After another promising off-season, the newly-christened Las Vegas Raiders look to take a step forward in 2020. Most of the coaching staff returns, as does starting quarterback Derek Carr and the entire 2019 offensive line. Last year’s rookie standouts, Josh Jacobs, Maxx Crosby, Foster Moreau, and Hunter Renfrow are back, ready to build on last year’s success.
The team finally spent on defense, adding linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, veteran defensive backs Prince Amukamara and Damarious Randall, and rotational rusher Carl Nassib. Throw in an impressive rookie class boasting speedster Henry Ruggs III, the big-bodied Bryan Edwards, the versatile Lynn Bowden Jr., and PFF darling, Damon Arnette, and it’s not unrealistic to expect the Raiders to be a much better team this season.
But how much better?
Realistic Raider Expectations: 2020 Edition
Expected Improvement Areas
I loved what Mike Mayock did this off-season because it all made perfect sense. The Raiders had a depleted secondary, so they went out and added some fresh legs. The team hasn’t had linebacker talent for over a decade, so they brought in Kwiatkoski and Littleton. And everyone knows the Raiders lacked speed on offense, so they completely revamped Carr’s weapons.
As a result, here’s where I expect the Raiders to be better this season.
Vertical Passing Game
Nobody in the NFL protects the football better than Derek Carr in the passing game. He always looks for the high percentage pass, he doesn’t take unnecessary risks, and he follows the play to a T. This is both praise and criticism. Because while Carr won’t turn the ball over often, it also means he’s more likely to avoid potential big plays because of risk.
We saw a lot of this last year. Only Drew Brees had a better completion percentage (74.3%) than Carr (70.4%), and Derek had 178 more attempts. Carr broke 4,000 yards for the second straight season, and threw nearly three times as many touchdowns (21) as interceptions (8). These are all positive stats.
However, a more disappointing stat surrounds just how infrequently Carr threw deep. Carr has checked down on 10.3% of his passes over the last two seasons, trailing only Blake Bortles (13.3%), and Mason Rudolph (10.5%), neither of whom are starters anymore. His 47 deep ball attempts were 25th in the NFL, despite boasting one of the best arms in the NFL.
Carr’s more avid defenders point to the scheme, which is based on yards after the catch, as well as the team’s lack of speed and receiver talent last season for the lack of deep attempts, but I suspect that will change this year. You don’t spend a first round pick on a player like Henry Ruggs if you’re going to ask him to run slants and outs.
The Raiders struggled mightily on offense inside the 20 yard line last season. They finished the season 22nd in the league in redzone scoring despite being 14th in attempts. Their run game faltered inside the five, and once Foster Moreau went out, the team’s offense fell off a cliff.
The additions of Bryan Edwards, Jason Witten, and Lynn Bowden, as well as the return of Moreau and development of Hunter Renfrow, make me think the team will experience significantly more success in the redzone this year. Teams won’t be able to load the box and attack Josh Jacobs if the team has so many short-field weapons. I personally look forward to Edwards becoming a fade-route magician like Michael Crabtree was for Carr once upon a time.
Third and Long Woes
The Raiders were hard to watch on third down defensively last season. Even when the defense got stops early, they seemed to give up big plays on third down pretty consistently. The team was 26th in third down efficiency, giving up a first down on 42.63% of their chances to kill opposing drives. This can be attributed to atrocious linebacker play, questionable corner talent, and an inconsistent pass rush.
I bet the team gets better in a hurry this year based on three things. One, a complete overhaul in the linebacking corps. After having one of the worst linebackers in pass coverage last year, the team went out and got two of the best. Secondly, the secondary is dramatically better. Prince Amukamara is a reliable veteran, the rookie tandem of Damon Arnette and Amik Robertson have a lot to prove, and Damarious Randall is one of the league’s better safeties when he’s motivated. And finally, don’t sleep on all the wisdom that Rod Marinelli brings to the table as a “defensive line coach.”
I bet the Raiders give up significantly fewer first downs on third and long this season, meaning fewer touchdowns and better field position for the offense. It’s a big, big change. However… not all of my expectations are positive.
The Raiders will be starting at least eight players in their first or second season. Josh Jacobs, Alec Ingold, Hunter Renfrow, Henry Ruggs, Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Trayvon Mullen, and Johnathan Abram this year, and expecting production from Bryan Edwards, Isaiah Johnson, Damon Arnette, Amik Robertson, and Lynn Bowden. That’s a lot of pressure on players that are sophomores at best. Last year’s rookies did a a great job of making an immediate impact, but it wasn’t enough to change the fate of the team. They all have to continue to make an impact and improve if they want the Raiders to get over the hump.
A Ruthless Kingdom
As good as the Las Vegas Raiders look on paper, it would be a blatant lie to say they have the best roster in the division. After two years, Patrick Mahomes has more games with at least four touchdowns (eight) than career losses (seven), and inexplicably, the Chiefs managed to bring back basically the entire roster while also improving in the draft.
The Raiders haven’t beaten the Chiefs since 2017, and Derek Carr has never won in Arrowhead. Maybe this year, without fans in attendance, playing the game in the relatively warm October, number four can change that, but even then, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Andy Reid winning the AFC West this year.
The Shadow of Potential
The Raiders have a ton of potential, but the harsh thing about potential is that it’s basically meaningless. Potential is the availability of excellence, not the guarantee. The Raiders have seen lots of potential come through those doors. JaMarcus Russell was compared to John Elway at the draft, Rolando McClain was a “can’t miss” prospect, and who could forget last off-season’s debate of whether or not Antonio Brown could catch Jerry Rice with the Raiders.
Derek Carr has been a darkhorse MVP for the last three off-seasons and hasn’t returned to that 2016 form. Jon Gruden is entering the third season of his comeback tour, and his Raiders would have to go 14-2 to match Jack Del Rio‘s win total after three years in Oakland. Every year, the team has great potential, but as the list of excuses grows long, the win column gathers dust.
The shadow of potential is a lack of established production. The Raiders need to turn that potential into something tangible. Mike Mayock has done a great job of putting pieces together, but it’s up to them to put that work on the field, and it’s up to Jon Gruden to get the most out of all of his players. Not to rain on the parade, but the Raiders aren’t great until it shows up on the scoreboard.
As a Team
I think the ceiling for the 2020 Las Vegas Raiders is a wild-card berth. They’ve gotten better, don’t get me wrong, but they’re still a few pieces away from being true contenders. This is a very, very young squad with a very high ceiling, but good players don’t reach the ceiling as rookies. The Raiders are building towards a breakout season, but so much of their success depends on how well Carr plays this year.
If Carr can break out of his conservative shell a little, and show that he’s still the player the Raiders paid back in 2017, 2021 could be the year that the Raiders challenge Patrick Mahomes and company. If he struggles, the team will be limited. This is a quarterback-driven league, and the Raiders will need to outscore of the best in the world to win the AFC West.
I think the Raiders can win anywhere between six and 10 games this year. I would be shocked if they won any less and thrilled if they won any more. But with such a young roster in a division on the rise, 2020 is a year of growth, not a year of domination.