Raiders

NFL preview 2019: Derek Carr, three other possible MVP sleepers in AFC

carrusa.jpg
USATSI

NFL preview 2019: Derek Carr, three other possible MVP sleepers in AFC

With training camps getting started, hope once again springs eternal in the NFL.

Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are primed to defend their crown, but a pack of worthy challengers is frothing at the mouth for the chance to take down the king.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes sits atop the NFL's other throne as The Shield's reigning league MVP. The dynamic signal-caller once again is viewed as the favorite to take home the hardware, and while the like of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Baker Mayfield, Carson Wentz, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers are viewed as the most likely to take the crown from Mahomes, the AFC has a few other young passers who are lying in wait.

When looking at possible MVP sleepers in the AFC, I made sure to look only at players that had odds at 80-to-1 or higher, as listed by Westgate Las Vegas. With the framework set, here are four potential MVP sleepers who reside in the AFC.

Derek Carr, QB, Raiders

The Case For: Carr has the arm talent and the leadership qualities to be an MVP. We saw that in 2016 when he led the Raiders to a 12-3 record before fracturing his fibula in Week 16. With a wealth of offensive talent around -- including Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams, -- and a full year of Jon Gruden's system under his belt, it wouldn't be hard to see Carr returning to his MVP-caliber form in 2019. If he puts up big numbers while helping the Raiders navigate a tough early-season schedule, he should be in the mix.

The Case Against: There was little about the Raiders' offense in 2018 that would tell you a turn around is coming. The offensive line struggled and the running game was relatively non-existent. This is a make or break year for the Carr-Gruden relationship and there's a chance it just won't work.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans

The Case For: Despite a shaky offensive line, Watson completed 68.3 percent of his passes while throwing for 4,165 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 551 yards and five scores. If the Clemson product can get some protection, he could put up big numbers and lead the Texans to another AFC West title. The recipe for an MVP campaign is there for Watson.

The Case Against: The offensive line is atrocious. Watson might spend more time running for his life than looking downfield for the streaking DeAndre Hopkins. If the Texans can't keep Watson off his back, there will be no MVP delusions in Houston.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans

The Case For: When he's been healthy, Mariota has put up good numbers. That was with an offense designed for the 1940s with one offensive weapon. Mariota enters a make-or-break year for him with the Titans with two new wide receivers in rookie A.J. Brown and former Buccaneers Adam Humphries. If new offensive coordinator Arthur Humphries can tailor the offense to Mariota's strengths, the possibility for a breakout season is there.

The Case Against: Look, he hasn't been able to stay healthy. If Mariota can't stay on the field, then his chance at winning the MVP and the Titans' playoff hopes go in the trash can.

[RELATED: How Raiders' defense stacks up against AFC West rivals]

Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens

The Case For: Jackson rushed for 556 yards in the seven games he started last season. If you extrapolate that over a 16-game season, it amounts to 1,271 yards. That would be more than the 1,039 yards Michael Vick rushed for in 2006. If Jackson has improved his passing and leads the Ravens to the playoffs, he could very well be an MVP sleeper.

The Case Against: As the Los Angeles Chargers showed in the AFC Wild Card Game, it's easy to stop Jackson if he's only able to move the chains with his legs. If the Louisville product hasn't made big strides with his accuracy and pocket presence then he won't be in the MVP conversation.

Patrick Mahomes' contract puts pressure on Raiders for perfect rebuild

Patrick Mahomes' contract puts pressure on Raiders for perfect rebuild

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.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

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.

[RELATED: Clowney-Raiders rumors more fantasy than reality right now]

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.

Jadeveon Clowney-Raiders rumors more fantasy than reality at moment

Jadeveon Clowney-Raiders rumors more fantasy than reality at moment

The Raiders made massive improvements to their defense during the offseason, hoping to inject some life into a unit that ranked 31st in DVOA in 2019.

But with one big fish still swimming in the free agency ocean, the Silver and Black might not be done yet.

Jadeveon Clowney has been biding his time during free agency, waiting for an offer that matches what he believes he is worth. That number started at between $20-22 million and reportedly has been lowered to around $18 million. Clowney reportedly has an offer from the Cleveland Browns with the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans also in the mix.

On Monday. Cecil Lammey of 104.3 The Fan in Denver reported that the Raiders had joined the party and offered Clowney a contract. He also reported that head coach Jon Gruden would like to up the offer to get Clowney. Lammey reports the offer is lower than two or three other teams and owner Mark Davis and general manager Mike Mayock are hesitant to increase it.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

This is where we need to separate fantasy from reality.

Clowney is a talented player and he undoubtedly would help a Silver and Black pass rush that has struggled since Khalil Mack was shipped off to the Chicago Bears. Clowney is a sexy name and it's easy to automatically plug him on the Raiders' defensive line along with Maliek Collins, Maurice Hurst and Clelin Ferrell/Maxx Crosby and see an improved unit that can give teams problems in the AFC West.

But that $18-20 million is a massive price tag for a player whose production doesn't match the number he's currently asking for. Clowney notched just three sacks last season for the Seahawks and has yet to record a double-digit sack season since being draft with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Per Spotrac, Clowney's projected open-market is around $17.1 million. So his initial asking price already overshoots his on-field production and it's fair to see a number of teams asking to see more sacks, pressures and QB hits before paying the $17 million.

Clowney's health also is of concern. While the South Carolina product only has missed nine games in five seasons, there are some issues about the core and knee injuries he's sustained during his career. Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it's difficult for players to travel and get evaluated by a team's medical staff and that makes owners unwilling to open their checkbook.

This brings us to the second hurdle in any Clowney-Raiders marriage. According to the NFL Player's Association public salary cap report, the Raiders currently have $7.9 million in cap space. But that number will shrink once the Raiders have agreed to terms with all of their recent draft picks, including first-round picks Henry Ruggs and Damon Arnette. At the moment, the Raiders still need to clear some cap space in order to sign their entire rookie class. They simply lack the cap space, at the moment, to add Clowney at the number he's been demanding.

Of course, there are always ways to fit a player in. But for the Raiders to add Clowney at the number he wants, it likely would require a large chunk of the cash to come in the form of a signing bonus and the Raiders still would have to clear space by cutting some players. Right guard Gabe Jackson's contract became guaranteed last month. Quarterback Derek Carr's contract is the Raiders' most pliable but he's set for what could be a career year in Las Vegas.

Plain and simple: It's difficult to see the Raiders finding a way to fit Clowney in at his preferred number.

[REALTED: Renfrow's growth key to Raiders' offensive resurgence]

The Raiders currently are relying on Crosby, Ferrell and free-agent addition Carl Nassib to provide the heat off the edge. Last season, the Raiders recorded just 32 sacks, a number that must improve for them to make way in a tough AFC West.

Increasing pressure on the quarterback is paramount for the Raiders, but Clowney isn't a double-digit sack maven. He's been more of a run-stopper during his NFL career and his production hasn't been equal to the contract he desires. He's a big name who will come with a price tag he hasn't earned.

If the Raiders can find a way to get him at a discount as the season approaches it obviously would be worth it. But right now, any pact between Clowney and the Raiders is more fiction than reality.