When the 2018 NFL draft kicked off, the Raider Nation was sure of one thing, defense would be a priority. Who would the team select? Would elite pass rusher Bradley Chubb fall to ten? What about safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James? Would they take a chance on defensive lineman, Vita Vea? The answer, oddly enough, was none of the above. The team traded back and selected offensive lineman, Kolton Miller. This move enraged the vast majority of Raider Nation at first, but with a closer look, the fans of the Silver and Black have a lot to be excited about on that side of the ball.
The 2018 Oakland Offense Has Unprecedented Potential
The defense of the Oakland Raiders is a mess, that’s for sure. There are more questions than answers, and I don’t think anyone is expecting the unit to be top ten this year. However, the other side of the ball? Is looking really, really good on paper. Let’s start at the top.
Jon Gruden’s Super Bowl victory as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came because of the team’s elite defense, but there’s no question that his roots are as an offensive coach. He came into the NFL in 1990 as an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers, and over the next five years, he worked his way up to being the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles before Al Davis made him head coach of the Raiders in 1998. With Gruden as the team’s head coach, he transformed career journeyman Rich Gannon into a MVP winner. There’s no doubt that the man understands offense.
However, that was 20 years ago. It’s easy to see why some fans might be skeptical, especially since he was unable to get any kind of offensive efficiency out of the Buccaneers during his time there, and he was fired in 2008 for a reason.
Many fans compare Gruden to Joe Gibbs, saying that it’s easy for the game to pass you by, regardless of how great you once were. However, unlike Gibbs, Gruden wasn’t away from the game. As the face of Monday Night Football, Gruden was very lucky to have multiple opportunities to not only watch several different teams and coaches, but to interview them. He’s been taking notes for a decade, and even if he’s lost a step from his absence, the same isn’t true for his staff.
Gruden’s offensive staff is an interesting bunch, to say the least, mostly because of how familiar some of the names are. Greg Olson, the offensive coordinator, was Oakland’s offensive coordinator before, just four years ago. Tom Cable, the offensive line coach, was Oakland’s head coach in 2010. Then, you’ve got Brian Callahan, the son of Bill Callahan, the same head coach that botched Oakland’s Super Bowl against Gruden’s Buccaneers.
Those three raise some eyebrows, but there’s no question that Olson has the chops, given that he got the best out of the likes of Blake Bortles and Jared Goff, and hopefully the hype with Cable will finally come through. As for Callahan, he’s got a Master’s degree in education from UCLA, and under his tutelage, Matthew Stafford enjoy career bests.
Then you’ve got Edgar Bennett, the wide receivers coach, who spent the last two years as Green Bay’s offensive coordinator. The demotion from coordinator to assistant coach probably has something to do with how Green Bay suffered without Aaron Rodgers last year. Jemal Singleton, the running backs coach, got a 1,000 yard rushing season out of a 33 year old Frank Gore, that’s good news for Marshawn Lynch.
Gruden made a list of all the assistant coaches he wanted from around the league, and from the looks of it, he got everyone he wanted. The man they call “Chucky” might’ve been out of the game for a decade, but these men weren’t, and they come highly qualified.
Derek Carr signed a monster contract extension last off-season, and if we’re being completely honest, he hasn’t quite lived up to it yet. That’s not entirely Derek’s fault. Last year, everything that could’ve gone wrong in Oakland, did. Injuries? Check. Receivers dropping everything but a mix tape? Check. Asinine play-calling from offensive coordinator, Todd Downing? Discount Double-Check. Throw in rumors of a broken locker room and Derek never stood a chance.
But that was last year and last year is gone. Carr is finally completely healthy, he’s got the aforementioned staff, which is easily the most qualified he’s ever played with, and he’s good to go. People forget that just two years ago, Carr was a bondafide MVP candidate, and it’s not like those tools have gone away.
He’s still very athletic, very accurate, and boasting a cannon for an arm. This team will live and die by what Derek Carr does under center. Fortunately, Jon Gruden agrees, as he never shuts up about how much he loves Carr, but says he wants to give him more control of the offense.
This is only a good thing. There were points last year where Carr was visibly uncomfortable in the offense, and tried to force plays as opposed to taking what the defense was giving down the field. The offense was ridiculous last year, because Todd Downing looked at an offense featuring several freakishly fast receivers and a quarterback that can haul the rock and thought, “Meh, let’s throw a four yard out.”
Marshawn Lynch was the flashy acquisition of the last off-season. The man they call “Beast Mode” came out of retirement to play for his hometown team before they moved to Las Vegas. The signing of Doug Martin had the opposite reaction, as many believe he’s washed up and beyond his prime. Meanwhile, backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington remain on the roster.
In all likelihood, one, if not both of the younger backs will be cut or traded, and Lynch will probably be the featured back, and judging by Gruden’s comments, they’re gonna really lean on strong, power runs. He wants to give Lynch a couple of blocking tight ends, a fullback, and big offensive linemen. If the passing game explodes this year, which many fans hope it will, Lynch won’t face as many loaded boxes. Beast faced more loaded boxes than any other back in football last year, and he still managed to rush for nearly 900 yards and 4.3 yards per carry.
The Raiders had neglected the right tackle position over the last few years, and when they finally addressed it, the decision was met with a chorus of boos. This isn’t first round pick, Kolton Miller’s fault, as most fans wanted defense, and there are plenty of questions about Miller’s readiness.
However, he is an exceptional athlete, and hypothetically, Tom Cable is a great offensive line coach. He doesn’t have to revolutionize blocking or even live up to the expectations of being a first round pick. As long as he’s decent, he’ll bolster an offensive line that still features arguably the NFL’s interior line of Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele, and the underrated Gabe Jackson. Donald Penn is still a solid tackle, but he’s not getting any younger and it’ll be interesting to see how he performs this year.
The Tight Ends
Currently, the Raiders have a very crowded tight end group. At the moment, Jared Cook, Derek Carrier, Lee Smith, and Pharoah Brown are on the team. Cook was one of Oakland’s few reliable receivers last year, especially on third down. He’s not getting any younger, but he’s a big, fast target that Carr can trust to take advantage of holes in coverage caused by receivers.
A phenomenal athlete, Carrier is more of a blocker than a pure receiver, paired with Lee Smith, it’s apparent that Gruden would like to set up some really strong power run formations. With Lynch and Doug Martin behind what should still be a respectable line, as well as fullback Keith Smith, the Raiders are going to look to run the ball through and over defenders.
It’s funny, if you asked a Raiders fan about the receiving corps this time last year, they’d tell you that the team had one of the better units in football. Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts, and Cordarrelle Patterson seemed like a decent unit. Well, there are a million reasons as to why last year flopped so horribly, and one is certainly this group. They led the NFL in drops, Crabtree got suspended for a blood-feud with Aqib Talib, and Roberts failed horribly to live up to his new contract.
Fast forward to now, and it’s night and day. Amari Cooper remains, and for some reason, Seth Roberts is still on the roster, but outside of that? There’s no question the team has improved, almost completely.
Amari Cooper is a bit of a strange case. He’s been very effective for Oakland, and he’s only 23 years old, but he hasn’t quite lived up to being a first round pick yet. A lot of that has been due in part to injuries, drops, and the fact that the old coaches had no idea how to use him.
Jon Gruden has said that he wants to get creative with Cooper, moving him around the field, and that’s the best way to use him. He can play well on the outside, but his incredibly quickness and polished routes make him absolutely lethal in the slot. With the three men the Raiders have added this off-season, he can be moved around to where he’s most explosive.
On the same day that the Silver and Black released Crabtree, they brought in Jordy Nelson. Nelson had an off-year in 2017, but that’s hardly because of his own failings. He was the number one receiver in an offense being commanded by Brett Hundley, arguably the worst quarterback in football. Two years ago, Nelson led the NFL in touchdown catches. Worst case scenario, the Raiders have a big, physical target that dominates 50/50 balls, best case scenario? They get the guy who set the record for most touchdowns of at least 40 yards in a season.
The Raiders didn’t hold on to the spoils of the draft trade for long, sending their new third round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for Martavis Bryant. Bryant is a big, explosive target. At 6’4, 211 pounds with 4.42 speed, it wasn’t his on the field talent that got him kicked out of Pittsburgh, but his popularity in the locker room. He gives the Raiders a home run threat that they haven’t had in years, which is ironic given the stereotypes regarding the team.
As the draft came to a close, the Raiders announced something astonishing. They had traded second round bust, Jihad Ward, to the Dallas Cowboys for wide receiver, Ryan Switzer. Switzer isn’t ever going to be an outside receiver, as he isn’t astonishingly fast, and he’s smaller than you’d want a receiver to be, but he’s got elite slot potential.
Switzer has elite quickness and very reliable hands. The Raiders can use Switzer to feast on mismatches across the board with the likes of Bryant, Nelson, and Cooper stretching the field. The best thing about Switzer is that he’s nothing like any other receiver on the team. Gruden can field just about any kind of offense he wants with the personnel on this team.
Potential Isn’t Production
We all love the idea of potential. Having “the stuff to make it” is all we want from a team, a player, or a prospect. However, potential is meaningless until it becomes production. Gruden has to be creative, and he has to be relentless in demanding the absolute best from his players. If Gruden has a clear, concise plan in mind for these players, he could tear some defenses apart in 2018. However, the Raiders have as much to be excited about as anyone does.