Raiders

Raiders training camp questions: Can young pass rush make improvements?

Raiders training camp questions: Can young pass rush make improvements?

This offseason’s free-agent class was loaded with excellent edge rushers, for a little while anyway. Franchise tags took the best off the market, greatly decreasing supply to feed an insatiable hunger for quality pass rushers.

That’s how Trey Flowers’ value got inflated to $90 million, with $56 million guaranteed. The Raiders weren’t matching those funds, or lesser sums to imperfect fits.

That left the Raiders to continue a classic position-group rebuild through the NFL draft. The Raiders took three defensive ends a year after taking two interior linemen and an edge rusher, going young at an important position largely devoid of established talent.

These reconstruction methods take time, and the Raiders probably have another offseason left before the defensive line intimidates as planned. That’s no direct knock on passer rushers already on the roster. This team is in the middle of a multi-year roster rebuild, with a big plans for 2020 and beyond in Las Vegas.

In short: The defensive line remains a work in progress. Set expectations appropriately. 

This isn’t a unit going from the NFL’s worst in sacks to anywhere near first. Even the middle of the pack might be a stretch. But the Raiders have to do better than last year’s 13-sack total, without much pressure in general. Ultimately, they will.

They would need 40 to be in the top half, and it might be tough to make such a huge leap.

It’s possible if the interior gets strong push, second-year man Arden Key finishes golden opportunities he too-often missed last year and No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell produces here like he did at the college level.

The Clemson product had 27 sacks over his last three seasons with the Tigers, and should prove pro ready while playing heavy snaps as an NFL rookie. Expecting a Herculean effort in his first season might be a bit much as he continues to develop as a pass rusher, but Ferrell can get after the quarterback right now.

Rookies don't get home as often as vets, but his presence should help the overall product.

Fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby’s a wild card off the edge, and could be impactful if he earns a role as a situational pass rusher. Seventh-rounder Quinton Bell's a project. Benson Mayowa’s the only veteran with juice off the edge, though his spot in the rotation will shake out over the summer as coaches compare his efficiency to younger players.

Key might play less but do more than his rookie year, when he was asked to play extensively following the Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin departures. He could split time with veteran run defender Josh Mauro, if both players shake out well during training camp.

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Good push could come from the interior, with Maurice Hurst looking to build off a solid rookie year and Johnathan Hankins entering his second year in the system. P.J. Hall’s somewhat of an unknown, but needs a strong camp to earn a rotation spot. His second-round draft status won’t help him there.

This defensive line will be tested each day in training camp by a standout offensive line, and could take some lumps once pads come on. Development is key for a young group led by position coach Brenston Buckner, who should be given time to build this line into something better.

Raiders roster analysis: offense a few additions away from being truly dynamic

Raiders roster analysis: offense a few additions away from being truly dynamic

The Raiders offense is a few pieces away from being truly dynamic. They’re well-stocked at several spots, with immediate help needed in others.

We’re taking a close look at the team’s offense and defense this week on all platforms, with a podcast, stories and player rankings devoted to the offensive and defensive units.

We’ll focus first on an attack coordinated by Jon Gruden and executed by longtime Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, entering his seventh season as the starter.

Let’s take a look at the current state of each offensive position group and whether they need help in the short or long term:

Quarterback

Starter: Derek Carr

Top reserves: Marcus Mariota, Nathan Peterman

State of the position: The Raiders are incredibly deep at the position, will all three signal-callers armed with starting experience. Carr’s the clear-cut starter and Mariota ranks high among the league’s best backups. That pecking order should remain most of the year, with Carr assisted by a talented supporting cast. He’s in a great position to thrive in 2020, with Mariota offering competition and collaboration in the quarterback meeting room.

Help wanted?: This is a big year for Carr and Mariota. Quarterbacks are well-positioned for success, and struggles in 2020 could lead the Raiders to look in a different direction next offseason. If Carr thrives, he could cement himself as the starter through the remainder of his contract. Mariota can’t overtake Carr, he may want to go elsewhere next year. The Raiders could draft a young quarterback to develop, but they don’t need one.

Receivers

Starters: Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Nelson Agholor

Key reserves: Zay Jones, Marcell Ateman, Keelan Doss

State of the position: This group is missing a true No. 1. Williams is an excellent secondary option and should be better than he was in 2019, when he was dealing with foot issues. Renfrow’s a quality slot receiver who showed great chemistry with Carr down the stretch. Jones didn’t do much after an in-season trade. Agholor’s only listed as a starter until the NFL draft.

Help wanted?: The Raiders need a frontline starter they’re expected to find in the NFL draft’s first round. They could add another pass catcher in the later rounds to add depth and top talent to a position group that desperately needs more of both.

Running backs

Starters: RB Josh Jacobs, FB Alec Ingold

Key reserves: Jalen Richard, Rod Smith

State of the position: The Raiders are in great shape in the backfield, with Jacobs an elite feature back who does most everything well. Richard’s as good a third-down option as you’ll find, and Ingold a versatile fullback who works extremely well with Jacobs.

Help wanted?: The Raiders could use a young, bruising back to spell Jacobs and bring a different size and skill set to the running back room. Jacobs can be physical between the tackles, but a larger runner could help supplement an already strong ground game.

Tight ends

Starter: Darren Waller

Key reserves: Foster Moreau, Jason Witten, Darren Waller, Nick O’Leary

State of the position: There’s plenty of depth and talent in this group, so much the Raiders could keep a fourth tight end on the 53-man roster. Waller’s an elite receiving talent, Witten’s aging but still has something left and Moreau’s a solid run blocker and red zone threat. Carrier’s a glue guy who provides quality depth

Help wanted?: The Raiders are well stocked for 2020, with Waller and Moreau anchoring the position group for a long time.

Offensive line

Starters: LT Kolton Miller, LG Richie Incognito, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Trent Brown

[RELATED: NFL plans for normal 2020 season despite pandemic]

Reserves: OG Denzelle Good, OG Eric Kush, OT David Sharpe, OT Brandon Parker, G/C Andre James

State of the position: The Raiders have spent heavily on the offensive line, which should be one of the NFL’s best when healthy. They used roughly 28 percent of their salary cap on the starters alone, so they’d better be. Brown and Hudson are at the top of their field, with strong guard play expected if Jackson regains old form. They have depth on the interior, with Good more than capable in a starting role.

Help wanted?: The Raiders could use some depth at offensive tackle, maybe coming from the NFL draft’s middle rounds. Parker has struggled in pass protection and Sharpe is improving but has to continue his development.

Jon Gruden, Raiders could return to glory with expanded NFL playoffs

Jon Gruden, Raiders could return to glory with expanded NFL playoffs

The Raiders were a two-point conversion away from ending their 2019 campaign on a high note. Derek Carr and Hunter Renfrow connected in the end zone with 11 seconds left in the regular-season finale at Denver but couldn’t replicate success on the game’s decisive play.

Carr’s pass fell to the turf, essentially securing the Raiders’ 16-15 loss to the Broncos. The result didn’t matter much. The Raiders would’ve finished the season 8-8 with a win. Their NFL draft picks improved with a loss.

If the Raiders would have won that game and NFL operated under a new and expanded playoff format approved Tuesday in a conference call with league owners, the Raiders would’ve made the postseason.

The Silver and Black would have claimed the AFC’s No. 7 seed and the final playoff spot in a format that includes an extra team and an extra game in each conference. A total of 14 teams now make the playoffs, with only the No. 1 seed granted a first-round bye and three games per conference in the wild-card round.

They would’ve advanced on a strength of victory tiebreaker over the Steelers. Creating that alternate reality entailed a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda, enough to make your head spin.

Plain and simple: The Raiders didn’t deserve to make the playoffs after fading down the stretch, with ample opportunity to right the ship and get in. They ran out of gas due to poor depth and a rash of injuries to vital players, and couldn’t get the job done. 

But the Silver and Black should be contenders for a 2020 postseason berth if things go right with their improved defense and an offense that could be dynamic if the Raiders pick the right receiver(s) in next month’s NFL draft.

The extra playoff spot will certainly help the Raiders and similar teams trying to get from the middle of the pack to the AFC’s top tier.

[RELATED: Vegas could host 2022 draft]

It’ll be beneficial for the Raiders playing in the AFC West. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs should be good for a long time, especially with Patrick Mahomes behind center. Adding an extra wild-card spot should help the Raiders make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and just the second time since the 2002 season.

The Raiders were 6-4 and in great standing before falling on hard times and finishing 2019 with a whimper despite receiving tons of help in their playoff quest. They were formally eliminated from playoff contention entering that 2019 finale in Denver but would’ve been alive if there were a seventh spot.

They could be in a similar situation next season and should be better suited to perform well down the stretch while fighting for the playoffs.