The Raiders overachieved in 2019. The sum was greater than the whole of its parts. The Raiders sat at 6-4 and looked primed to make the playoffs. They went 1-5 in their last six games and missed the playoffs in their final season in Oakland.
Despite the apparent talent deficiencies, the Silver and Black made a three-game improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 of Jon Gruden's second tenure with the Raiders. They entered the offseason with a laundry list of needs and just about filled them all. That has some believing 2020 could be the year the Raiders return to the playoffs, and NBC Sports' Peter King is quite high on them, ranking them No. 8 in his offseason power rankings.
"I probably like the Raiders more than most because of the offensive improvement and because of four defensive additions: defensive end Carl Nassib, inside linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkowski, and cornerback Prince Amukamara (decent year in 2019 in Chicago, very good in 2018)," King writes.
King has the Raiders ranked above the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, which would mean another impressive leap is in store for Gruden's team during its inaugural Las Vegas season. While that seems a tad high, the roster improvement can't be ignored.
General manager Mike Mayock and Gruden made several key additions in the offseason. They entered free agency knowing they had to fix a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA last year. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther just didn't have the horses. Vontaze Burfict got suspended, Johnathan Abram and Karl Joseph got hurt and the wheels came right off. The pass rush was improved but not good enough. The secondary, outside of Trayvon Mullen, was a patchwork job that was torched late in the year. The linebacking corps was a vicious, life-sucking black hole that the Raiders couldn't board up.
So Mayock and Gruden made wholesale changes to the defense, injecting talent into a unit that sorely lacked it in 2019. Littleton and Kwiatkoski are the big additions. Getting two playmaking, three-down linebackers was a massive win for Guenther and the defense. Last year, the Raiders might as well have been playing with nine men on defense. They got less than zero from the linebacker position. Now they have two athletic backers who can cover tight ends and running backs. Just those additions alone should drastically improve their ability to defend both the run and pass.
But the Raiders also bulked up the line with the addition of Maliek Collins and Nassib, and improved the secondary with Amukamara, rookies Damon Arnette and Amik Robertson and safety Damarious Randall. Abram also will be back and healthy after missing all but one game in 2019, and we should expect improvements from Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Mullen in Year 2. All that talent should allow the Raiders defense to make a jump into the middle of the pack when it comes to NFL defenses.
In the 2020 NFL Draft, the Raiders went to work on the other side of the ball. They drafted wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, as well as running back/athlete Lynn Bowden. With Tyrell Williams healthy and Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller looking to improve on impressive 2019 seasons, quarterback Derek Carr finally has a full arsenal of weapons to run Gruden's offense with.
The Raiders kicked around the idea of signing Tom Brady. They met with Justin Herbert over Zoom before the draft. They brought in Marcus Mariota to push Carr. But make no mistake, this is Carr's team and the Raiders have removed all of the excuses he's had in the past. The offensive line is one of the best in football when healthy. Ruggs, Williams, Renfrow, Waller and Edwards are a dynamic receiving group and Josh Jacobs is one of the best backs in football.
All that amounts to the potential of a career-year for Carr, who now will have to prove he's the franchise quarterback many believe him to be.
The Raiders are much improved, but so is the rest of the AFC West. The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs still are the kings of the NFL, the Denver Broncos added firepower to their offense and the Los Angeles Chargers drafted Herbert to be the quarterback of the future.
Couple a hard division with a tough schedule that sees the Raiders face the NFC South and AFC East as well as the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns, and the Raiders face an uphill battle in 2020.
But the Raiders should be a better overall team in 2020. They stacked talent on talent with a solid 2020 draft class, and used their cap space to give the defense a huge facelift. Eight seems a tad high, but the expectations should be high for the Raiders in 2020.
Having capable linebackers and a real receiving corps should be worth at least two wins. With an extra playoff spot now on the table, a 9-7 should get the Raiders a ticket to the postseason dance.
That's all Gruden can ask for as his full rebuild hits the next phase.