After more than 15 years since the infamous Tuck Rule game, Jon Gruden is finally returning to the sidelines as the Raiders head coach tonight at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum. Gruden has assembled an elite staff with the view of bringing back some measure of sustained success to the Raider organization in desperate search for stability. Tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Rams is going to be an enormous task for the Raiders, but hopefully, it will (regardless of the score) provide a few answers to the many questions surrounding Gruden’s return to the sideline.
Can the defensive line generate a consistent pass rush in Khalil Mack’s absence?
The first major player personnel move was to trade star defensive end Khalil Mack for draft picks. It has left a gaping hole on the defensive line. The unit does have some nice young players who have stepped up in the preseason, particularly PJ Hall, Maurice Hurst, Fadol Brown, and Shilique Calhoun. Meanwhile, Bruce Irvin has demonstrated the desired qualities you expect as the leader of the group – particularly taking rookie Arden Key under his wing. If this group are able to generate a consistent pass rush without Mack, Raider Nation will quickly forget about No. 52.
Which version of Derek Carr will the Raiders be getting in 2018?
The gap between Carr’s best and worst is large. In 2016, he was a bona fide MVP candidate who looked capable of carrying an entire team on his back deep into the playoffs. Contrast that to 2017, in which Carr looked a shell of himself due to injury and an anemic offense under former offensive coordinator Tod Downing. Gruden is headstrong in his opinion and belief that Carr can be as good as any QB in the league. He has to start proving his head coach right tonight.
What fancy new wrinkles does Jon Gruden have for the offense?
Last year’s Raiders offense was a disaster. There was little, if any, pre-snap shifts or motion. The scheme relied on receivers beating their defender one on one to get open as opposed to having play designs that allow for easy completions. The running game went from a power juggernaut to a primary outside zone system in which the linemen weren’t able to get downhill to showcase their strength. All in all, it was a mess. Gruden’s offense should look a polar opposite to last year’s. Gruden loves to feature pre-snap movement and is a master at making his offense QB friendly once the signal caller has competently learned the system. Preseason was very vanilla, in large part to Gruden not wanting to show off what he’s learned during his hiatus from coaches. No doubt there will be fireworks tonight.
Who will get the majority of snaps at the ‘F’ position in the slot?
The slot receiver position was meant to be filled by Martavis Bryant until he had a poor training camp and the staff gave Ryan Switzer every chance to take the role. Switzer never grasped it, and he was subsequently traded. All signs point to incumbent Seth Roberts as the No. 3 receiver. But under Gruden, anything is possible. Given the personnel, I won’t be surprised to see Jared Cook flex out in the slot, along with Amari Cooper. Gruden will also be able to get his outside receivers on the move by putting them in motion prior to the snap.
How will the Raiders distribute the load at RB?
The Raiders are going to be a run-heavy offense, though it’s still a reasonable unknown as to how the carries will be distributed this year. Marshawn Lynch looks to be the lead running back, and if his only carry of the preseason is anything to go by, he’s in for a beast of a year. Gruden has talked up Doug Martin but he has yet to show any burst on the field. Meanwhile, Jalen Richard looks to be a perfect fit as a pass-catching RB of the Darren Sproles variety. He could legitimately catch over 50 balls in 2018.
Can Donald Penn find the fountain of youth by moving to right tackle?
The Raiders were so impressed with rookie Kolton Miller this off-season, that they moved long-time vet Donald Penn to right tackle to fit the rookie in the starting lineup. Penn struggled in the short amount of snaps he was given at right tackle in the preseason but is said to have been improving every day with the transition. At 35 years of age, and coming off a major foot injury, Penn is up against it to regain his form. The Raiders are heavily counting on him because the depth behind the veteran is shaky at best.
How much gas does Derrick Johnson have left in the tank?
The 35-year old linebacker is entering his first season in the silver and black, having spent his entire 13-year career in Kansas City. The Raiders are relying on Johnson to be a mainstay in the middle of the defense when the Raiders go to sub packages, though it appears Marquel Lee has the role on run downs and in base defense. The Raiders haven’t been able to play the pass at the second level since the days of Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard, and if Johnson can’t inject some young life into him, that trend may continue.
Who is going to get the major roles in the secondary?
The secondary was shrouded in mystery entering the preseason, and it’s still that way going into tonight’s game. Rashaan Melvin was signed to be a starter, but he has had some technique issues, while Daryl Worley is suspended and likely would have started if available. This could result in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie starting on the outside despite being a Raider for less than three weeks. Gareon Conley is finally healthy and could very well be a No. 1 corner if he lives up to his potential. At safety, Erik Harris seems to be the story of the entire off-season, grinding his way up the ladder from a special teams ace to a likely starter ahead of former first round pick Karl Joseph.
Will the changes to the special teams unit actually bring about overall improvement?
The Raiders have a new long snapper, punter, and kicker this year. It remains to be seen if this trio is an upgrade on 2017. Long snapper Andrew DePaola is one of the best at his craft in the league, and is a clear upgrade, though question marks remain of the other two positions. Johnny Townsend hasn’t shown anywhere a leg similar to that of outspoken former punter Marquette King, while Mike Nugent has been thrust into kicking duties despite initially coming to training camp as nothing more than a camp leg. The return and coverage units appear to be settled with Kyle Wilber and Dwayne Harris set to play big roles in the game of field position.
Who will be the surprise player(s) of 2018?
Every year, an unexpected player steps up and makes others take watch of their performance. On offense, I expect this to be Jalen Richard. On defense, I can see Fadol Brown and Marquel Lee having breakout second seasons.
A Quote to Remember
“Trade Mack. Jump on the two picks. Cut anybody who isn’t performing, no matter how much they cost. Fire shots at the general manager. Renege on pledges with the fans. This is showing a side of Gruden that says nothing is sacred in his pursuit of winning.”
Marcus Thompson of The Athletic on the decision to trade Khalil Mack and the subsequent aftermath of events.
A Tweet of Amusement
Fresh off beating Roger Federer at 1AM ET, John Millman says he has a 7AM fantasy draft and is unsure if he should select Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell. pic.twitter.com/m8Wpg4XxFl
— Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat) September 4, 2018
1. The Raiders are not going to lose a game this season because of a poor game plan. Gruden has an elite staff assembled in all three phases of the game. The Raiders are going to lose games this year, that is inevitable, but I don’t see them losing games because the players were ill-prepared or put in a position such that they couldn’t succeed.
2. Gruden is going to have at least one Chucky moment on the sidelines tonight, and ESPN is going to lap it up during the broadcast.
3. The Raiders will keep the game close, but I can’t see them beating the Rams. There is just too much firepower for LA on both sides of the ball. I think the Raiders will be competitive and keep the game within striking distance in the 4thquarter, but won’t be able to come away with the win. Then again, if the game comes down to one Derek Carr final 4thquarter comeback drive, I’ll throw my chips all in on No. 4.
7 Things I Think:
1. Statistically, the Raiders are the oldest team in the NFL. On the surface, this may be concerning to some given that Gruden has on multiple occasions stressed the amount of holes this team has on its roster. A deeper dive into the makeup of the roster suggests that a number of key positions on the team are actually held by players in their youth or prime. Derek Carr and Gabe Jackson are 27. Amari Cooper is 24. Their projected starting left tackle of now and the future is a rookie (Kolton Miller). On defense, there is youth at all three levels with the three rookies up front (PJ Hall, Arden Key and Maurice Hurst), Marquel Lee at linebacker, and Gareon Conley and Nick Nelson in the backfield. Sure, the Raiders don’t have a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball, but there are enough young guys who Gruden will build around for the next few years that should ensure they don’t bottom out.
2. When Michael Gelkhen of The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported months ago that the Raiders feared Martavis Bryant would be facing further discipline by the NFL, it was met with frivolity. I can understand fans criticizing the report because there are always going to be fans that criticize whatever is reported. However, there were some fellow reporters who were quick to lay the smackdown on Gelkhen. Now that Gelkhen’s report was indeed accurate given Bryant’s impending suspension, you’re probably entitled to an apology or two, Michael.
3. Tahir Whitehead’s ‘Good Samaritan act epitomizes the type of character you want to build a football team around. I expect Whitehead to be a key cog of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s defense, which would finally fill a gaping hole at linebacker that has not been adequately filled since Reggie McKenzie joined the Raiders as general manager in 2012.
4. Brent Musburger’s tweet welcoming AJ McCarron and his wife Kathryn is in distaste and borderline creepy. I know that Musburger is a legend in broadcasting, but I doubt the Raiders want their radio commentator generating unnecessary drama, especially given the relocation situation along with recent personnel changes both on and off-field.
5. Jon Gruden was said to have thrown Reggie McKenzie under the bus at his press conference explaining the Khalil Mack trade. At one point, Gruden said that he had nothing to do with giving the Bears back a 2ndround pick and that the media should ask McKenzie about it instead. Much contention has come about those comments, as logic would suggest that the $100 million man would have been aware of the details of the trade prior to it going through. However, Albert Breer of The MMQB corroborated Gruden’s version of events, which certainly would change the narrative. Then again, is it so absurd to think that the obscure pick swap wasn’t handled by McKenzie? After all, he traded down from pick 3 to 12 in 2012 and only was able to get a 2ndround pick. He also traded 5thand 6thround picks for QB busts Matt Flynn and Matt Schaub respectively, while giving Carson Palmer away to Arizona for a pittance (a 6thround pick and an additional late round pick 12 months later).
6. Seattle linebacker Shaquem Griffin earning the starting role is football’s perseverance story of the year. Regardless that he’s a Seahawk, it’s hard not to cheer for the rookie.
7. After months of negotiations, the NFL Owners and NFLPA are still at a logjam as to coming to an agreement regarding the National Anthem. Ross Tucker of The Athletic suggested last week for a minute’s silence to be held prior to the anthem to acknowledge the social injustices of today’s society. During this time, players would be free to protest in their various ways. And said minute’s silence, everyone would stand for the anthem. It seems to be a reasonable compromise, though given the latest reports, it doesn’t seem as though any agreement will be reached for this season.