How Raiders can (realistically) improve Derek Carr's supporting cast


How Raiders can (realistically) improve Derek Carr's supporting cast

Derek Carr wasn’t perfect operating Jon Gruden’s offensive system, but the Raiders quarterback got more comfortable and consequently more efficient running it over time.

The Raiders head coach/offensive mastermind was Carr’s fourth play caller in five seasons, and the high-priced passer believes continuity will help him improve play and execution.

Gruden’s unpredictability means there’s always a chance things could change, but right now Carr’s expected to be back running the offense in 2019. Gruden hasn’t said anything to contradict that thought, routinely praising Carr while vowing to improve his supporting cast.

“You throw for 4,000 yards in the NFL with what he has been through, and that is quite a year,” Gruden said after the season finale. “It’s quite a year indeed with a new system, young tackles, playing inside with three guards (hurt), receivers coming and going and a new featured back. He did some really good things to build upon. We have to get better around him, and I have to get better myself.”

The Raiders have resources to improve Carr’s supporting cast in free agency and the NFL draft. Here are five realistic moves – there will be no pipedreams on the list, with knowledge that some young players will stay and develop -- the Raiders can make to help make Carr’s life easier next season.

Re-sign TE Jared Cook

This point isn’t reporting that Cook will return to the Raiders. It’s quite possible he doesn’t considering the Raiders added dynamic, young (and cheap) receiving tight end Darren Waller near season’s end, and that this is Cook’s best (and maybe last) shot to cash in on bigger-money deal in free agency. Though he enjoyed being the primary target in 2018, the highest bidder will have some sway here.

But…bringing Cook back would add some continuity to the pattern, especially with a major overhaul expected at receiver. Cook’s a versatile chess piece and a known commodity, which would be valued if the receiver corps gets a whole lot younger outside Jordy Nelson.

Draft a receiver in the first round

This receiver draft class is immensely talented, offering wideouts of varied skill sets. Use the No. 4 overall pick on a defensive player, but come back and take the best available wideout with one of the other first-round picks acquired from the Bears (No. 24) or the Cowboys (TBD, No. 25 at best). There will be several good options there, possibly a future No. 1 receiver.

Then…draft another one

This draft class isn’t just talented. It’s also deep. There’s quality to be found in the middle rounds, and the Silver and Black could find another target, with a slightly different skill set to the first-rounder. If the Raiders do it right, both receivers could make an immediate impact for Carr and the offense.

Add veteran competition/depth across OL

Let’s be real here. The Raiders are going to stick with Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker at offensive tackle. They believe in both guys, and will continue to develop them hoping they become long-term solutions and left and right tackle, respectively. They really missed a reliable veteran backup. Donald Penn wasn’t available while on injured reserve, but he wants to return for one more go-round. The Raiders should add a veteran tackle anyway as an emergency option the team’s confident could start in a pinch or take over should a young tackle falter.

The Raiders had issues at guard as well. They have to make a choice with impending free agent Jon Feliciano, who will have suitors, and find quality depth inside whether he returns or not. Did Denzelle Good show enough near season’s end to be that guy? More competition couldn’t hurt.

Bottom line: Carr got sacked 51 times last year. That’s way too many, especially for someone who functions far better trusting his pocket will remain consistently clean.

The RB room needs a power boost

This is true only if Marshawn Lynch doesn’t return. There’s no telling what he’ll do, but another year with the Raiders seems highly unlikely if the team doesn’t play within Oakland city limits.

Jalen Richard should be back, but isn’t a thumper. Chris Warren can be, but he remains unproven despite a strong 2018 preseason. Gruden has declared interest in a Doug Martin return, but he isn’t a long-term solution. A draft pick might help establish a more dominant run game, especially one that can run efficiently inside and within the Raiders blocking scheme.

'Hard Knocks' Episode 3 recap: Raiders' overlooked weapons get some love

'Hard Knocks' Episode 3 recap: Raiders' overlooked weapons get some love

This week’s “Hard Knocks” episode was heavy on Antonio Brown.

Surprise, surprise.

This year’s Raiders training camp has been dominated by his frostbitten feet and his steadfast desire to wear the helmet he wants despite it not being certified and failing a safety test.

Non-AB segments of this show were also featured, focusing on Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow and Luke Wilson.

Head coach Jon Gruden continues to carry the show more than anyone, showcasing a magnetic personality that is TV gold.

Let’s take a look a few non-AB things we learned on this week’s “Hard Knocks” episode:

Darren Waller’s easy to root for

Gruden often jokes that he’s trying to keep Darren Waller a secret. His talent won’t be kept quiet this fall, during what should be a breakout year for someone with unrealized potential.

Waller has no problem discussing how he set himself back. He recently celebrated two years clean and sober, and detailed how far he was willing to go for drugs of any kind, even if it meant hurting his NFL career.

“I was super burned out,” Waller said. “I wondered, ‘am I going to stick with it or not.’ I was plotting to sabotage myself on the way out of the league, so I didn’t look like a quitter. I was thinking the league would put me out of misery, and I’d just go about my business.”

Suffice it to say that didn’t happen. He served two suspensions for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy before going to rehab, getting clean and playing like he’s capable after the Raiders signed him off Baltimore’s practice squad.

Waller’s a great talent with an important role in this offense, and he’s expected to have a big year. Fans getting to know Waller on “Hard Knocks” will make the tight end easy to root for.

Hunter Renfrow keeps taking shots

Fifth-round rookie receiver and Clemson product Hunter Renfrow didn’t sing well last week and got flak for it, even from stand-up comic/Gruden impersonator Frank Caliendo. His hairline looks like it’s receding, and even Derek Carr has given him guff for it.

This best set-up and put down came this week, when Gruden said he wanted players who were bigger, faster and well-conditioned. Then he put up a picture of Renfrow shirtless at the NFL combine, sporting an uninspired physique.

It was a funny exchange Renfrow took in stride, and it was followed up by the fact he had an excellent training camp with a real shot to make a major contribution this season.

The best Renfrow dig came from defensive line coach and proud Clemson alum Brenston Buckner, who dropped this line: "When he first got to Clemson, some of the guys thought he was [an equipment] manager.”

Luke Willson can’t skip leg day

The “Hard Knocks” crew hung with veteran tight end Luke Willson during this episode, showing him on a boat with his dad, saying the Canadian looks like a hockey player and showing him knocking some helmets against Arizona.

Oh, and Willson’s dad said Luke always wanted to be a Hanson brother. The best part of Willson’s screen time was him relaying a request from Jon Gruden, that he get bigger calves.

I can understand why Willson’s podium session this week didn’t make the cut, considered he (jokingly) accused “Hard Knocks” editors of making it look like Johnathan Abram lit him up when he didn’t. He also downplayed his Canada connection just before heading up to Winnipeg.

[RELATED: Gruden says AB isn't Raiders distraction: 'All-in, ready to go']

AB makes stat nerds blush

Man. We couldn’t make it through this post without bringing up Antonio Brown. Sorry. His quote was too good to ignore, though we promise it has nothing to do with his feet or his head.

He was working with a private analytics expert, who was breaking down his speed and yards run compared to other top NFL receivers. Brown’s work rate is off-the-charts, and he clearly liked seeing that backed by numbers.

It prompted this gem, that stat nerds undoubtedly loved: “Women lie. Men lie. Analytics don’t.”

Antonio Brown, Drew Rosenhaus, Jon Gruden cover helmet drama on 'Hard Knocks'

Antonio Brown, Drew Rosenhaus, Jon Gruden cover helmet drama on 'Hard Knocks'

Antonio Brown’s last week has been well documented. He returned to Raiders training camp after roughly 10 days away on Aug. 13, a week back from Tuesday’s episode of “Hard Knocks.”

His recovery from frostbitten feet, increased activity in walk-throughs and pregame warmups and his ongoing helmet issues were all chronicled by NBC Sports Bay Area and others in great detail. So was his decision to leave the Raiders Napa training camp complex and skip Sunday’s practice, which prompted the general manager Mike Mayock’s “all-in or all-out” proclamation.

The third “Hard Knocks” episode didn’t tread tons of new ground, though unique access provided two interesting conversations with head coach Jon Gruden.

The first came with agent Drew Rosenhaus on the day Brown came back from rehab with a foot specialist. The second occurred with Brown himself on Saturday, the eve of Brown’s second departure from Raiders camp.

Let’s look at what he heard from Rosenhaus first, which focused on the helmet issue and the powerful agent admitted some missteps.

Rosenhaus: After nine years and you kick ass and you don’t have any injuries…I’m not saying that we handled it the right way, but he’ll kick ass for you. He’s going to help you win a lot of games.
Gruden: Yes, yes he will.

Brown has been emotional about this helmet issue and is passionate about wearing his preferred helmet. He has, according to NFL Network’s Mike Silver, gone so far as to paint the helmet he likes in Raiders colors despite it coming from outside the team.

Brown has worn a different helmet Thursday before the exhibition at Arizona and again for Tuesday’s practice, at least, but he doesn’t like it.

“It’s one of the new, approved helmets, and he really doesn’t like it,” Gruden said Thursday, a quote that aired on the show.

Later, Brown confirmed his dissatisfaction with the helmet.

“Is this an ugly lid or what?” Brown told a teammate.

While Mayock had to play bad cop on Sunday, Gruden has owned the good cop role in this whole Brown saga.

[RELATED: AB's latest helmet grievance likely heard Friday]

He did so after a Saturday walk-through in Napa, when the Raiders thought he was with the team to stay.

Gruden: I’m really impressed you know all the formations.
Brown: I’m a professional. I would feel like a slapd--k if don’t know what the f--- to do, right?
Gruden: Do your feet feel all right?
Brown: Once they get hot they get a little burning, but for the most part I feel good. When it gets hot, I have to take my shoes off.
Gruden: Why don’t you go to a cryochamber and…
Brown: F--- that. I’ll never do that again. Thanks for supporting me, Coach. My f-----g head, the feet, the people after me ...
Gruden: I’ve been there.
Brown: You’ve been a constant support, Coach.
Gruden: If you have any problems … I have problems …
Brown: We’re in this together
Gruden: I know you have a lot of people in your ear because you’re like a corporation that has kind of gone global. But, at the end of the day, let’s keep the sh—simple. Football comes first. Everything else comes way behind right now.