Maliek Collins

Raiders' offseason additions have Jon Gruden primed for playoff return

Raiders' offseason additions have Jon Gruden primed for playoff return

The Raiders overachieved in 2019. The sum was greater than the whole of its parts. The Raiders sat at 6-4 and looked primed to make the playoffs. They went 1-5 in their last six games and missed the playoffs in their final season in Oakland.

Despite the apparent talent deficiencies, the Silver and Black made a three-game improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 of Jon Gruden's second tenure with the Raiders. They entered the offseason with a laundry list of needs and just about filled them all. That has some believing 2020 could be the year the Raiders return to the playoffs, and NBC Sports' Peter King is quite high on them, ranking them No. 8 in his offseason power rankings.

"I probably like the Raiders more than most because of the offensive improvement and because of four defensive additions: defensive end Carl Nassib, inside linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkowski, and cornerback Prince Amukamara (decent year in 2019 in Chicago, very good in 2018)," King writes.

King has the Raiders ranked above the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, which would mean another impressive leap is in store for Gruden's team during its inaugural Las Vegas season. While that seems a tad high, the roster improvement can't be ignored.

General manager Mike Mayock and Gruden made several key additions in the offseason. They entered free agency knowing they had to fix a defense that ranked 31st in DVOA last year. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther just didn't have the horses. Vontaze Burfict got suspended, Johnathan Abram and Karl Joseph got hurt and the wheels came right off. The pass rush was improved but not good enough. The secondary, outside of Trayvon Mullen, was a patchwork job that was torched late in the year. The linebacking corps was a vicious, life-sucking black hole that the Raiders couldn't board up.

So Mayock and Gruden made wholesale changes to the defense, injecting talent into a unit that sorely lacked it in 2019. Littleton and Kwiatkoski are the big additions. Getting two playmaking, three-down linebackers was a massive win for Guenther and the defense. Last year, the Raiders might as well have been playing with nine men on defense. They got less than zero from the linebacker position. Now they have two athletic backers who can cover tight ends and running backs. Just those additions alone should drastically improve their ability to defend both the run and pass.

But the Raiders also bulked up the line with the addition of Maliek Collins and Nassib, and improved the secondary with Amukamara, rookies Damon Arnette and Amik Robertson and safety Damarious Randall. Abram also will be back and healthy after missing all but one game in 2019, and we should expect improvements from Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Mullen in Year 2. All that talent should allow the Raiders defense to make a jump into the middle of the pack when it comes to NFL defenses.

In the 2020 NFL Draft, the Raiders went to work on the other side of the ball. They drafted wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, as well as running back/athlete Lynn Bowden. With Tyrell Williams healthy and Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller looking to improve on impressive 2019 seasons, quarterback Derek Carr finally has a full arsenal of weapons to run Gruden's offense with.

The Raiders kicked around the idea of signing Tom Brady. They met with Justin Herbert over Zoom before the draft. They brought in Marcus Mariota to push Carr. But make no mistake, this is Carr's team and the Raiders have removed all of the excuses he's had in the past. The offensive line is one of the best in football when healthy. Ruggs, Williams, Renfrow, Waller and Edwards are a dynamic receiving group and Josh Jacobs is one of the best backs in football.

All that amounts to the potential of a career-year for Carr, who now will have to prove he's the franchise quarterback many believe him to be.

[RELATED: Raiders' playoff hopes rest on shoulders of five players not named Carr]

The Raiders are much improved, but so is the rest of the AFC West. The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs still are the kings of the NFL, the Denver Broncos added firepower to their offense and the Los Angeles Chargers drafted Herbert to be the quarterback of the future.

Couple a hard division with a tough schedule that sees the Raiders face the NFC South and AFC East as well as the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns, and the Raiders face an uphill battle in 2020.

But the Raiders should be a better overall team in 2020. They stacked talent on talent with a solid 2020 draft class, and used their cap space to give the defense a huge facelift. Eight seems a tad high, but the expectations should be high for the Raiders in 2020.

Having capable linebackers and a real receiving corps should be worth at least two wins. With an extra playoff spot now on the table, a 9-7 should get the Raiders a ticket to the postseason dance.

That's all Gruden can ask for as his full rebuild hits the next phase.

NFL Draft 2020: Raiders could be tempted by first-round defensive tackles

NFL Draft 2020: Raiders could be tempted by first-round defensive tackles

Defensive tackle doesn’t rank super high on the Raiders’ most pressing NFL draft needs. Receiver and cornerback have that market cornered.

Adding Maliek Collins in free agency dropped the threat level a few colors, with Collins able to be a featured member of the interior rotation capable of playing on all three downs. Johnathan Hankins can line up well on obvious rushing downs, with Maurice Hurst helping in the subpackage.

P.J. Hall’s in the mix as well, and this could be a make-or-break year for the 2018 second-round pick. Daniel Ross reunites with Rod Marinelli in Las Vegas and will be a factor here. Adding another member of the rotation could be helpful, though they could sign a veteran to compete for a job -- Dion Jordan’s still on the open market -- after the draft.

There are a few first-round talents who should give the Raiders pause if they’re available on Day 1. There’s enough of a need here that passing on top talents might be hard, especially if a certain Auburn product unexpectedly remains available when the Raiders pick at No. 12 overall.

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Let’s take a look at the defensive tackle prospects worth considering in the first round:

No. 12 overall

Derrick Brown, Auburn (6-foot-5, 326 pounds): Let’s say this off the top. Brown being available at No. 12 would constitute a major surprise. But, if there’s a larger group of quarterbacks than expected going in the Top 10, or some trade-ups start a receiver run, he could slip a bit and give the Raiders reason to ignore their top needs.

Brown’s a powerful interior presence, though not the second coming of Aaron Donald. He’s a different type of player, far bigger and capable of dominating in different ways.

The former Tiger can collapse the pocket and be an impactful interior pass rusher, especially considering how quick he is coming off the snap. There is, however, room for improvement in that area. He can play several techniques to find and exploit matchups but was primarily a nose tackle in college and should be productive in any scheme. He has the size and power to win with physical traits, combining them with solid technical skill and leverage to consistently win matchups and fight off double teams. He’s also known as a quality leader with great drive and work ethic.

While Brown isn’t expected to last 11 picks, he’d be hard to pass up considering his talent level and the fact that Collins and Hankins are entering contract years. He’s probably the only defensive tackle worth strong consideration at this spot, especially with receiver and cornerback such pressing issues entering the 2020 season.

[RELATED: Raiders can find game-changing D-lineman on Day 2]

No. 19 overall

Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina (6-foot-5, 324 pounds): Plain and simple: Kinlaw’s an athletic freak. He’s built like a fortress, with hardly any body fat for a person his size. Kinlaw dominated Senior Bowl practices during one of the few parts of the pre-draft process to go on without restriction, though he pulled out of the game with knee tendinitis. Sometimes players built that tight can be injury-prone at the NFL level though he didn’t miss many games at South Carolina. He did, however, have a hip injury that required surgery. His stats won’t wow you, but he has the measurables and power to pique a coach’s interest and dream of outlandish production with some seasoning. He has the strength and drive to move around the line, and his motor’s always revved.

Analysts say Kinlaw isn’t a finished product but could be an excellent pro if he continues to develop. Mock drafts frequently have him going in the mid-teens, but he could be an intriguing prospect if he makes it to No. 19.

Ross Blacklock, TCU (6-foot-3, 290 pounds): The former Horned Frog has the traits required to be a standout interior pass rusher at the NFL level. That’s a coveted ability in all defenses and the Raiders are no different, with Paul Guenther’s system operating best with a dominant inside rush.

Blacklock has great quickness and always plays through the whistle. He’s good at slipping through blocks, though he might need better technique to excel consistently at the professional level. He has an injury history and doesn’t have massive numbers, but analysts say his raw ability is exemplary and his attitude is right for continued development.

He could be an option should the Raiders trade from No. 19 deeper into the first round. They could get extra picks, an interior pass rusher who could help early in his NFL career and more opportunities to mine deeper position groups later in the draft.

Raiders roster analysis: Defense still needs help after major upgrades

Raiders roster analysis: Defense still needs help after major upgrades

General manager Mike Mayock has been candid about the Raiders’ defensive deficiencies, especially in a press conference at the NFL scouting combine.

He wasn’t just complaining about the problem. Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden executed an aggressive plan to fix it. The Raiders added several established veteran free agents, especially through the middle of the defense, to improve a unit that hasn’t been good enough in recent years.

The Silver and Black even came out ahead following a crazy Thursday where the Eli Apple deal dissolved and versatile defensive back Damarious Randall came aboard.

The Raiders are much more talented heading into the 2020 campaign, though an upgrade or two could complete what has been a solid offseason to this point.

Let’s take a look at the current state of the Raiders defense, an analysis that pairs well with Friday’s edition of the Raiders Insider podcast. You can find that below, on our NBC Sports Bay Area/California YouTube channel or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, check out our Josh Schrock’s ranking of the top 20 Raiders defensive players.

Here’s our positional breakdown, where they’re set and where the Raiders need some help.

Defensive end

Starters: Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell
Top reserves: Carl Nassib, Arden Key
State of the position: Crosby was a revelation last year, finishing second in defensive rookie of the year voting. He hit double-digit sacks and proved a far better run defender than people thought. Ferrell had some setbacks in his rookie season – he lost 15 pounds with the flu before midseason – and performed below expectations associated with his draft slot. He has vowed to be better in 2020 and has the work ethic required to make great leaps. Nassib’s a versatile weapon an upgrade over 2019 situational pass rusher Benson Mayowa, though he doesn’t come cheap. Nassib also is a solid run defender who can also operate as a stand-up rusher. Key has talent and bend but hasn’t performed well in games to this point.
Help wanted?: Another edge rusher couldn’t hurt, even if it’s just a situational player later in the NFL draft, but the group will be fine even without another impact player.

Defensive tackle

Starters: Johnathan Hankins, Maliek Collins
Top reserves: Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall, Daniel Ross
State of the position: Collins makes the interior much, much better. He has the interior pass-rush ability lacking for the Silver and Black in recent seasons, which is vital to the success of Paul Guenther’s defensive scheme. Collins would’ve led the Raiders in quarterback pressures in 2019 and has excelled battling through double teams. He’ll help those around him, making the entire line better. Hankins is a solid run defender and Hurst will have a significant role in the rotation, especially in the sub-packages. Hall will be pushed by others in the group.
Help wanted?: Collins takes the edge off this need, but the Raiders could use one more piece to this puzzle. The former Dallas Cowboy is working on a one-year deal and Hankins has a season left on his deal, so adding another player would help the 2020 group and provide some help in future seasons.

Linebacker

Starters: MLB Nick Kwiatkoski, WLB Cory Littleton, SLB Marquel Lee
Top reserves: Nick Morrow, Kyle Wilber
State of the position: Adding Kwiatkoski and Littleton to the group makes linebacker a team strength. They should pair as three-down linebackers. Lee could man the strong side, but he comes off frequently for a defensive back. Morrow has experience at both interior spots and is a quality backup who could start at any linebacker position if required.
Help wanted?: The Raiders are set here in the short and long term, something unusual for a Raiders franchise that has struggled to find proper fits at the position.

Cornerback

Starters: Trayvon Mullen, Isaiah Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner
Top reserves: Nevin Lawson, Keisean Nixon
State of the position: Mullen’s a long-term solution at one cornerback spot. Joyner’s solid in the slot, where the Raiders prefer him to play. Johnson’s still raw after losing much of his rookie year to a concussion and facial fracture suffered in the preseason. Lawson has tons of starting experience and Nixon is a valuable backup. All that said, the Raiders were looking for a top cornerback to start opposite Mullen and still don’t have that player. Eli Apple would’ve been the frontrunner to play outside, but his deal fell apart this week and he’s now back on the open market.
Help wanted?: The Raiders need a top cornerback in the draft. Like, really bad. They could and probably should use the No. 12 or 19 selection on a plug-and-play cornerback and complete the position group. They could use Randall there if nobody else seizes the job, but free safety seems like a better fit for him.

[RELATED: NFL Draft 2020: Raiders should select one of these five defensive backs]

Safeties

Starters: Johnathan Abram, Damarious Randall
Top reserves: Jeff Heath, Erik Harris
State of the position: If Randall ends up playing safety as expected, this group suddenly is stout. Abram has a lot to prove but has great potential as a physical tone-setter. Randall could free him to be aggressive with his ability at free safety, though he can move around and do a lot of things well. Heath and Harris have extensive starting experience and are solid reserves. They could fill in well in case of injury or if Randall’s needed at cornerback, where he spent the first three years of his NFL career.
Help wanted?: The Raiders could’ve used another safety before Randall arrived, Now that he’s committed to the Silver and Black, the position’s a great shape.