Well, that happened fast.
It’s hard to believe that less than two years ago we were absolutely thrilled about the direction of the Oakland Raiders, led by quarterback Derek Carr, defensive end Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper, budding stars that powered the team to a 12-4 playoff season in 2016.
That was the first winning season in Oakland in 13 years at the time, indicating a new era in Raiders football was on the horizon at long last. And it was. Just not the way Raiders fans envisioned.
21 months after Oakland fell to the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round with their third-string quarterback at the helm due to a season-ending injury to Carr, the Raiders are completely rebuilding. Carr is a shell of his former self, Cooper and Mack have been traded away for a plethora of first round picks, and the roster is currently filled with stop-gap, older players who are simply allowing the Raiders to finish out a season that was meaningless to new head coach Jon Gruden before it even began.
Promising young players have been benched for making mistakes that young players make, largely due to the lack of interest Gruden has in developing any player that he didn’t handpick for the team. The rumors of contention between the front office and Gruden have run rampant and seem completely legitimate, as the head coach’s power remains unchecked thank to the term and compensation of the 10-year, 100 million dollar contract he signed this offseason.
Make no mistake, the Raiders will be torn down, brick-by-brick, until Gruden feels like the team is ruined enough to build the way he wants. There won’t be any “winning a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy’s guys” this time around, and don’t think that thought hasn’t stewed in his mind ever since his last coaching stint. This time, Gruden will build his own tower, either to watch it grow bigger and more beautiful than all the rest or come crashing down around him.
You can argue with the logic, heck, even the humanity of such self-centered decision-making, but in the end, Gruden was hired to build a winner in Oakland. If he does it, no one will care how it happened, nor will they care that his process was one of the more egotistical we’ve ever seen by a man in his position. They’ll only care that the Raiders, once one of the NFL’s most proud franchises, are back on top once again.
So how does Gruden get them there? Well, not that he needs or would take my help (he wouldn’t), but if I’m Oakland, armed with three first round picks this season (and two next year), here’s how I would attack the 2019 NFL Draft/offseason.
1. Find a quarterback, but don’t reach
The last two years have given us plenty of evidence of one sad, simple fact: Derek Carr is broken and I don’t think his issues are going to improve in Oakland. Carr’s contract is fairly movable given the term left on it (four years) and the fact that a team that trades for him could move on with little dead cap hit if he doesn’t pan out. Finding fair compensation may be the difficult part, but for Oakland it is clear that he won’t be the guy to take this team to the next level.
So who will be? There’s no Kirk Cousins in this upcoming free agent class, but one name should generate some interest. Teddy Bridgewater is slated to hit free agency unless the Saints offer him something he can’t resist. Given that they traded a third round pick for him, that would seem to indicate the Saints don’t want him to get away. Bridgewater played well in the preseason, but that isn’t enough for me to get into a bidding war with the Saints for a quarterback that likely won’t be your long term future.
For that, the Raiders will need to look at a weak 2019 quarterback crop and hope that Oregon’s Justin Herbert declares. If he does, they need to find a way to land him. Their own pick should be a top five selection, and the Bears and Cowboys’ picks appear headed for the middle of the draft order at best, so Oakland will have ammunition to make a move up if needed.
Herbert has a great arm, is naturally accurate with the ball and is impressive enough as an athlete to work outside of structure and off-platform. Does he need some polish in his mental processing and field vision? Absolutely. But the Raiders aren’t going to win now anyway. If Gruden wants to build a quarterback to peak at the same time the rest of the team will, Herbert has all the traits to be that guy.
If he doesn’t declare, I don’t see a quarterback in this class worth a first round pick. So don’t waste a pick on one. Use your draft picks to build up the rest of the team with the best players available. Ride with whoever in 2019, and then dip into the 2020 quarterback class.
There just is no point in reaching for a player unlikely to be the guy if he isn’t in this year’s draft. Gruden decided to take the long route in building the team into a contender, time shouldn’t be a concern to him at this point. Get the rest of the roster ready in order to make the transition to the NFL as smooth as possible for your future quarterback.
2. Get yourself some edge rushers, maybe two
Bruce Irvin is not long for Oakland, and he can be released this offseason without any dead cap hit. Arden Key may develop into a force, but his rookie season has been average at best, and you don’t pass on first round talents at a premium position because a third round pick with significant past issues “might” pan out.
If the Raiders pick high, landing Nick Bosa has to be a priority. If they don’t and Herbert doesn’t declare, trading up for him should be a priority. But even if neither of those things pan out, pass rushers could be plentiful in this draft, from Clelin Ferrell and Montez Sweat to Brian Burns, Jachai Polite and maybe even Josh Allen. The Raiders could miss on Bosa and still find the help they need on the edge.
And if they keep all three first round picks? I’m not opposed to using multiple firsts on the position if that is the way the board falls. If the Raiders don’t significantly improve their pass rush, there isn’t much hope for the defensive side of the ball.
3. Draft Deionte Thompson
There has been a lot of talk about the Raiders cornerback situation, and I get it. I’m not saying “don’t draft Greedy Williams” if the opportunity presents itself and their other targets aren’t on the board. I’m just saying “do draft Deionte Thompson“. He’s a game-changer. A ballhawk with exceptional range, athleticism and the ability to add flexibility to an entire defense with his skill set.
After whiffing on Obi Melifonwu and souring on Karl Joseph, the Raiders need Thompson on their team. In a safety class without many high-end talents, Thompson is the exception in every way. No one knows better than Gruden how important a quality safety is to an NFL franchise. Thompson can be that guy for Gruden’s new regime, and the Raiders shot caller should be able to land him with one of the mid-first round picks he’ll likely have.
4. Don’t address offensive tackle or interior defensive line with an early pick
I was not a fan of Kolton Miller pre-draft, and he’s been predictably rough this season. But he’s their left tackle of the future, and third round pick Brandon Parker needs to be given the chance to win the job on the other side. Develop them, and you give yourself a shot. They need to be answers though, not open up more holes to fill with more draft picks. This team has enough holes as it is.
On the interior defensive line, P.J. Hall was a developmental second round pick that the Raiders had to have selected with a long-term plan in place, while Maurice Hurst has predictably been the steal of the draft midway through the 2018 season. Adding a day two pick in a loaded interior defensive line class isn’t out of the question, but in Round 1, quarterback, edge defender, defensive back and wide receiver have to be the priorities.
5. Get your corner in free agency
Obviously we’re projecting a long way out, which makes this very tough, but if the Raiders are dipping into the top five for Bosa or Herbert or potentially both, I’m not sure the odds are high of landing Greedy Williams as well. But even if they could, the Raiders have a promising young first round pick in Gareon Conley that they need to develop, and a fourth-rounder in Nick Nelson that I think can develop into a contributor.
Plus, the free agent cornerback group is stacked, from Ronald Darby and Bradley Roby to Morris Claiborne and Darqueze Dennard. If the Raiders land one of these corners in free agency, and they should, it will give them the flexibility to wait on drafting another one until at least day two. Plus, the team needs a veteran presence in that secondary, not another prospect in need of development that will be pushed into the starting lineup immediately out of necessity.
Get your wide receivers in the draft and free agency
The Raiders really don’t have a preferable 2019 contributor at the receiver position on their current roster outside of Jordy Nelson (and even that is questionable). Depending on who declares, the 2019 draft class could lack an elite receiving talent at the top, but the depth is outstanding.
Two names to consider for Oakland: Ole Miss wide receiver A.J. Brown may not be a great athlete which could result in a draft day slide, but if he’s sitting there at no. 36 with the Raiders first second round pick, it would be hard to pass him up. His ability to play as a big slot right away as well as project to the outside could make him a versatile security target underneath, who can also make things happen after the catch.
Another is Georgia wide receiver Riley Ridley, who I believe will be one of the big risers of the class. Size, hands, route-running and athleticism in the air are all there for Ridley, and if he runs a strong 40, he’s going to skyrocket up boards. He could be the perfect fit for Gruden as a big outside target.
Being active in the draft doesn’t mean the Raiders should be idle in free agency however. John Brown has had a career resurrection in Baltimore, and should hit the market this offseason. Baltimore will likely try to get him back, but the Raiders have the space to give him a tremendous offer. He’s a true speedster who can play inside or outside and give the Oakland receiving room the big play threat it desperately needs.
Summarizing the offseason plan
1. Do everything possible to draft Justin Herbert if he declares. He has all the skills needed to develop into a franchise quarterback.
2. If you have to move your second and third first rounders and a pick next year for a chance to land Herbert and Bosa, do it.
3. If Herbert doesn’t declare, make Bosa and Deionte Thompson the top priorities. Don’t reach for a quarterback with a small percentage chance of becoming “the guy” because you have a need at the position.
4. Use your third first round pick or early second round pick (36th overall) on a wide receiver and another pass rusher in whatever order is best depending on how the board falls.
5. Sign John Brown and one of the top corners in free agency, preferably Bradley Roby or Ronald Darby.
6. Develop your 2018 draft picks and don’t try to replace them after one season, as much as they may be struggling. If you don’t trust your process, this rebuilding thing never has a shot.
And just like that, the Raiders could be on their way to brighter days in a very brief period of time. They’ve put the entire direction of the franchise on this year’s draft and next, and if that process doesn’t yield impact players at key positions, they’ll be failing before they even begin.