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The state of Nevada might have paid $750 million in taxes toward a new Las Vegas Raiders stadium that it can’t visit for at least a year.
Of course, this isn’t how the Raiders’ 2020 was supposed to go. After a long goodbye to Oakland, the Raiders were going to spend the offseason making connections in a market that seemed like the most unlikeliest match for the NFL even a few years ago. Las Vegas went wild over the NHL’s Golden Knights, and presumably an NFL team was going to get exponentially more support.
All that public money for a stadium, and a lack of a better option for the Raiders, led the NFL to give up its longstanding distaste for Las Vegas. Once the door was busted down, the NFL gave up its outdated notions about Sin City. It awarded the NFL draft and later a Pro Bowl to Las Vegas. A Super Bowl presumably is on the way. Roomba jokes aside, the Raiders’ new Allegiant Stadium looks great. We were supposed to get a summer of excitement and cross promotion, like Jon Gruden whooping it up with new Raiders fans at a craps table.
“It’s exciting, man. We’re really excited,” Gruden said after last season ended, via the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We are excited to know where we are going to be playing and excited to have a city that is excited about having us.”
Then the world changed.
Coronavirus shut everything down, including the Las Vegas Strip. The NFL had to change its plans to hold the draft in Las Vegas. Raiders players were spotted at a local park in Vegas having informal workouts because they weren’t allowed at their new headquarters in nearby Henderson. Not only was it practically impossible to do a normal promotion around Nevada, there’s a possibility of the Raiders opening their nearly $2 billion stadium and not having a single fan in attendance all season. And who knows if 2021 will be much different.
No other relocation — not the Houston Oilers moving to Memphis or the Chargers going to Los Angeles when it didn’t want them or the Mayflower trucks moving the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night — is as bizarre as the Raiders moving to a new city during a public health crisis.
This season will be unusual for everyone, but weirdest of all for the Raiders. We have no way of knowing how it all will affect the Raiders on the field, and they’re somewhat of a mystery with or without the relocation drama.
The Raiders signed 14 free agents from other teams. They muddied their quarterback situation by signing Marcus Mariota, a favorite of general manager Mike Mayock before the 2015 draft. They had five top-100 draft picks, including a pair of first-round selections. Amid the craziness of this offseason, the Raiders will also have a lot of roster turnover.
The Raiders were an odd team in 2019. They went through a lifetime worth of drama with Antonio Brown. They started slow, rebounded to get to 6-4, then lost five of their last six, including two 31-point losses and a 21-point defeat. When the Raiders were bad they were really bad, which is how a 7-9 team could have a minus-106 point differential. By the Pythagorean expectation, a team being outscored by that much should have finished 5-11.
What comes next? There are a lot of new faces but no clear star. The Raiders drafted a lot of players, but Henry Ruggs III being the first receiver off the board was a shock — most analysts liked Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb better — and Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette was considered by just about everyone to be a reach at No. 19 overall.
Gruden’s second Raiders adventure has been filled with ups and downs … with more downs. A move to Las Vegas was supposed to be the start of a new and exciting era. Instead it has been an unexpected mess. Hopefully that’s not a sign of things to come.
The Raiders were busy. The big addition was linebacker Cory Littleton, who got more than $35 million over three years. That’s a lot for an off-the-ball linebacker. Littleton is a good player and he stabilizes a longtime problem area for the Raiders.
It’s hard to get excited about any of these main additions: defensive end Carl Nassib, linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, safety Jeff Heath, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, tight end Jason Witten. But they help depth.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota’s play fell off a cliff with the Tennessee Titans. He’ll be watched closely because everyone has been predicting the Raiders will dump Derek Carr for a few years. The draft was fine, especially if Henry Ruggs III, Lynn Bowden Jr. and Bryan Edwards transform Las Vegas’ skill positions, but there were some questionable picks. In short, a lot of players were added but it feels like there could have been more impact.
Derek Carr is unlikely to change. He is an accurate, risk-averse short passer who is probably better than he gets credit for, but is also overpaid and will never carry a team beyond its talent level. A franchise can win with a quarterback like Carr if it builds a good team around him, and the Raiders haven’t done that. He posted a career-best 108 passer rating last season without much around him (and after planning on throwing to Antonio Brown all offseason), though he got there through a lot of short, safe passes. You won’t get very far in any conversation about Carr before someone says he needs to be replaced, and that’s why the Mariota signing is notable. Mariota has not been a better quarterback than Carr the past few years, but the constant impatience for the Raiders to dump Carr will be loud the moment he struggles this season. Mariota might not be the answer, but Carr critics will immediately call for a change the moment Carr has a bad game. The Raiders invited that controversy with the signing.
Kyler Murray had a nice rookie season and will likely have a fine career, but he didn’t deserve NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Since voters have trended toward the best quarterback available, Raiders running back Josh Jacobs missed out on an award he should have won. Jacobs had 1,317 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in 13 games. He was a fantastic runner, finishing with 4.8 yards per carry. He finished second among qualified running backs in Pro Football Focus’ grades, trailing only Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns. Jacobs, a first-round pick last year, was a dynamic player and is going to be the focal point of the offense.
The over/under win total for the Raiders is 7.5 at BetMGM, and there are a few reasons to like the under. The Raiders’ 7-9 record last season probably was fortunate, given their overall strength and what advanced stats say. “Distractions” is perhaps the most overused term in the NFL, but it might apply to the Raiders. Everyone in the organization is moving to a new home and doing so at a time of unprecedented uncertainty. It’s possible the Raiders will be playing in a brand new stadium that will be empty. Oakland fans supported the team right up until the end, and Las Vegas might not have the chance for a while. There are just too many questions about the Raiders to project an improvement on last year’s record.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “In a banner year for rookies, Hunter Renfrow got a little lost in the shuffle. We don’t blame you if you ignored him for fantasy. But Renfrow was cooking down the stretch, posting a 35-490-4 line over his last seven games (including two 100-yard efforts out the door). If Renfrow could keep that seven-game pace for a full season, we’re looking at a juicy 80-1120-9 return, a no-doubt fantasy starter. (He’s unlikely to do that, but at least appreciate how meaningful his final two months were.)
“Renfrow works in the slot, where the throws are easier and quickly defined. He probably won’t draw the top corner from any opponent. The jury is still out on the Jon Gruden experiment, and Derek Carr has his plusses and minuses, too. But this Vegas slot machine has a chance to be the top Raiders receiver in 2020.”
There was a disconnect with the Raiders’ offensive yards and points. They were 11th in the NFL in yards and 24th in points scored, sixth in yards per drive but 19th in points per drive, according to Football Outsiders. The Raiders often started in a hole, with the 28th-best average field position at the start of drives. They were second-to-last in the NFL with 15 takeaways, which meant the offense rarely got a short field. It’s probably a better sign that the yards were there. The offense could move the ball. A better season from the defense and special teams could help the offense get in the end zone more.
Will the 2019 draft class be a springboard to better days?
Few teams last season got more from their rookie class than the Raiders. Josh Jacobs was an outstanding running back, Trayvon Mullen had a good year starting at cornerback, defensive end Maxx Crosby had 10 sacks, tight end Foster Moreau caught five touchdown passes and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow had 49 catches for 605 yards. Very good.
The Raiders had two other first-round picks who can still make a big impact. Safety Johnathan Abram suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener. And defensive end Clelin Ferrell, the third overall pick, wasn’t great but had his moments. Raiders coach Jon Gruden admits the coaching staff asked Ferrell to do too much early on by shuffling him around the line, and Ferrell dealt with a stomach illness that caused him to lose 15 pounds.
“I had never missed a game due to an illness, but that was terrible,” Ferrell said, according to NBC Sports Bay Area. “I was going to try to play through it. I thought rest would do it, but it really sat me down. That was tough because it didn’t just affect me for that game. It stuck with me for upcoming games because I lost so much weight. It was a test and a learning experience for sure.”
If Ferrell and Abram establish themselves as above-average starters or better, this draft class could be a fantastic one.
The Raiders’ offense wasn’t bad last season. Maybe an exciting deep threat like Henry Ruggs III can help take Derek Carr to another level (no matter how much you’ve dumped on Carr, let’s also acknowledge his supporting casts have mostly been awful). If 2019 first-round pick Clelin Ferrell’s development catches up to 2019 fourth-round pick and breakout player Maxx Crosby, the Raiders will have a nice defensive foundation. They added depth on that side this offseason and Cory Littleton solves a big hole at linebacker. There have been other positive additions: slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, cornerback Trayvon Mullen, tight end Darren Waller among them. A step up to wild-card contention is within the realm of possibilities.
Be grateful: This is the first mention that Jon Gruden has eight years left on his $100 million contract. The Raiders looked better in his second year, but a step back in his third year would be concerning. If Derek Carr fails, Marcus Mariota will get a shot. If Mariota fails too, then the Raiders will be in search of a new quarterback and that can be a long and arduous process. The Raiders are putting together a lot of interesting pieces, but it doesn’t matter much if they have doubts at coach and quarterback.
The Raiders could regress this season. Relocation is a tough challenge to overcome in normal years, and this is not a normal year. The Raiders play in a tough division, and they could finish in last place of the AFC West. They’d be one of the better last-place teams in the NFL, but that would be of little consolation.