Raiders rookies envision building dynasty after strong start to 2019

Raiders rookies envision building dynasty after strong start to 2019

OAKLAND -- When Jon Gruden arrived back in Oakland, it was clear he didn't like what he saw.

Most of the players didn't fit what he wanted to do -- either from a culture or scheme perspective -- and so Year 1 of Gruden's second reign in silver and black turned into a Year 0 teardown. The losses piled up. Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper were traded away as Gruden angled for draft capital in order to craft the team in his image.

To build the next great era of Raiders football, Gruden believed, the building blocks must be acquired and put in place.

Many of those building blocks were acquired in April when the Raiders selected nine players in the 2019 NFL Draft.

There were first-round picks Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs and Johnathan Abram, yes. But there also was second-round pick Trayvon Mullen, fourth-round pick Foster Moreau, fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow and undrafted rookies Keelan Doss and Alec Ingold, who the Raiders later brought on board. 

Ferrell, the No. 4 overall pick, hasn't popped yet, but the confidence still is there that he can be a difference-maker on the defensive line. Abram injured his shoulder in Week 1 and will miss the entire season. Mullen didn't see a lot of snaps early on, but was given the starting spot after the Raiders traded Gareon Conley to the Houston Texans, and Mullen has been as-advertised. 

The defensive rookies are talented, but it's what's happened on offense that has to have Gruden beaming from ear-to-ear.

Jacobs has been a revelation at running back, breaking Marcus Allen's record for rushing yards by a Raiders rookie Sunday in a Week 9 win over the Lions. He has shown great vision, power, elusiveness and still has yet to showcase his ability as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

Moreau, who was thought of as a project tight end coming out of LSU, was thrust into a bigger role once the Raiders were forced to alter their offensive philosophy in the wake of Antonio Brown's unexpected departure. Moreau wasn't used a ton in the passing game in Baton Rouge, but it's clear that was due to a run-heavy offensive scheme and not his ability to be a weapon, as he has become a reliable target for quarterback Derek Carr.

Renfrow's college credentials are well-documented. A College Football Playoff National Championship Game hero for Clemson, Renfrow racked up clutch catch after clutch catch during his career in Death Valley. He won the slot receiver job in training camp, beating out veteran Ryan Grant. After a slow start to his NFL career, Renfrow has come on over the last two games, catching 10 balls for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning, 9-yard touchdown in the Raiders' win over the Lions on Sunday. 

All told, Jacobs, Moreau and Renfrow accounted for all four of the Raiders' scores in the win over the Lions. This group of rookies came in with a clear goal, knowing they were going to be the ground floor of a Raiders rebuild, and they've worked hard to get the Silver and Black back on track right away.

"That's something that we've been priding ourselves on since we came in," Jacobs said of the rookie class. "We wanted to change the culture, start a dynasty here. We all came in and we made that agreement together. Seeing that we are all doing so good right now, it's working."

The Raiders became the first team since the Seahawks in 2015 to have rookies score all four touchdowns in a victory. Jacobs racked up 128 yards and two touchdowns. Renfrow caught six passes for 54 yards and a touchdown and Moreau's lone catch was a 3-yard scoring strike.

The offensive rookies have been grinding since Day 1, and they are starting to bear the fruits of their labor.

"Our rookie class takes a lot of pride, with Alec and Keelan, on the offensive side," Renfrow said. "All of us just trying to be our best and try to get this thing turned around. We feel like we are a good class and we have the chance to do that."

Gruden was heavily criticized for trading away two of his best players in Mack and Cooper. The Raiders still are looking for a way to replace the hole Mack left on the defensive line, one they hope Ferrell can help fill in time. Many questioned Gruden's ability to evaluate talent after spending so many years away from the game, but his rookie class has delivered so far and have the Raiders 4-4 and in the playoff hunt.

[RELATED: Grading Raiders' offense, defense in thrilling win vs. Lions]

Carr now has been a Raider for six seasons. He has had four head coaches and has seen different blueprints drawn up to get the Raiders going in the right direction. Each plan has been torn up. stuck in a shredder and discarded in favor of a different vision. But these rookies give Carr hope the Raiders now are on the right path.

"I talk about it all the time, you have to lay a foundation," Carr said Sunday. "We've laid one and jackhammered it out about 14 times since I've been here, right? This one I hope stays, that's for sure. But this foundation is pretty good, man.

"I've watched our rookies be able to play big roles. Not just packages of plays. They can play everything. Coach Gruden demands it of them and they pick it up. These guys don't make mental mistakes that many times. I can think of Josh Jacobs, just a few on one hand throughout this whole season. As a running back in the NFL that's crazy, that doesn't happen. Usually, every time it's a pass play they take those rookie running backs out because they don't know what they are doing. You see a guy like Foster Moreau run his route precisely, be where I need him to be and in the timing I need him to be there for a touchdown.

"You see Hunter Renfrow on the scramble drill do what coaches tell him to do. If you get a group of guys that will listen to their coaches and bust their tails at practice, which they do, this is the fruits of what can happen."

The foundation is being laid, with Jacobs, Moreau and Renfrow being key building blocks for an offensive future that should excite those in silver and black.

As Sunday's performance showed, these rookies have a goal in mind. Greatness for themselves and the Raiders. A plan that might just be ahead of schedule.

Why Raiders shouldn't worry about Derek Carr-Marcus Mariota controversy

Why Raiders shouldn't worry about Derek Carr-Marcus Mariota controversy

For the first time in what feels like forever, the Raiders finally have a viable backup quarterback. If Derek Carr goes down, coach Jon Gruden should have a QB behind him who can step in and get the job done. 

Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock clearly made this a priority in the offseason by signing Marcus Mariota. The former No. 2 overall draft pick's contract had some fans wondering if a quarterback controversy is inevitable. Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski had the same thought, which made him label Mariota as the Raiders' worst signing this offseason. 

"The Raiders organization won't admit it publicly, but Gruden and Co. created a combustible situation with an almost inevitable upcoming competition between the two quarterbacks," Sobleski wrote. "Carr and Mariota are consummate professionals, but both will want to start."

Of course both will want to start. That doesn't mean there will be a "combustible situation" in Sin City, though. Mariota is to thank for that. He's the perfect backup to not create an ugly scene while still pushing his counterpart. 

To no surprise if you have read anything about Mariota as a teammate or heard him speak after losing his starting job with the Tennessee Titans last season, he already is saying all the right things regarding he and Carr. 

“First and foremost, this is Derek’s team. I understand that going in,” Mariota told Rob DeMello of KHON2, a television station in his native Hawai’i. “I think my priority was to be part of a team that would bring out the best in me. Whatever happens, whatever comes of that, I’m ready for.

“I do know that, to play starting quarterback in the NFL, to be at that spot, is not an easy job to do. I think, when it comes down to it, a strong, stable, supportive quarterback room makes that job a whole lot easier. That’s what we have to do. I’m going to do my best to support Derek in every possible way that I can.

"Along with that, I’m going to try to become the best player I can be and see where that takes me.”

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Mariota made these comments late last month. He wants to compete, he wants to become a better player, but the last thing he will do is create a toxic locker room.

Don't just take his word, take what the QB who replaced him had to say. While watching his team succeed with Ryan Tannehill taking his job midway through last season, Mariota was there to support his teammate and fellow quarterback every step of the way. 

"Marcus is an incredible human being, and I have so much respect and love for him," Tannehill said to Titans Online at the Pro Bowl. "... The way things went down, I don't think many guys in the world would handle it the way he did. He handled it like a true professional. He was supportive of me from Day One. I know he was hurting, and I tried to be empathetic with that throughout the season and give support to him as well.

"But he handled it so well -- he was supportive of me, helped me out on game days, in preparation during the week. He was just a consistent guy throughout the year.

"We are great friends and we will continue to be great friends."

[RELATED: Ranking Raiders' top 25 offensive players]

Mariota's two-year, $17.6 million contract is an expensive one for a backup. It also is filled with incentives where he could earn roughly $20 million more if he assumes the starting gig through most of 2020 and has serious success in 2021.

Carr has been questioned from the outside for years now, and this certainly doesn't help. More questions from the media will come, however, Mariota never will amplify those questions or concerns. That's not his style. 

At one point or another, Mariota might step in for Carr as the Raiders' quarterback. Before that, though, he will continue saying the right things. "Controversy" is the last word you can associate with him.

Raiders mailbag: How will Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock handle cornerback need?

Raiders mailbag: How will Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock handle cornerback need?

The Raiders invested heavily in unrestricted free agency, so much so that they had to restructure Rodney Hudson to get right within the salary cap. It might not be the only adjustment required after all the Raiders did importing veteran talent, considering they need $9.4 million to sign their draft picks as currently slotted.

Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock should shift eyes from the open market to the NFL draft feeling confident in the additions made, with little doubt the Raiders are discernably better than they were last month.

That was made clear in last week’s Raiders Insider Podcasts, which focused on the state of the roster that is improved but still needs some help. They have to stick the landing in the draft to complete a productive offseason, a fact we’ll address in forthcoming installments, with pressing needs at receiver and cornerback remaining.

This offseason pivot point creates an ideal time for a Raiders mailbag, one looking back at what they’ve done and ahead at what they could do in the draft to fortify a roster that is significantly better than it was a few weeks ago.

Let’s get to your questions, which come via Facebook and Twitter, and have been lightly edited for context and grammar:

Question: Raiders had high hopes for Isaiah Johnson last year. What are his chances of starting opposite Mullen Island this year or do they draft a cornerback with one of two first-round picks? – Ryan Roscioli on Facebook

You’re right. The Raiders are high on Johnson, a converted receiver with the length and speed required to function well in the defensive system. I think odds are good he could be a factor moving forward, but his presence doesn’t eliminate a pressing need at cornerback.

If they were sure Johnson was going to be the guy, they wouldn’t have gone hard after Byron Jones and Chris Harris Jr. or kicked the tires on a Darius Slay trade. They wouldn’t have courted Eli Apple.

They did all those things, and there’s a strong belief cornerback is a high priority in the NFL draft. Johnson has an opportunity to grab a prominent defensive position, but he’s going to have to beat out some competition to get it. He has the talent required to do so, but a starting spot is far from given at this stage.

It seems likely the Raiders add a cornerback at No. 12 or 19 overall and let that person work for the starting gig, though Johnson won't take that lying down. He has been working hard this offseason and should contend to a prominent role on the 2020 Raiders defense. 

Q: We’ve had a lot of talk about the top 10 WRs. Who is your sleeper WR not being mentioned much? – Bryce Abbas on Facebook

When it comes to picks outside the upper echelon, I defer to Josh Schrock, Raiders reporter and NBC Sports Bay Area’s resident draftnik. He gave me these names to watch: USC’s Michael Pittman, Ohio State’s K.J. Hill, Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool and Texas’ Devin Duvernay. Those guys should be available later and could fortify the receiver corps.

Don’t forget that Nelson Agholor’s working on a one-year deal and Tyrell Williams’ deal is pay-as-you-go. They need some long-term solutions at receiver. Getting a few isn’t a bad idea.

Q: If 2 of the top 3 receivers are available at 12 and 19 could the Raiders draft two prime time receivers? – Mike Perez on Facebook

Anything’s possible but I wouldn’t consider that probable. The Raiders have too many other needs to take two first-round receivers. If they want more than one receiver in the draft, the second could come in the later rounds as Mayock tries to mine talent from a deep receiver draft class.

Q: Jon Gruden's Offense demands a receiver to be able to play all three positions. Which one do you think fits that mold? – Joseph McNeal on Facebook

That’s a great question. Gruden does prefer his receivers know all three spots, though they generally focus on one during games. Hunter Renfrow normally mans the slot. Tyrell Williams is more of an X receiver. Jerry Jeudy can move around and perform well from anywhere, so I think he could be a solid fit for what the Raiders do.

I’m still more of a CeeDee Lamb guy for his YAC ability and the fact the Raiders need someone threatening working on the outside.

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Q: Do you think the Raiders will draft a big back like Gruden had with Tyrone Wheatley or Zack Crockett in the later rounds this year? – James George on Facebook

I do think they add a running back in the draft, with the third round an opportunity to land a physical complementary back. AJ Dillon, anyone?

They need someone to take some of the load off Josh Jacobs, especially with Jalen Richard working primarily as a third-down back and DeAndre Washington still on the free-agent market.

Q: Do you think the Raiders will make the playoffs this year? Or do you believe it'll take 2 or 3 more years? – Jerry Arrendondo Sr. on Facebook

More the former than they latter. The Raiders are now on the back end of a major roster rebuild and are significantly better than the team that finished 7-9 last year. If Derek Carr performs and they avoid catastrophic injury issues, the Raiders should be in the hunt for the three wild-card spots available with the expanded postseason.

If Mayock and Gruden hit another home run in the NFL draft, there’s no reason to think they can’t be one of the seven best teams in the AFC.

Q: What is the reason that you think the Eli Apple deal fell through? – Steve Guzman on Facebook

As I understand it, Apple’s inability to get a physical was the primary issue. I’m not sure if he missed a deadline to get one or the process was dragging unnecessarily, but the team wanted to finalize the deal and that wasn’t possible without a physical. It was not a financial decision.

While Apple didn’t completely quench the Raiders’ thirst for a cornerback, he was going to be the frontrunner to start opposition Trayvon Mullen. They should add one in the NFL draft and let him compete with Johnson for the starting gig.

I do think the Raiders came out better for Thursday’s events, when the Apple deal dissolved and Damarious Randall came aboard.

[RELATED: Raiders have upgraded defense, but still need to improve]

Q: Has Marcus Mariota met with Jon Gruden yet? – Brian Taylor on Facebook

The two have met -- there was a whole Gruden QB camp episode centered around one interaction -- but not since the signing. That isn’t allowed during a dead period where the travel is restricted, and NFL facilities officially down shut down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

I included this question to discuss a broader point about where we in relation to a standard NFL offseason. This spring and summer will be anything but normal, with offseason programs and OTAs postponed indefinitely. There’s a real possibility they don’t get conducted at all, a real setback for incoming players and Mariota especially as he tries to learn a new offensive scheme.

There’s a possibility that video conference meetings can be conducted, but that’s nothing like a typical offseason program. It’s a setback from a football perspective, but also rational considering the state of the pandemic.

Players have been told to work out on their own and sit tight waiting for further instructions, though it’s hard to imagine getting back to normal anytime soon.

Q: Do you think Damarious Randall or Erik Harris starts at free safety? – R8RNICK87 on Twitter

While Randall has versatility to play anywhere in the defensive backfield, he was a damn good free safety in Cleveland and I believe the plan is to play him at free safety in the Raiders’ scheme.

Harris will be a qualified backup, someone who will also have to battle Jeff Heath for a favorable spot on the depth chart with Randall in the mix and Johnathan Abram back healthy.