With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Oakland Raiders, who finished 6–10 in 2017. This is an updated version of a story that originally ran in June for The MMQB's California Week.
1. One of the most fascinating “football nerd” items to watch this season is how often Jon Gruden has QB Derek Carr under center, as opposed to in the shotgun. Gruden is an advocate for traditional under-center quarterbacking, as that exchange synchronizes the timing and mechanics he preaches in his West Coast offense. But Carr, like every twentysomething-year-old QB, has spent much of his life in shotgun.
The rise in shotgun popularity was partly a response to the diverse nickel fronts that defenses started presenting right around the time Gruden left coaching for broadcasting. Now it’s a way to maximize quick-timing throws out of three-receiver sets—an approach, by the way, that plays to Carr’s physical attributes. You can run a lot of West Coast concepts out of shotgun, just with some procedural differences. How much will Gruden tweak his approach, and how much will he ask Carr to tweak his?
Another question is: How will Gruden’s personality jibe with Carr’s? Some suspect that Gruden’s relentless teaching methods will wear on the mellow fifth-year QB. Others wonder if Gruden’s big personality will suffocate Carr’s leadership growth. As a head coach, Gruden has not successfully developed many young quarterbacks; his greatest achievements have been with Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon when they were in their mid-30s. Carr and Gruden have professed harmony and mutual admiration, but we won’t know how real that is until they endure the tribulations of a regular season.
2. Carr’s wide receivers must be more reliable. Replacing Michael Crabtree with Jordy Nelson helps with emotional reliability, but if Gruden doesn’t deliberately call plays that get Nelson open through design, the 33-year-old longtime Packer will struggle. Nelson no longer has great burst, speed or change-of-direction. He can be effective from the slot, where there is no press coverage, but there should be serious consideration for putting fourth-year pro Amari Cooper there more often, given how Cooper dominates when he gets into a route cleanly but often flounders against perimeter press corners. Martavis Bryant is struggling to acclimate to the new Raiders offense and Oakland’s next two best receivers are natural slot guys: incumbent Seth Roberts, who runs seam routes well, and former Cowboy Ryan Switzer, who hopes to be a dynamic gadget weapon.
3. Drafting offensive tackles Kolton Miller in Round 1 and Brandon Parker in Round 3 made sense, even though concerns about Oakland’s defensive talent are legitimate. Donald Penn, who is 35, and coming off a serious foot injury and an up-and-down year, was the only starting-caliber tackle on the roster before the draft. Carr is slight of frame and has gotten hurt each of the last two years. He must be protected, especially if Gruden runs a lot of traditional under-center pass plays.
4. Guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson, and center Rodney Hudson, form one of the game’s best interior O-lines. Marshawn Lynch, who’s still an insistent runner, is particularly adept at setting up blocks inside. Gruden must commit to these four in the ground game more than 2017 offensive play-caller Todd Downing did.
5. Doug Martin was signed to back up Marshawn Lynch. The two are not similar runners (Lynch is more powerful, Martin is shiftier), but you can run similar concepts with them. The big question is, Will Martin’s presence take snaps from the team’s most dynamic space-creating back, Jalen Richard?
6. This defense last season finished with 31 sacks (tied for eighth fewest in the league) and 14 turnovers, one more than Cleveland’s league-low total. Such futility simply cannot be with a unit that boasts Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin off the edges. Such players cost tens of millions of dollars because they force quarterbacks off schedule, which is how a defense creates big plays. Things could get harder before they get easier if Mack's holdout continues into the regular season.
7. There won’t be a defensive identity crisis again this year. New coordinator Paul Guenther has a well-defined scheme. It centers around two-deep zone coverage and features a bevy of double-A-gap pressures and “odd front” zone blitzes, where a nosetackle covers the center and box defenders rotate after the snap in various ways. Guenther will have more freedom under Gruden than he did under the defensive-minded Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. Expect to see his blitzes more often.
8. Defenses that play two-deep coverage tend to align their 3-technique defensive tackle on the strong side, where he faces double-team blocks from the guard and tackle. This is called an “over” front, and Guenther will feature it often, in part because it usually leaves a one-on-one matchup for Mack or Irvin against a tight end. But for an “over” front to work, that defensive tackle must contest those double-team blocks. In Cincinnati, Guenther had a destructive 3-tech in Geno Atkins. Who will be Guenther’s Geno Atkins in Oakland? Last year’s seventh-rounder Treyvon Hester showed flashes, but more likely it will be second-round rookie P.J. Hall, who is built like Atkins, or fifth-rounder Maurice Hurst, who was a first-round prospect before doctors discovered he had a heart condition.
9. Questions at cornerback abound, especially if last year’s first-rounder, Gareon Conley, who played just two games as a rookie because of injuries, doesn’t develop. But equally concerning is the free safety position. Reggie Nelson, a Bengal from 2010 to ’15, understands Guenther’s scheme, but awareness doesn’t matter if a player can’t run. Nelson, who turns 35 in September, at times looks like he’s in sand. With 2017 second-rounder Obi Melifonwu missing much of the offseason due to injury, don’t be surprised if versatile journeyman Marcus Gilchrist gets significant snaps at safety alongside Karl Joseph.
10. NaVorro Bowman’s ongoing unemployment is somewhat curious. The Raiders want him back, but at a lower price than he seeks. He brought badly needed stability and occasional playmaking to this linebacker unit in the second half of last season. Now the Raiders are counting on aging longtime Chief Derrick Johnson and fast but hot-and-cold ex-Lion Tahir Whitehead to revamp their otherwise subpar linebacking corps.
BOTTOM LINE: It’s been 10 years since we last saw Jon Gruden coach. He has a QB, backfield and O-line, but there are questions everywhere else.