Raiders training camp is nearly upon us. We’ll start to see this team come together in Napa and throughout the preseason, and it’s a group that should be better than last year’s model.
Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock made bold moves this offseason to upgrade certain areas while leaving others for future portions of what it a longer-term rebuilding project. There are team strengths and weaknesses that will be defined by action and performance, but here’s where they rank as we head into training camp. Certain areas will be relied upon, others will be accounted for as the Raiders attempt to improve upon last season’s disappointment.
Projected starters: Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Ryan Grant
Key reserves: Dwyane Harris, Hunter Renfrow, Keelan Doss, Marcell Ateman, J.J. Nelson
Mayock and Gruden did an excellent job overhauling a major weakness from a year ago, adding personnel that is both dynamic and reliable. It wasn’t cheap, with Brown and Williams receiving significant sums to play here. They can be a powerful duo in the pattern, with Brown a legit superstar and Williams adept capitalizing on single coverage. Grant has been productive when healthy, especially in the slot, and that top trio has depth behind it at every receiver position. Harris is a gadget player and a solid return man. Renfrow has received good early reviews and Doss has potential. The last one or two roster spots in the team’s deepest, strongest position group will be highly competitive.
2. Defensive backs
Projected starters: Gareon Conley, Lamarcus Joyner, Daryl Worley, Karl Joseph, Johnathan Abram
Key reserves: Nevin Lawson, Trayvon Mullen, Isaiah Johnson, Eric Harris, Curtis Riley, Nike Nelson
Joyner’s signing and the Abram draft pick brought this secondary together, with a strong back end. Joyner’s the lynchpin, capable of being a top-flight slot cornerback and stands as the team’s best free safety when called upon to play there. He adds leadership to the back end, with Conley an anchor on one outside cornerback spot. Worley seems set for a career year and Abram's fitting right in as a starter. He has the talent and leadership to be a plug-and-play rookie. Joseph will be supremely motivated after not receiving his fifth-year option, adding aggressive play to a complete secondary with hard hitters and smart cover men.
Position coach Jim O’Neil is a passionate leader who should get the best from this defensive strength.
3. Offensive line
Projected starters: Kolton Miller, Richie Incognito, Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, Trent Brown
Key reserves: Brandon Parker, Denzelle Good, Jordan Devey, Denver Kirkland, David Sharpe
The Raiders spent big trying to get their offensive line right. They gave Brown a record deal to play right tackle and used a first-round pick to anchor Miller on the left. Miller struggled through injury last season, but has gained tons of lean mass and looks primed for vast improvement in Year 2. The interior is solid, with Incognito merging right in with the starting unit. Good is available should Incognito falter or start the season suspended after some off-field incidents last year.
Hudson might be the NFL’s best center, and Jackson's awesome when healthy. Devey provides depth and Parker’s a solid swing tackle option. The line should find old form after a down year where Derek Carr spent significant time on the run.
Projected starters: Derek Carr
Key reserves: Mike Glennon, Nathan Peterman
Carr took heavy flak this offseason for not realizing his potential for two straight seasons, with rampant speculation the Raiders would take a first-round quarterback. That didn’t happen and was never the plan.
Carr is set to start in 2019, exactly as Gruden said all offseason. The sixth-year veteran received significant help at the skill positions and along the offensive line, setting the stage for a career renaissance.
Folks forget he was a legitimate MVP candidate in 2016, before breaking his leg late in the year. He should find that form with this offense.
Glennon’s the consummate pro and an excellent backup option. Peterman remains a Gruden pet project, which could pay dividends in a trade or on the depth chart in future seasons.
5. Running backs
Projected starters: Josh Jacobs
Key reserves: Jalen Richard, Doug Martin, Chris Warren III, DeAndre Washington
Josh Jacobs has formally signed his rookie contract, as if that was in serious doubt, and won’t miss a moment of prep to be a true feature back. If he can stay healthy, Jacobs will have an opportunity for huge numbers and major contributions. Gruden loves his versatile skill set, and the player seems ready for the heavy workload he never got at Alabama.
Richard will get touches as a third-down option who can protect the passer and is a tougher runner than you may think. Martin’s a mentor at this stage, with steady carries only coming if Jacobs gets hurt. Warren’s an X-factor here. He could be a factor or not get a roster spot. Keep an eye on him this summer.
Projected starters: Tahir Whitehead, Vontaze Burfict, Brandon Marshall
Key reserves: Marquel Lee, Nicholas Morrow, Jason Cabinda, Kyle Wilber
This group was a mess last year after it wasn’t addressed in the draft and veteran addition Derrick Johnson didn’t pan out. The Raiders are relying on well-worn veterans to turn tides, a formula that hasn’t worked well in the past. Whitehead will be a fixture as he was last year, the lone veteran among young, at times overmatched youngsters.
Burfict should make an impact on this Raiders defense but ultimately remains a wild card. He must find his previous form to stay on the field, most likely as a base defense player. We haven't seen Marshall much yet so he’s an unknown after getting hurt last year before being transitioned into a reserve role in Denver.
Experience and past excellence make him a projected starter, though Marquel Lee will push hard for the SAM linebacker spot. Marshall can also help in the middle if Burfict gets hurt early.
The group is better than 2018, with experience up top and young, developing players with significant game experience. There’s no dominant player in the group, no excellent cover man to quiet issues with running backs and tight ends. Eventually, this position group will need a high draft pick or an expensive and young-ish free agent to provide long-term stability.
7. Tight ends
Projected starters: Darren Waller
Key reserves: Derek Carrier, Foster Moreau, Luke Willson, Paul Butler
There’s optimism this group can be good in 2019 thanks to Waller’s immense talent. But, as it stands, this group was downgraded in the short term. Jared Cook was a Pro Bowl receiving tight end. Lee Smith was consistently ranked among the best blockers at his position. Both guys are now gone, with Waller and some relatively non-descript, yet versatile options behind him. This group could absolutely prove a team strength this season, but a prove-it period is required. Carrier and Moreau especially must step up as a blocker and Waller must thrive as a primary target to fill major roles on the team.
8. Defensive line
Projected starters: Clelin Ferrell, Maurice Hurst, Johnathan Hankins, Arden Key
Key reserves: Josh Mauro, Maxx Crosby, Justin Ellis, P.J. Hall, Eddie Vanderdoes, Benson Mayowa
The defensive line was in shambles last year, struggling against the run while failing to generate a consistent pass rush. Hurst is the only returner with more than one sack last year, meaning there’s so much improvement required to be serviceable. Ferrell and Crosby are main reinforcements, with Key expected to be far better in his second season. Even great rookie impacts and improvements from returning players still might not be enough to reach the middle of the NFL pack.
Position coach Brentson Buckner has lots of work ahead on what is considered a long-term rebuild, one that might take another offseason’s acquisitions to complete. The line should be better against the run with Ellis healthy, Hankins back and Mauro in the fold. Ferrell’s solid in that area as well, and those early-down improvements should create more obvious pass-rushing situations. Ferrell will help, but most rookie pass rushers, save an elite few, take time to find a rhythm in the NFL. His best years are likely played in Las Vegas. The defensive line is better but remains a work in progress, leaving little surprise it sits on the rankings floor right now.