January 5, 2018. A day that was supposed to be a start of a new, prosperous era for Raiders fans. That was the day that reports surfaced about Mark Davis succeeding in his effort to pry Jon Gruden out of the broadcast booth by luring him back into coaching with a historic 10-year, $100 million contract. Before signing Gruden, the Raiders were coming off a 15-year stretch which saw the team secure only one winning season. Gruden, who over his time at ESPN was heavily courted and was considered a top coaching candidate whenever a top job opened up, was supposed to be the difference-maker for the Silver and Black and return this once great franchise to where they belong—as playoff contenders.
Well, we are three years into the Gruden era and so far, the results have been average at best—and you don’t pay $100 million for average. Over the last three seasons, the Raiders have a 19-29 record and have not made the playoffs. Gruden’s best season came last year when the Raiders finished 8-8—but after starting the season 6-3 that is hardly anything to celebrate. There were many reasons for the Raiders' collapse last season, and most can be attributed to a defense that routinely surrendered big plays at the worst possible moments. Addressing the defense was an obvious must-do for Gruden and Co. and their success at doing so will greatly decide the team’s results for 2021.
After finishing 29th in points allowed per game and 25th in yards per game, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock made sweeping changes to the defensive side of the football starting with defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Gunther was an in-season firing as the team was looking for any sort of spark to save their dwindling playoff hopes. Now calling plays for the Raiders defense is former Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who has coordinated some very successful defenses in his long career. Bradley, on paper, is a vast improvement over Gunther—but as we know, the X’s and O’s can only go as far as the Jimmy's and Joe's.
Luckily for Raiders fans, the team was aggressive in adding quality talent to the defensive side of the football. The team’s marquee free-agent signing Yannick Ngakoue looks to spark a Raiders pass rush that has been amongst the league’s worst ever since the team traded away Khalil Mack. Ngakoue is an excellent fit playing the “LEO” position in Bradley’s scheme and his juice and explosiveness off the edge pairs very nicely with “Big End” Maxx Crosby’s power and length. Third-round pick Malcolm Koonce, an undersized edge rusher from Buffalo, should also provide some more energy off the edge.
The secondary was another area of the Raiders that saw some much-needed additions. The team signed veteran corner Casey Hayward who has plenty of experience playing in Bradley’s scheme as he was a two-time Pro Bowler under his tutelage with the Chargers. The team also drafted TCU safety Tre'Von Moehrig, who was widely considered to be a first-round pick but fell to the second round due to a back injury that popped up late in the draft process. Moehrig is a rangy, instinctual, and ball-hawking safety who is an outstanding fit playing single-high in Bradley’s Cover 3 system.
While the defensive players the Raiders added this offseason should make quite the difference, it’s the young players the Raiders have drafted and signed in prior years that need to step up in order for this unit to really shine. Players such as linebacker Cory Littleton, who signed as a free agent last season but disappointed in his first year as a Raider. Former first-round picks like defensive end Clelin Ferrell, safety Johnathan Abram, and corner Damon Arnette are all players who the team invested high capital in but have yet to see a quality return on their investment. If these players can ascend and take any sort of step up, the Raiders' defense can go from terrible to solid very quickly.
Now, using solid as an adjective to describe a team’s defense isn’t the best thing in the world, but when you have an offense that’s as talented as the Raiders all you truly need is a solid defense. Led by quarterback Derek Carr, who amidst the constant trade rumors and scrutiny had his best statistical season in 2020, the Raiders' offense figures to be one of the more explosive units in football. Tight end Darren Waller is a top-three player at his position and running back Josh Jacobs is also as talented as they come. The team also signed quality veterans in wide receiver John Brown and running back Kenyan Drake to provide more pass-catching weapons for Carr. That being said, the one player the Raiders need to produce in order for this unit to truly reach its potential is last year’s first-round pick, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III. If Ruggs can rebound from a very disappointing rookie year and prove to be the explosive playmaker that the team envisioned when drafting him 12th overall, then this offense will be virtually unstoppable.
The answer to the title question is simple. In order for this Raiders season to be deemed successful, this team has to make the postseason. Anything short of that is a failure. Of course, no one is expecting them to win the division as they play in the same AFC West as the Kansas City Chiefs, but this team certainly has the talent to make it in as a wild-card. With an improved defense and an offense that’s primed to score some points, the time is now for Gruden to start delivering on the hope that many Raiders fans were promised back in January 2018.