Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 | 9 a.m.
Heading into the 2017 season, the Raiders thought they had a roster capable of contending for a deep playoff run. Coming off a 12-4 campaign in 2016 that doubled as a breakout year for quarterback Derek Carr, the Oakland decision-makers at the time believed things were headed in the right direction.
But after the 2017 team tanked (6-10 record, -72 point differential), Mark Davis canned the duo of general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Jack Del Rio and persuaded former Raiders coach Jon Gruden to return from the broadcast booth and take over control of the team.
Gruden decided that a teardown was in order and has since undertaken a near-total rebuilding project, shipping out most of the team’s established talent (Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper) in favor of draft picks and low-cost young players.
Heading into Gruden’s third year as the franchise’s czar, is the rebuilding project on track? Are the Raiders a perennial playoff team in the making, or are there still vital pieces missing from the blueprint?
Let’s compare the 2020 depth chart to the 2017 team, the year before Gruden’s arrival:
2017: Derek Carr
2020: Derek Carr
The most important personnel decision an organization makes is at quarterback. When Gruden was hired, some questioned whether he believed in Carr as a franchise QB; well, three years later Carr is still the undisputed starter, so the coach must think pretty highly of him.
Progress: Positive. Carr is still searching for his place in the league and trying to recapture the magic of his breakout 2016 season, but he is a better quarterback now. Whether he’s good enough to lead a contender remains to be seen. For now and for the foreseeable future he appears to be the man.
2017: LT Donald Penn, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Marshall Newhouse
2020: LT Kolton Miller, LG Richie Incognito, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Trent Brown
Donald Penn was 34 years old, so Gruden was probably wise to invest a first-round pick in Kolton Miller. Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson are three years older and approaching the tail end of their primes, while Richie Incognito is going into his 17th season and isn’t a long-term building block. Trent Brown is a very good right tackle, but the Raiders are paying full freight there.
Progress: Even. The Las Vegas offensive line should be among the best in the league, but the three interior positions — while extremely solid — have only gotten older. Brown is a nice addition, but he comes with a heavy cost. Miller looks like a very good young left tackle and Gruden should be able to rebuild the line around him in future years.
2017: RB Marshawn Lynch, TE Jared Cook, WR Amari Cooper, WR Michael Crabtree
2020: RB Josh Jacobs, TE Darren Waller, WR Henry Ruggs, WR Bryan Edwards
This is where the rebuilding effort is most evident. The 2017 team leaned on declining veterans at the skill positions, and Gruden has cleared them out and replaced them with young, high-upside players. Josh Jacobs and Darren Waller have already paid off; if Henry Ruggs or Bryan Edwards (or both) follow suit, this is a dangerous stable of playmakers who could remain in place through the rest of Carr’s prime.
Progress: Big time. This is where the roster has taken the biggest step forward in the Gruden era 2.0.
2017: DE Mario Edwards, DT Eddie Vanderdoes, DT Justin Ellis, DE Khalil Mack
2020: DE Clelin Ferrell, DT Maliek Collins, DT Johnathan Hankins, DE Maxx Crosby
The 2017 line was, in a word, bad. Except for All-World edge rusher Khalil Mack, which is what made Mack’s holdout and subsequent trade so polarizing. Gruden has gone all-in on a youth movement up front, with second-year pass-rusher Maxx Crosby being the biggest find to this point. Maliek Collins is young, extremely talented an possibly on the verge of a major breakthrough campaign, but he’s also on a one-year contract and could be gone by this time next year. Clelin Ferrell's severe underperformance as a rookie was very concerning and, barring a major turnaround, he looms as an impediment to the rebuilding effort.
Progress: No. Gruden eventually decided to trade Mack, the only good player on the defense, for a haul of draft picks. At the time, win-now fans were outraged. Now Gruden looks like a genius, as Mack is taking up a substantial amount of cap space for a non-playoff team while the Raiders have made good use (so far) of the picks. Still, the defensive line is not in substantially better shape than it was three years ago. Ferrell is the key. Gruden and Mike Mayock used a premium pick on the Clemson defensive end—if things work out the way they hope, that will be the highest pick they’ll have during this rebuilding “window”—so there’s a lot riding on his development.
2017: NaVorro Bowman, Cory James, Marquel Lee
2020: Corey Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski, Raekwon McMillan
Littleton is the best linebacker the team has had in years and at 27 years old he can be a blue-chip building block going forward. Kwiatkoski isn’t as proven as Littleton, but he’s another darling of advanced metrics who should be in store for a good run with the Raiders.
Progress: Yes. This year’s linebacking corps is obviously miles ahead of the flotsam and jetsam the team trotted out in 2017. Going young and inexpensive at other positions (and clearing out big cap numbers like Mack’s) is what allowed Las Vegas to have the cap space available to sign Littleton and Kwiatkoski and remake the position group in the span of one offseason.
2017: CB David Amerson, CB T.J. Carrie, S Karl Joseph, S Reggie Nelson
2020: CB Trayvon Mullen, CB Damon Arnette, S Johnathan Abram, S Erik Harris
Like the offensive skill positions, this is another group that Gruden and Mayock have attacked with high draft picks since assuming control. Trayvon Mullen showed real promise toward the tail end of his rookie 2019 campaign, while Damon Arnette and Johnathan Abram are tough-nosed, physical players with high floors.
Progress: Yes. It remains to be seen if the current crop of young secondary talent can play at a high level, but we know for a fact that the 2017 secondary was a wreck. Throw in a promising youngster like 2019 fourth-round pick Amik Robertson and it looks like the Raiders are much better off here than they were three years ago.
In the big picture, it appears as though the Raiders are better positioned now than before Gruden came back. That doesn’t mean the rebuilding job is finished—far from it, in fact.
When asked about the infusion of young talent heading into Sunday’s season opener, Gruden sounded cautiously optimistic about the overall composition of the roster.
“We’ve done all we can to get them ready,” Gruden said. “We’re confident in these young people, that’s why we brought them here. We had two rookies starting at tackle my first year here. I’ve never seen that before. We had two rookies running backs and a rookie slot last year. We had two rookie wideouts this year. We have, I don’t know how many rookies on defense. We’ve built a new team. Now we’re starting to see the products of our labor. We’re hoping that Arnette, Ruggs and Edwards are up to the challenge because Carolina is going to be a challenge.”