2021 NFL Preview: Raiders need to start seeing results from Jon Gruden experiment

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·11 min read
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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis had a couple of interesting comments after last season about the state of his team, three seasons into the Jon Gruden experiment. 

"We were really looking forward to this inaugural season in Las Vegas — our new practice facility and everything else. All the things we dreamed of were coming true," Davis told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "But this season — and I’ve said it many, many, many times — life got in the way with the virus. It’s just hard to judge things based on any continuity." 

Davis went on to say it's "really hard to put any kind of grade on the season" due to the coronavirus and he was happy with the leadership of Gruden and GM Mike Mayock. It's partially true and partially a copout. The 2020 season was hard on everyone and threw things off. It's also true that all 32 teams dealt with COVID-19 and all had their challenges. The Raiders didn't have multiple starters opt out like the New England Patriots or have to play a game without a quarterback like the Denver Broncos. The Raiders' challenges weren't that much more significant than any other team. 

Davis was also asked about the team's 8-8 record. 

"That’s clearly not good enough. It has never been good enough for us, but we haven’t done much better in the last 20 years," Davis told the Review-Journal. "We went 12-4 in 2016 and were one-and-done in the playoffs. So there hasn’t been any real progress. We are hoping that we’re building something here. At the same time, results are the only thing that speaks. That’s what speaks to me and we just haven’t done it yet."

That speaks to the plight of the Raiders. They went 8-8 after starting 6-3, which is a huge disappointment in most NFL circles. For the Raiders, it was still tied for their second-best record over the last 20 seasons. The bar isn't that high. Gruden's first three years have contributed to that low bar. 

Each of the past two seasons, the same pattern emerged. In 2019, a 6-4 start was followed by the Raiders losing five of their last six. Last season, Las Vegas started 6-3 and lost five of its last seven. 

It's troubling. Raiders owner Mark Davis invested a lot into Gruden. (The $100 million over 10 years figure has been disputed by Gruden, but nobody has corrected it with a more accurate figure.) Three years into that contract, there have been no winning records. The late-season collapses prevented that. 

“I can almost guarantee you from here on out, you’re going to hear me talk about ‘finish, finish, finish,’” Carr said, via the Las Vegas Sun. “And Coach Gruden is going to put it up in the facility. We’re going to finish practice. We’re going to finish everything we do. It has to be a point of emphasis for us.”

Maybe a few motivational signs will fix everything. More likely, there's some other reason the Raiders are bad late in the season. The 2018 Raiders, Gruden's first team, went 3-9 after September. That team lacked the good start to the season though. 

Maybe opponents are making better midseason adjustments to Gruden's plan of attack, and the Raiders aren't doing a good enough job self-scouting. Perhaps the talent gets worn thin as the season goes on. The Raiders have not, to this point, hit on enough draft picks or free agents to have a playoff roster. Maybe it's as simple as bad second-half luck in a small sample. But it's an issue. 

Davis didn't sign up for a 29-39 record when he dropped all that money on Gruden. Davis seems fine giving Gruden and Mayock a pass for a weird 2020. He could be right. But it should be time to make progress or consider another direction. 

Whatever the terms of Gruden's contract, the Raiders haven't gotten a good enough return on that investment yet. 

Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden is looking for his first winning season in his second stint with the team. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden is looking for his first winning season in his second stint with the team. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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The Raiders might have been smart to let Nelson Agholor leave after he played very well on a one-year deal and cashed in for $22 million over two years with the New England Patriots. We'll see if Agholor has found the consistency that eluded him with the Philadelphia Eagles. John Brown comes aboard for $3.75 million, a much better dollar-for-dollar deal (though Brown seems somewhat redundant with Henry Ruggs on the roster). The big addition for the Raiders was Yannick Ngakoue, who should provide a much-needed pass rush. The Raiders did make perhaps the strangest signing of the offseason when they got running back Kenyan Drake for $11 million over two years. Spending $5.5 million per year on Josh Jacobs' backup doesn't seem prudent, though Drake is a good player when healthy. Signing cornerback Casey Hayward for just $2.5 million could make up for the Drake overpay. The offensive line will look a lot different with tackle Trent Brown, guard Gabe Jackson and center Rodney Hudson all traded away, and that unit is a big question heading into the season. The Raiders' draft was a mixed bag, with a largely panned reach for Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood in the first round and a strong pick of TCU safety Trevon Moehrig in round two. 

Grade: C-plus

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For what seems like the 40th straight offseason, everyone has spent a lot of words on how Derek Carr would be replaced, but he's back again as the Raiders' starter. This year, the speculation was on Deshaun Watson coming, then maybe Aaron Rodgers. Just remember, every single star player who might be the least bit available has to be connected to Jon Gruden's Raiders. That's a law of NFL media coverage now. The funny thing is, 2020 was perhaps Carr's best season. He posted a career-best 101.4 rating. Carr's QBR was a career-best 71, if you prefer that metric. His adjusted yards per attempt, a Pro Football Reference stat, rose to a career-best 8.2. Carr had the eighth-best grade among all quarterbacks at Pro Football Focus. Carr was more willing to push the ball downfield and had success on deep throws, while still keeping his interceptions under 2 percent of his attempts. Carr also just turned 30; he has plenty of prime years left. None of that will stop speculation that he'll be replaced, but Carr is playing a lot better than he is ever given credit for. 

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The Raiders' win total at BetMGM is 7. To be honest, I wondered if recency bias affected my ranking of the Raiders, and maybe the win total too. The Raiders did go 8-8 last season. We can dismiss them for poor finishes, but the good starts can't be ignored. It does seem hard to believe the Raiders will go 6-11, though the schedule is very tough and will only get tougher if Aaron Rodgers lands in Denver. I'd rather bet on the push, but since that's not available, I'll take the over. It seems more likely than the under. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Touchdown deodorant carried Josh Jacobs last year (masking a spotty 3.9 YPC), and he's still a Top 40 pick this season on most platforms. That appears to be a mistake. 

"Jacobs was ordinary as a receiver to begin with, and now Kenyan Drake arrives to take over that role. And the Raiders offensive line has probably taken a step back. Even when Jacobs slides to the fourth round, my eyes will probably be on the receiver pool at that moment, not on an ordinary running back tied to a team likely to be under .500."

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NFL analyst Warren Sharp came up with a great way of projecting strength of schedule years ago, using sportsbooks' win totals to come up with a SOS. That method is far better than simply using records from the previous season. This year, the Raiders have the hardest schedule in the NFL, based on Sharp's method. The Raiders' schedule gets harder if Aaron Rodgers lands with the Denver Broncos, too. The Raiders are trying to take the next step. Las Vegas' record has improved each of the past two seasons. But playing in what might be the toughest division in football doesn't help. If the Raiders make it to the playoffs this season, they will have earned it. 

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Will the Raiders' draft picks start to pay off? 

The Raiders have had seven first-round picks with Jon Gruden (six since Mike Mayock took over as general manager). Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood was considered a reach by everyone this year, but that doesn't mean he won't be a great NFL player. We don't know yet. The other first-rounders have mostly not made the impact the Raiders would hope, on the whole: 

2018: OT Kolton Miller (33rd among tackles in PFF's 2020 rankings, got an extension worth $54 million over three years)

2019: DL Clelin Ferrell (6.5 sacks in 26 games)

2019: RB Josh Jacobs (back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons)

2019: S Johnathan Abram (ranked 91st out of 91 safeties at PFF)

2020: WR Henry Ruggs III (452 receiving yards and 2 TDs)

2020: CB Damon Arnette (ranked 118th out of 126 cornerbacks at PFF) 

Miller (who wasn't picked by Mayock) and Jacobs worked out. The others, who should be the core of the team along with Derek Carr, Darren Waller and some other vets, have a long way to go. Many, like Ferrell and Ruggs, were considered reaches when they were picked. The rest of the 2018 draft class completely washed out after Miller. The 2019 and 2020 classes had some good picks (Maxx Crosby) and some bad ones (Lynn Bowden). There's still time for players like Ruggs and Arnette to take steps forward, and the Raiders need that to happen. 

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There's something to be said about those fast starts each of the past two seasons. You can't go 6-2 or 6-3 without being a capable team. Derek Carr is underrated, and there is some talent around him. The Raiders need to see more out of some of their former first-round picks, but if those players take a step maybe the Raiders as a whole can as well. Perhaps adding defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will bring the most of the talent on hand and lead to a huge improvement. Bradley has been a successful defensive coach and there is a lot of highly drafted or high-priced talent on the roster. It seems hard to believe the Raiders can overtake the Kansas City Chiefs in the division, and the Los Angeles Chargers (and maybe the Broncos) are better on paper too, but maybe the Raiders start fast, don't fade in the second half and make it back to the playoffs. 

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If a rough schedule gets the best of the Raiders, a double-digit loss season would shine a harsh light on Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock. This is Gruden's fourth year and Mayock's third. There have been a lot of misses in the draft, some on picks that went completely against conventional wisdom. Unconventional picks aren't bad, but they look bad when they don't work. The Raiders have had a lot of draft picks in this current regime, and it would hurt if some of the young players don't improve this season. Those draft classes should be leading the Raiders into a brighter future. If the Raiders are stuck after 2021 with four years of Gruden with no winning seasons, no playoff berths and way more draft misses than hits, it's not like anyone will feel good about 2022 and beyond. 

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The Raiders might be ranked a bit low. Again, you can't start 6-2 or 6-3 if you're a horrendous team. Derek Carr is good enough, Darren Waller is a blue-chip tight end, the combination of Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake should be good and maybe some of the young defensive players and other additions turn around a defense that has been a problem. Still, I think we'll see more of the same from the Raiders. They'll play well in stretches and get a few nice wins, but not enough to make the playoffs or get over .500. The defense still has holes and the offense won't be good enough to overcome it. Then it will be on owner Mark Davis to decide what comes next. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons

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