Raiders

Raiders' 2019 success could hinge on these five second-year players

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USATSI

Raiders' 2019 success could hinge on these five second-year players

The Raiders need instant impact from their rookie class. Equally important, however, is a significant improvement from last year’s newbies. That crew was thrown into the fire in 2018, especially after a veteran exodus in the season’s second half.

Head coach Jon Gruden has said he needs his second-year pros to make a significant jump in performance in 2019, a common event after players get a full offseason without the pre-draft process deterring from their long-term goals.

“I want to see our second-year players play better,” Gruden said in March. “They got to play a lot last year. Big deal. I want to see them play great this year.”

Here’s a look at five second-year players who must show well to strengthen this team and take some burden off the rookie class:

DE Arden Key

The LSU product only had one sack last year despite significant playing time. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther believes he could’ve had eight with better finishing.

“I’m going to look back and think, 'I should have had more sacks,'" Key said late last year. “I could have had more, but it’s just a matter of inches at this level and when look back on film I can see where and why I missed them.”

Key doesn’t have great size at 238 pounds, but he has excellent bend and length and agility to get around blockers. He was asked to play most downs after Khalil Mack was traded and Bruce Irvin was cut, despite entering his rookie year expecting to be a situational pass rusher. That might suit his strengths in Year 2, and he could thrive coming in fresh on obvious passing downs. Key has an array of pass-rush moves, but must further hone his skills and finish plays strong.

The Raiders need production from the defensive end spot, where the No. 4 overall pick, Clelin Ferrell, will occupy one spot. Key and run defender Josh Mauro could split time on the other side, though 2019 fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby is a wild card in this equation. It can’t be assumed Crosby will contribute right away, leaving Key to create pressure opposite Ferrell and form a young, formidable pass-rush combo.

LT Kolton Miller

The Raiders were hell-bent on taking a first-round offensive tackle in 2018, and ended up with the UCLA product at No. 15 overall. Miller has athleticism to spare, which was on display at times last season. A balky knee made those times rare. He suffered partial knee ligament tears early in the year, battled through the chronic issue and was consequently overmatched on a regular basis.

Miller allowed 16 sacks last season, several in tight bunches, and had some run-blocking issues. He continued to play – the Raiders didn’t have any other legitimate options – showing great toughness and resolve despite some disappointing results.

Nobody needed this offseason more than Miller, who has regained health and reportedly gained significant lean mass and bulk. That will help him weather a second season and provide stability on the offense’s left flank.

The Raiders have chosen to leave Miller on the left – he has experience on the right, but struggled some there in college – even after adding high-priced signing Trent Brown.

Having Miller on the left and Brown on the right is the preferred alignment, though there are backup plans. The Raiders anticipate a big jump from Miller in 2019, where he can live up to his potential after a difficult rookie year.

DT P.J. Hall

The Sam Houston State product was drafted ahead of position-mate Maurice Hurst, but played second fiddle to him last season. Hall was hurt early in the year and, certainly needed development coming from a small school, but his interior pass rush ability will be required for improved defensive line play in 2019. He could work alongside Hurst on passing downs, to use his power and low center of gravity to break pockets down from the inside.

Hall can be a solid run defender as well. The Raiders didn’t add a defensive tackle this season, so they need better from the guys they have. There’s great optimism surrounding Hurst’s prospects. Having Hall take a step up as well will help a defensive front that has struggled to create pressure from anywhere recently.

P Johnny Townsend

The Raiders used a fifth-round pick to secure Townsend’s services, and got a punter who took some rookie lumps. His 38.3-yard net average ranked 30th last year, and he didn’t show the pinpoint accuracy he was known for at the University of Florida.

Townsend was given the job last year, but he’ll have some competition this year. The Raiders signed experienced punter Drew Kaser but have cut him already in favor of N.C. State rookie A.J. Cole, who will battle for the job this offseason and in training camp.

Townsend could well be a productive NFL punter, but he must show improvement and consistency to keep his gig.

[RELATED: Why Raiders aren't interested in 'Hard Knocks,' despite clear appeal]

LB Jason Cabinda

The Raiders are hoping Vontaze Burfict can resurrect his career reuniting with Paul Guenther in Oakland following an injury-riddled 2018 campaign. He will start if healthy and will run the defense from the middle linebacker spot.

Burfict hasn’t played a full season since 2013 and hasn’t played more than 11 games during that stretch, hindered by injuries and suspensions.

That means Cabinda will likely be called upon to play an important role at some point. He’d better be ready for it, anyway. An undrafted rookie last year who started on the practice squad, Cabinda worked his way into the defensive rotation later in the season.

Development is required, and Cabinda must do so while learning the system from Burfict and prepping for when his time comes.

Chris Simms impressed with Raiders, who have been 'kicking some butt'

Chris Simms impressed with Raiders, who have been 'kicking some butt'

If you're impressed by the Raiders' recent turnaround, you're definitely not alone.

NBC Sports' Chris Simms is at a loss for words when it comes to describing what Oakland has accomplished after what only can be described as a hellish start to the season.

"Wow. I mean, I can't really say enough right now about what I've seen from the Oakland Raiders," Simms told NBC Sports California on Wednesday. "My old coach, Jon Gruden, has been kicking some butt, and I'm not saying that because he's my old coach. Trust me, I've talked crap about him before when he hasn't been good. I just think the way he is managing the football game right now is phenomenal."

Simms believes part of the 3-2 Raiders' recent surge can be attributed to Gruden putting his players in the right position to succeed.

"[The team] is playing extremely hard and physical on both sides of the football, but he's managing the offense the right way and managing it in a way that is giving it realistic expectations," Simms continued. "[He's] not asking it to do things that some of the players have not been able to do, and it's playing to their strengths. 

"They're running the football. [The offense is] playing smash-mouth football. When they drop back to pass, it's high-percentage passes. Let's take care of the football that way. And then when they look to strike deep or something like that, it's usually through a play-action pass or something Jon Gruden has designed in the chemistry lab in the week before through his film study."

The Raiders' consecutive wins over the Colts and Bears, in particular, really caught Simms' eye.

"I just really can't say enough about the Raiders and what they're doing right now," he said. "Those were two surprise victories for me, and they did it in a physical way."

[RELATED: Could Raiders be AFC West favorites after Mahomes injury?]

If the Raiders keep playing like they have the last two weeks, only more praise will follow.

How Patrick Mahomes injury could change outlook for Raiders, AFC West

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AP

How Patrick Mahomes injury could change outlook for Raiders, AFC West

The AFC West might have just become even more wide open.

It already was heading in that direction after Kansas City lost each of their last two games, but the Chiefs might have suffered an even worse loss Thursday night when quarterback Patrick Mahomes left their game against the Broncos with an apparent leg injury.

Mahomes was in obvious pain after emerging from a pile following a fourth-down sneak. He was able to walk to the locker room, but was ruled out for the rest of the game shortly thereafter.

If Mahomes' injury is as serious as it appears, it would have a drastic effect on the AFC West race. The Raiders (3-2) have put themselves back in contention after winning their last two games over the Colts and Bears. While Kansas City's Matt Moore is a competent backup quarterback, he's nowhere near the same kind of player as the 2018 NFL MVP.

A Chiefs loss to the Broncos combined with a Raiders win over the Packers would leave Oakland all alone in first place in the division. Safe to say, nobody expected that to be a possibility in Week 7.

[RELATED: Green Bay HS legend Ingold ready for homecoming vs. Pack]

The Chiefs, Raiders and the rest of the NFL wait with bated breath for more information about Mahomes' injury.