Damon Arnette

Eli Apple, Panthers agree to deal after Raiders pact scrapped in April

Eli Apple, Panthers agree to deal after Raiders pact scrapped in April

Eli Apple never finalized a contract with the Raiders, and the free-agent cornerback has agreed to join their scheduled Week 1 opponents.

Apple reached an agreement on a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, the team announced.

The Raiders are set to play the Panthers in Charlotte on Sept. 13, and the Silver and Black could line up against the man the front office initially pegged to have a shot to start opposite Trayvon Mullen. A league source confirmed to NBC Sports Bay Area's Scott Bair on March 18 that Apple and the Raiders agreed to terms on a deal.

[RELATED: Where Carr ranks among NFL starting quarterbacks]

But Apple never put pen to paper, and the deal officially fell apart on April 2 due in part to an inability to get a physical. The Raiders quickly changed course to bolster their secondary, adding Damarious Randall that same day and selecting defensive backs Damon Arnette (first round, No. 19 overall) and Amik Robertson (fourth round, No. 129 overall) in the draft a few weeks later. They also officially signed veteran corner Prince Amukamara on May 18.

Will the Raiders regret not bringing Apple in? It will be too early to tell after Week 1, but the Silver and Black will have all the more reason to want to take a bite out of the Panthers with Apple on the roster.

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Raiders' playoff hopes rest on these five players not named Derek Carr

Raiders' playoff hopes rest on these five players not named Derek Carr

The Raiders entered the 2020 offseason with a checklist of holes to fill and positions to upgrade. They damn near did it all.

Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock spent most of their free agency dollars improving a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA in 2020. They added talent to all three levels, giving defensive coordinator Paul Guenther his most-talented unit to date. In the draft, the Raiders stacked talent on talent, focusing mainly on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards and running back Lynn Bowden will all be welcome additions to an offense that lacked the ability to create explosive plays in 2019.

The Silver and Black injected talent into their roster at key positions and look to be a much better team than the one that went 7-9 last season. An improved defense coupled with a more explosive offense and an extra playoff spot should give the Raiders hope for a postseason berth in 2020.

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But in order to do so, they'll need some of their key members -- not named Derek Carr -- to stay healthy and have big seasons to make that dream a reality.

Honorable Mentions: Henry Ruggs and Cornerback No. 2

Big things are expected from Ruggs. You don't get drafted with the No. 12 overall pick just to fly in under the radar. But receivers often struggle in their first season in the NFL and Gruden's offense is one of the more complex units in the league to grasp.

There's no doubt the Raiders will find ways to get the ball into Ruggs' hands as much as possible, but it might take a few weeks for the speedy receiver to find his footing in the NFL.

As for the other honorable mention, it belongs to what is perhaps the Raiders' biggest question mark. Whoever wins the cornerback job opposite Trayvon Mullen will have to be able to hold down their side of the field. Last season, the Raiders got virtually nothing from Daryl Worley at that position and their past defense suffered because of the gaping hole on that side of the field.

Getting production from Prince Amukamara, Damon Arnette, Amik Robertson or Isaiah Johnson is paramount for the Raiders to contend for a playoff spot.

5. Johnathan Abram

We don't know exactly what to expect from Abram, who missed all but one game during his rookie season with a torn labrum in his shoulder. But the Raiders need him to be healthy and to play an important role in the back end in order to keep the defense together.

Abram's injury in the Raiders' Week 1 win over the Denver Broncos was a bigger blow than most realize. Without sufficient depth at the position, the Raiders secondary struggled with communication and was burned too many times to count. Erik Harris eventually filled the role adequately, but once Karl Joseph went down in Week 10, the Raiders' secondary was unable to recover.

Abram is a physical safety who we expect to play more in the box, letting Damarious Randall handle the deep safety duties. But Abram must harness that aggression, play under control, stay healthy and give the Raiders 16 solid games if they are to make the playoffs. The defense has been rebuilt, but losing Abram again would be a hard loss to overcome.

4. Trent Brown

In a 2019 class of splashy free-agent signings that didn't pan out, Trent Brown was the lone Raiders home run.

Brown's first season in silver and black was a roaring success. He was named to the Pro Bowl and, when he was healthy and active, the Raiders' offensive line was as strong a unit as there is in the NFL. Brown allowed only one sack and registered a 77.8 pass-blocking grade per Pro Football Focus.

But multiple injuries ailed Brown and he eventually had to go on season-ending injured reserve due to a torn pectoral muscle. All told, Brown played 582 snaps for the Raiders, about 57 percent of the team's total. He missed six games and was hobbled in at least two that he suited up for.

When healthy, Brown is as good a right tackle as there is in football. The Raiders need him to be 100 percent in 2020 for the line to function at optimal capacity.

3. Clelin Ferrell

We know all about Ferrell's rookie season. The No. 4 overall pick battled an illness around midseason that forced him to lose weight and he spent the rest of the season trying to get back to his ideal playing weight.

He played inside and outside. He was a good run defender but notched just 4.5 sacks, a low number for the No. 4 overall pick. Ferrell vowed to return a different player in 2020. He's a hard worker who is filled with talent. The Raiders got great production off the edge from Maxx Crosby in 2019 and signed Carl Nassib to join the rotation for 2020. But Ferrell is the most talented player in the rotation and the Raiders need him to play as such.

His value won't be judged on sack totals, as that's often misleading. But Ferrell must increase hit pressure numbers in 2020. During his rookie season, Ferrell notched just 18 pressures and three hits. Those numbers must increase in 2020 for Guenther's unit to go from awful to average during the first season in Las Vegas.

The addition of Maliek Collins up front should help Ferrell improve his production and put the Clemson product in a more stable role on the edge.

2. Tyrell Williams

Big things are expected of Ruggs, but the rookie can't be expected to be a top receiver from Day 1. It will take time.

That's where Williams comes in.

Before the plantar fasciitis flared up, Williams looked to be worth every penny the Raiders spent on him. In the first two weeks, Williams caught 11 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. But he didn't go over 100 yards after Week 1 and had just two games with more than three catches after Week 2.

His feet were an issue, there is no doubt.

The Raiders need Williams to be healthy and productive from the jump in 2020 to take the pressure off Ruggs as he settles in. Williams has shown he can be a solid No. 2 receiver with the ability to level up at times. He went over 1,000 yards with the then-San Diego Chargers in 2016 after injuries forced him to become the No. 1 option.

Carr and Williams have good chemistry and it will be imperative for the offense that the veteran receiver is the player he was in Week 1 of 2019 for all of 2020.

[RELATED: Carr primed for career year after Raiders restock arsenal]

1. Cory Littleton

After years of toiling in linebacker hell, the Raiders went out and welded the hole shut by signing Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski.

Littleton was the big fish of the Raiders' offseason. He's an athletic, three-down linebacker who can cover tight ends and run sideline-to-sideline with running backs. That's something the Raiders haven't had and they've been scorched because of it.

Adding Littleton and, to a lesser extent, Kwiatkoski, gives the Raiders the ability to defend modern NFL offenses like the ones they'll face in the AFC West. The Silver and Black have been at a disadvantage playing without athletic linebackers and have been exploited time and time again.

Littleton is in the prime of his career and he has all the tools the Raiders need to field a defense that won't be gutted every time it takes the field.

He needs to be as advertised in 2020.

Jon Gruden defends Damon Arnette as Raiders' first-round draft pick

Jon Gruden defends Damon Arnette as Raiders' first-round draft pick

Raiders coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have proven they don't care what outsiders think about their draft picks.

The Raiders' brain trust will take the players they want, and live with the blow-back.

In 2019, they reached for former Clemson defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell with the No. 4 overall pick. Last month, the Raiders took former Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette at No. 19 overall in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

The pick of Arnette was widely panned. Some analysts didn't see the Buckeye as a first-round selection.

Ever since the Raiders picked Arnette, Gruden has been on the campaign trail defending the choice. He was back at it this week in an interview with The Mercury News' Jerry McDonald.

"I just look at his tape," Gruden said when asked about the first-round qualities he saw in Arnette. "I’ve heard people say, ‘He’s not a first-round pick on our board.’ Well, whose board are we talking about? Then if you’re in to analytics, according to Profootballfocus.com he had the best QB rating against him of any corner in the draft. I mean, he’s a hell of a player. That’s why I like him.

"He played at Ohio State. He played big in big games. He’s an excellent tackler, a confident corner. He’s comfortable in bump and run. When we watched him play against good receivers he played good. And he just gives us something we need, something we cherish here. A physical, press confident corner that’s not afraid to hit you."

[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

The fact that the Raiders didn't have another pick until No. 80 overall likely factored into the Arnette pick at No. 19. Gruden and Mayock got the guy they wanted, even if it was a little early.

Gruden has spent the last few weeks praising Arnette, even going as far to say he's better than fellow former Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, who was No. 3 overall by the Detroit Lions.

[RELATED: Tim Brown shouts out Arnette]

First, Gruden told Arnette he was better than Okudah during the phone call after making the pick. Then Gruden doubled down in an interview with JT The Brick on SiriusXM NFL Radio.

Gruden is talking the talk regarding Arnette. Now, it's up to the rookie to make his coach look good.