The Raiders can kick back, relax and watch some NFL football this weekend. They’re sitting a 3-2 on a bye, with head coach Jon Gruden giving his team the entire week off to recuperate after a strong start.
This offers a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned about this team, and what must improve to keep the Raiders competitive.
Let's address several key questions in a Raiders mailbag:
Q: What young player are you most excited about? For me, it’s Josh Jacobs, hands down. (@jayr8r, on Twitter)
A: Jacobs has been excellent thus far, with room to improve. He’s obviously the best rookie in a solid NFL draft class -- possibly the NFL’s best offensive rookie. Jacobs is the obvious choice – I think he’s a special player -- but I’ll go with defensive end Maxx Crosby. He’s an intriguing player worthy of distinction. Gruden has said Crosby’s “factor grade” has been high the last two weeks, and that’s accurate.
He’s relentless in pursuit, and has seven quarterback pressures including one sack, two batted passes and a forced fumble in his last two games. The Eastern Michigan product is starting to emerge and produce in an area that desperately needs playmakers.
Q: Who has been the biggest surprise and biggest disappointment so far? (Matthew James, on Twitter)
A: I think we all knew Darren Waller was set for a breakout season. He has all the tools to be an excellent receiving tight end. He is proving to be a tough blocker, and even that wasn’t a shock. Someone else in his position group, however, has been a surprise out. Rookie Foster Moreau has been impressive as a receiver, making tough, clutch catches in two consecutive victories. He’s a solid blocker and clearly belongs at this level. The LSU product’s college numbers won’t wow you, but his rookie NFL totals just might. He’s a trustworthy player who should continue getting more opportunities in the passing game.
In terms of disappointment, I’m not going to put it on any one guy.
I’m giving it to the entire receiver corps. Antonio Brown’s antics were exhausting and really put the Raiders in a bind. The remainder of the position group didn’t step up outside Tyrell Williams, with Ryan Grant and J.J. Nelson failing to capitalize on opportunities. That has forced the Raiders to cough up draft picks trying to shore up a group now reliant on newcomers Trevor Davis and Zay Jones to take the pressure off Williams and Waller in the passing game. The receiver is the team’s clear weakness and could hurt the Raiders' overall competitiveness if it doesn’t improve in coming weeks.
Q: Do you think the Raiders offensive line is a top 5 unit, especially with Gabe Jackson coming back? (Steve Guzman, on Facebook)
A: Offensive lines are tough to rank, but it’s clear the front is going strong. They have proven effective in the run game, averaging 4.9 yards per carry with 2.7 yards gained before contact. Both of those numbers are in the NFL's top 10.
They also rank fifth in pass-blocking efficiency, per Pro Football Focus. Those numbers are a sign the line is playing well despite some instability at the guard spots through five games. Tackles Kolton Miller and Trent Brown have been solid, and Rodney Hudson is always excellent. Richie Incognito has been good since returning from suspension. Getting Jackson back will help on the right, where the Raiders could really do some damage in the run game.
Q: What’s going on with Mullen? It seems like he isn’t playing much. (Sandy Johnson, on Facebook)
A: Trayvon Mullen's lack of playing time comes from a combination of solid work from Daryl Worley and Gareon Conley, and natural rookie development. It takes time for young players to adjust to the NFL game, some longer than others. It also depends on the position, and cornerback is a tough one where coaches must trust you implicitly. Mullen’s earning that. He has all the tools to excel at this level and in this scheme. There’s no reason to rush him into action, especially with the aforementioned cornerbacks and Nevin Lawson returning to action.
Q: Does Corey Liuget look like he’ll be a value the rest of the way? (Steve Colley, on Facebook)
A: The Raiders were extremely patient with Liuget. They signed him just before the final preseason game and didn’t play him until Week 4. That downtime allowed him to get into football shape and get over a knee injury incurred in practice. He isn’t playing much but has made a few quality stops against the run. He’s a decent interior pass rusher but hasn’t cranked up that aspect of his game. Coaches clearly have faith he can support the interior line, and his track record suggests he can be impactful against the run and pass. His role will depend on his play, his practice and how deserving Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall are of snaps on the inside. Liuget gives the Raiders depth and options inside, something they need in a heavy rotation.
Q: Who’s the odd WR out after the recent trade, other than Nelson being released? (Joshua Llamas, on Facebook)
A: The Raiders are currently carrying seven receivers. It’s hard to see that number holding up in the long term. It could remain until Dwayne Harris gets healthy. After that, Marcell Ateman’s the natural trim spot. He should make it back to the practice squad.
The Raiders guaranteed money to Keelan Doss, so it’s hard to imagine the Raiders exposing him to waivers. The Raiders definitely need Jones to produce and for Williams to find and sustain health.
Q: Should I be worried that Clelin Ferrell is already showing signs of being a draft disappointment?
A: It’s clear that Ferrell isn’t producing to his draft status. This year’s No. 4 overall draft pick had a sack in the opener but has been silent since, with a low win rate among pass-rushing defensive linemen.
While he isn’t Khalil Mack, let’s not forget he also had a slow start in terms of sacks. He made an instant impact in the run game but didn’t have a sack until Week 11 of his rookie year and had just four total. He had 15 the following year. I’m not predicting such a lift for Ferrell, but he’s a hard worker with a high floor. His teammates love him, and there’s reason to believe he’ll improve with experience and opportunities rushing from the edge.
Q: What are the Raiders going to do in terms of linebacker depth with Lee on IR and Burfict suspended for the season? (Felix Corral, on Facebook)
A: They have used extra defensive backs to compensate for a lack of receiver depth, and it has worked well to this point. Lamarcus Joyner’s versatility and Karl Joseph’s solid run play and Daryl Worley’s move to a hybrid role allows the Raiders to get creative with how they line up. Is that sustainable? It’s difficult, considering Tahir Whitehead and Nicholas Morrow aren’t allowed to leave the field in those situations.
The Raiders need to build through the NFL draft, and giving up picks to support depth in season is a risky proposition. The Silver and Black will certainly scour the wire for another addition, though Dakota Allen will have the first crack to earn defensive playing time. They could use some linebacker depth. What are they willing to pay for it?
Another linebacker signing seems vital at this stage. Jason Cabinda’s a natural option, considering his experience in this scheme. Can they get him off Detroit’s practice squad? They should certainly try.
Q: What is your way-too-early prediction on our final record? (Lorenzo Taylor, on Facebook)
A: I think the next two games are key. If they can sneak out a victory over Green Bay or Houston (no easy task in either case), the Raiders could certainly go 9-7 and be in the playoff hunt down the stretch. They get a three-game homestand and finish playing several weaker teams, providing the opportunity for the Raiders to surprise many with a competitive finish. Anything around .500 is a win for a team that went 4-12 last year, though this group is confident and believes it can compete with anybody.
Q: How do you explain the change from the humiliation at Minnesota to the dominance over Chicago in just two weeks? (Mark Lubienski, on Facebook)
A: In a word: resolve. We’ve seen great resilience and hear from this unit despite losing Brown and Vontaze Burfict and so many to injury. They have rallied together thanks to solid coaching and veteran leadership, responding well to within games and between them. Coaches are focusing on team strengths, using a solid run game and run defense as a foundation for success. We’ll see if they can sustain that against top-flight quarterbacks coming up in Green Bay and Houston, but they believe they can hang with anybody.