absolute power? In what many thought would be a rebuilding year, he assembled the oldest roster in the league by adding veterans and purging first- and second-round draft picks. He half-joked about not knowing how to pronounce data, said he wanted to take football back to the 1990s, and then showed the team film from the 1970s. Before the season even began, Gruden released the team’s leading scorer (Michael Crabtree) and the team’s most fun player (punter Marquette King), and then, one week before the season, he traded the team’s best player (Khalil Mack). A few days after the Mack trade, the city of Oakland threatened to sue the Raiders and I’m not making any of this up.
Then the season began, and everything got worse. The Raiders are 2-10 and tied for the worst record in football (the team they are tied with, Bay Area rival San Francisco, beat them by 31 points). The defense allows the highest percentage of opposing drives to end in a score in the NFL at a whopping 47.3 percent. Vegas has our own College Of The Desert as a slight 3 point underdog if they played in Palm Desert.
The starting quarterback, Derek Carr, who not so long ago was the league’s highest-paid player, is having the worst season of his career. Less than a year removed from reports that Carr was one of the reasons Gruden took the job, Carr is already rumored to be a lame duck who will not be around when the team gets to Vegas in 2020 (the team could save $15 million and eat $7.5 million in cap money by cutting him this offseason). Also, he’s been reduced to tweeting that he did not cry during a game and that reports that he lost teammates’ support because of the crying were false. Not familiar with “Carr defends crying”. Google it, it’s fairly entertaining.
The Raiders’ best player might be 35-year-old safety Reggie Nelson. The team is at the stage when last week’s seven-point loss to the Chiefs is considered a positive turning point for team chemistry. The 2018 Raiders season is Gruden slapping Raiders fans across the face with their own hands while yelling “why are you hitting yourself?”
We don’t know what Gruden’s strategy will be in 2019, but he has nearly $80 million of cap space to play with, the fifth most in the league. Oakland could invest in high-priced free agents of Gruden’s liking, but the team has so much draft capital that it may double down on the 2018 strategy of bringing in veterans who can help establish a culture for the young players who will be the future of the team. Expect more Jordy Nelsons, not Jadeveon Clowneys.
Gruden has, to the great pain of Raiders fans, lamented the team’s lack of a pass rush this season. Luckily, this is one of the best defensive line draft classes in recent years. Half of the players on Mel Kiper’s big board are either interior defensive linemen or edge rushers. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is very much in play for Oakland’s first pick, and a plethora of pass rushers from Kentucky’s Josh Allen to Florida’s Jachai Polite to Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell are all in the mix for later in the first round. As painful as trading Mack was, by the time the Oakland Raiders become the Las Vegas Raiders, they may have a combo of pass rushers (Bosa and Ferrell?) who combine to earn half of Mack’s salary.
Yet none of the picks the Raiders have accumulated matter if the team doesn’t select the right players. It’s hard to imagine Gruden will let Reggie McKenzie spearhead the Raiders’ draft efforts after cutting bait on the GM’s past picks, but Gruden does not have a strong history of scouting talent himself. The key to 2019—and Gruden’s tenure—will be how much and to whom Gruden delegates power. That starts with the draft. If the Raiders nail all three of these picks, they may waltz into Vegas like the Golden Knights on steroids, and Gruden will look very smart. If they whiff, it’s going to be a long decade.