Raiders' NFL playoff path tougher with Cam Newton, Patriots in picture

Raiders' NFL playoff path tougher with Cam Newton, Patriots in picture

When the 2020 NFL schedule came out, wins and losses already were being penciled in despite the games being five months away.

The Raiders were given no favors during their inaugural Las Vegas season. The New Orleans Saints visit in Week 2 for the Allegiant Stadium opener and four of the Silver and Black's first six games are against likely playoff-bound opponents. In order to make the playoffs, it is imperative for the Raiders to tread water in the early going before the easier part of their schedule kicks in around mid-November.

Staying afloat early on got a little more difficult Sunday when the New England Patriots reportedly agreed to a one-year contract with Cam Newton, who is expected to come in and compete for the starting quarterback position along with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. Let's be honest, if Newton is fully healthy after shoulder surgery in January of 2019 and a Lisfranc injury last season, he easily should beat out Stidham, a fourth-round pick who has thrown four career passes, and Hoyer.

A healthy Newton gives Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels a versatile, dynamic playmaker to mold the offense around who still is in his prime at age 31. The addition of Newton throws a wrench into what the Raiders hoped would be another leap forward in Year 3 of Jon Gruden's second reign and a playoff berth.

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Newton joining the Patriots obviously makes a Week 3 trip to Gillette Stadium more perilous for the Raiders, who have to open at Carolina in Week 1 before heading back to Vegas to face Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 2. Heading back on a plane to go to the Northeast and face Newton, one of the most unique and versatile quarterbacks in the modern era, sounds a lot less enjoyable than going to face Stidham in his third career start.

There's the possibility that in Week 3, Newton still will be rusty and the Patriots' offense will not have jelled around its new signal-caller. It's a game the Raiders, with a revamped defense and more dynamic offense, absolutely can win.

But Newton's signing with the Patriots presents a bigger roadblock to the Raiders' postseason hopes than just a Week 3 game. There's no doubt that 10 a.m. Sept. 27 game is a bigger question mark than it was previously and increases the possibility of the Raiders starting the 2020 season in a hole they'll have to dig themselves out of.

But it also adds another AFC team to the mix for the third wild-card spot. Before Belichick scooped up Newton, the Buffalo Bills generally were viewed as the only team in the AFC worthy of playoff consideration, barring an unexpectedly successful season from the New York Jets or Miami Dolphins or a massive improvement from Stidham.

With the Kansas City Chiefs ruling the AFC West, the Raiders were expected to battle for one of the three wild-card positions with six other teams (Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers; two of the Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans; and two of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns). The AFC East was expected to send its winner to the postseason and that was it. Write it in ink.

That no longer is the case with Newton taking the snaps in Foxboro. He should, in theory, make the Patriots a threat to win the division yet again and add another team to the pool of opponents the Raiders must beat out for a wild-card spot. It also puts added importance on both the Raiders' Week 3 game against the Patriots and their Week 4 game against the Bills, as a win in those games would give them the edge in any tiebreaker scenario. As the Raiders learned last season, that becomes important with so many teams jockeying for a ticket to the dance.

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The Raiders were greater than the sum of their parts in 2019. They went 7-9 with a 5-11 roster. The roster is much better in 2020 and has many seeing another jump forward on the horizon.

A two-game improvement will get them to 9-7 and in the playoff picture. But the AFC is loaded with good teams who expect to be in the mix along with the Silver and Black.

A new playoff contender emerged Sunday when Belichick and Newton's marriage was announced. The Raiders' path to nine or 10 wins becomes more difficult with the 2015 NFL MVP on the schedule in Week 3, and their road to the playoffs more treacherous with games against Newton, Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady in four of their first six games.

Week 3 in Foxboro has become all the more important with the Patriots entering the playoff contender picture. A Raiders win not only would give them the tiebreaker over Belichick and Newton, but it also would give them better odds of exiting their Week 7 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without their heads fully underwater.

Gruden and the Raiders should be thinking playoffs in 2020. But they'll really have to earn it with Newton, if healthy, and the Patriots now entering the postseason equation.

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.