When Jon Gruden arrived back in Oakland armed with a 10-year contract for his second tenure as Raiders head coach, he knew the Kansas City Chiefs were setting the pace in the AFC West and that the Raiders had to be rebuilt from the foundation up in order to catch them.
Two years later, Patrick Mahomes has won an MVP and a Super Bowl title, becoming the face of the league in less than 24 months. During that time, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have stripped the roster down and started a careful rebuild by drafting prospects from championship programs, with an emphasis on closing the gap between them and their division rivals.
Some might get impatient when seeing a five-game gap between the two teams last season. With last year's 40-9 embarrassment at Arrowhead Stadium still lingering in the back of the mind, it's easy to push for more drastic moves that could help close the gap on Mahomes and the Chiefs sooner. But Mahomes isn't going anywhere, not for a long time, and that means the Raiders must avoid the usual rebuilding pitfalls as they construct Gruden and Mayock's vision.
On Monday, the Chiefs and Mahomes agreed to a 10-year contract extension that will make the star quarterback the richest player in the NFL at $450 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
With Mahomes set to be the king of the AFC West for the next 11 to 12 years, it's more imperative now than ever before that the Raiders stay the course of their rebuild and not go off-book, jeopardizing what is a successful foundation with risky moves meant to make up ground fast.
That means no Antonio Brown-style trades that send out draft capital for the promise of someone missing a few nuts and bolts walking the straight and narrow. The Raiders did the right thing by not chasing after Tom Brady, dolling out a giant contract to make a splash acquisition. They will have to do the same thing if Aaron Rodgers becomes available next offseason.
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The Gruden-Mayock method to this point has been sound. They nailed a 2019 draft class that saw them select a feature running back, an up-and-coming slot receiver, a cornerback with lockdown potential and two edge rushers who will be long-term staples. That 2019 class has a dynastic vision for the future of the Silver and Black. They know they are the foundation and the key to a successful rebuild.
Gruden and Mayock then went to free agency this spring and spent heavily on defense, spreading out the money to address several problem areas that plagued a team with the 31st ranked defense by DVOA in 2019. In the 2020 NFL Draft, they went back to the blue-chip program well and added Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs, Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette and South Carolina wide receiver Bryan Edwards, among others.
Stacking talented draft classes on top of one another is imperative when undergoing a full tear down and rebuild. One miss can set a franchise back half a decade.
But the Raiders have been lucky in that most of those catastrophic misses come when rebuilding teams either reach for or pass on a quarterback. The Raiders have not had to play quarterback roulette in the draft. Not yet. Having Derek Carr has allowed Gruden and Mayock to focus on building up the rest of the Raiders' roster without having to gamble a top pick on a quarterback like Daniel Jones or Jordan Love. They've restocked the offensive arsenal, crafted one of the best offensive lines in football and started to fortify a defense was an atrocity during the past two seasons.
It's unclear if Carr is the quarterback of the future, but having him, a capable signal-caller with undeniable arm talent, has given the Raiders a luxury not normally afforded to teams ripping everything down to the studs.
Mahomes' extension and extended presence in the AFC West will make the Raiders' quest for a division title worlds more difficult. Of that, there is no doubt. But it also allows Gruden and Mayock the ability to be patient and strategic as they head into Phase 2 of the rebuild.
With the ground floor laid, the Raiders have set themselves up for future success. If all goes according to plan, their offensive arsenal is locked in for the next four to five years. Ruggs, Edwards, Josh Jacobs, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, all are cemented in silver and black and four of the five are on rookie contracts. Gruden and Mayock appear to be doing the same thing in their secondary with Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, Amik Robertson and Johnathan Abram all being drafted in the last two seasons.
To catch and contend with the Chiefs, you'll need the firepower to match the Legion of Zoom and a secondary capable of beating up and running with the track team assembled by Andy Reid. Gruden has been jealous of what his friend has at his disposal in Kansas City. So he drafted a Tyreek Hill of his own in Ruggs. They found a matchup nightmare at tight end in Darren Waller, matching what the Chiefs have in Kelce.
Next, the Raiders must mold a secondary that can hold up when extreme pressure is applied by Mahomes and his horsemen, and develop a pass rush that can get in his face, pressuring him off his spot. The 49ers, while surrendering 21 points in the final six minutes to lose the Super Bowl, showed the blueprint to make Mahomes look somewhat human. You need a fierce pass rush generated by four and corners and linebackers who can cover and tackle in space. That's why the Raiders signed Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski and have invested heavily in the secondary.
The Raiders' focus is the Chiefs. Building an offense that can match them blow for blow and a defense that can step on Superman's cape every now and again.
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The quarterback question still will remain for the Raiders. it's the most important and sexiest position in professional sports. Carr was on an island with few weapons in 2019. He still put up solid numbers, but the Raiders must see more to determine whether or not he's a franchise quarterback. Entering Year 3 in Gruden's system, the Raiders have given Carr a whole new arsenal of weapons and signed Marcus Mariota to push Carr to new heights or take the reins should Carr stumble. The 2020 season will be a prove-it year for Carr and he's set up to have a career year.
Mahomes' massive contract extension gives the Raiders time to fully determine whether or not Carr is the future under center and how best to address it if he is not. Should Carr flop in 2020, the Gruden and Mayock still have built a roster filled with budding young talent which will be ready to win once the rebuild is finished.
The Raiders slowly are building steam as they craft a roster that can compete with the reigning Super Bowl champions. But making the right moves becomes even more important for Gruden and Mayock with Mahomes set to be a Chief for the next decade.
One impulsive move to make up ground on Mahomes quickly and it all can come tumbling down. To catch the king, the Raiders now must play the long game.