Darren Waller

Raiders roster analysis: Offense few additions away from being dynamic

Raiders roster analysis: Offense few additions away from being 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.

Raiders sign Nick O'Leary in NFL free agency, add to tight end group

Raiders sign Nick O'Leary in NFL free agency, add to tight end group

The Raiders are well-stocked at tight end. Like, doomsday-prepper style.

They added another talent to a crowded group on Saturday afternoon, agreeing on terms of a contract with Nick O’Leary. His agency reported the news.

O’Leary spent last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins after a trade. He has been a reserve in his career, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll have a roster spot with the Raiders.

The Silver and Black definitely will have Darren Waller, Foster Moreau and Jason Witten on the roster next year. Derek Carrier’s under contract and is a glue guy and core special teams player worthy of employment.

NFL teams typically carry three tight ends, maybe four if one’s a quality special teamer, on the roster. Moreau suffered a knee injury late in the 2019 season and O’Leary could be an option if the LSU product isn’t quite ready to start the season.

[RELATED: Why Raiders signed Agholor late in free agency]

It might be tough to make the squad if Moreau is ready to go. Last year’s fourth-round pick is a versatile talent. Waller’s an elite receiving target and Witten’s a future Hall of Famer who isn’t what he once was but still has some juice left. Carrier’s a quality reserve and rounds out a position group that’s as strong as any on the roster.

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area