Sports

Better, worse or the same? How the Las Vegas Raiders’ offense has changed this offseason

HENDERSON, Nev. — Jon Gruden 2.0 has “improved” from four wins in 2018 to seven wins in 2019 to an 8-8 record last season. Of course, the Las Vegas Raiders have faded badly the last two years after starting 6-4 and 6-3, respectively.

The offense in general, and quarterback Derek Carr in particular, has not been the problem. But many observers wonder if he is the answer. And if you have to ask that question, then maybe you do have a problem. After all, the Raiders were three plays away from finishing 11-5 and qualifying for the playoffs last year. They were also three plays away from being 5-11. Yeah, it all evens out.

So in breaking down the offense and judging whether the respective units are better, worse or the same entering the 2021 season, one thing became clear: The offense, which was the NFL’s No. 8-ranked unit in 2020 and was 10th in scoring with 434 points — the Raiders’ highest output since their 2002 Super Bowl team scored 450 points — can be elite. Las Vegas, though, has to improve upon its red-zone offense and get TDs instead of field goals.

Quarterbacks

Additions: None

Losses: None

Returners: Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Nathan Peterman

Better, worse or the same? Better

Wait, these are the same three signal-callers Las Vegas had last year, so shouldn’t the classification be “same” for 2021? Well, if familiarity breeds contempt, continuity should portend success.

Carr, who is coming off career highs in passing yards (4,103), passer rating (101.4) and Total QBR (71.0) — figures which ranked 11th, 10th and 11th in the NFL, respectively — is entering his fourth season with Gruden. And only two other QB-coach combos in Raiders history have had longer runs to open a season: Ken Stabler and John Madden from 1974-78, and Jim Plunkett with Tom Flores from 1981-85.

Talks of a contract extension for Carr, who has two years remaining on his current deal, have been bandied about since last year and Mariota, who is more of a dual threat, acquitted himself quite well in relief of an injured Carr in an overtime loss to the Chargers late last season.

Running backs

Additions: Kenyan Drake (Arizona Cardinals), Trey Ragas (rookie free agent), Garrett Groshek (rookie free agent)

Losses: Devontae Booker (New York Giants)

Returners: Josh Jacobs, Jalen Richard, Alec Ingold, Theo Riddick

Better, worse or the same? Better

Jacobs is a Pro Bowler with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons to begin his NFL career but averaged nearly a yard less per carry last year than he did as a rookie. Enter Drake, whose massive (for a backup) contract suggests he will be heavily involved in the offense, particularly as a pass catcher. He should also spell Jacobs carrying the ball to keep him fresh, not only late in games but late in the season.

So long as they both accept their roles, and Gruden schemes them up properly, the Raiders’ play-action passing game should benefit. Keep in mind, while there are 13 running backs scheduled to make $10 million in guaranteed money in 2021, the Raiders are the only team in the league that has two of them in Jacobs ($11.9-plus) and Drake ($11.0).

Tight Ends

Additions: Alex Ellis (no team in 2020), Matt Bushman (rookie free agent)

Losses: Jason Witten (retired)

Returners: Darren Waller, Foster Moreau, Derek Carrier, Nick Bowers

Better, worse or the same? Better

Waller is a Pro Bowler and a bona fide star, one of the top three, if not top two, tight ends in the game. He’s coming off a franchise-record 107 catches for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns. Moreau is that much further away from the knee injury he suffered late in his rookie season of 2019, when he had five TD catches. And while the retirement of Witten might hurt in terms of experience, it will only help the likes of Moreau in terms of targets. So yeah, addition by subtraction is in play for the Raiders tight ends, so to speak.

Receivers

Additions: John Brown (Buffalo Bills), Willie Snead IV (Baltimore Ravens), Caleb Scott (Green Bay Packers), Trey Quinn (Jacksonville Jaguars), DJ Turner (rookie free agent), Dillon Stoner (rookie free agent)

Losses: Nelson Agholor (New England Patriots), Tyrell Williams (Detroit Lions), Rico Gafford (Cardinals)

Returners: Henry Ruggs III, Hunter Renfrow, Bryan Edwards, Zay Jones, Marcell Ateman, Keelan Doss

Better, worse or the same? Worse

Easy, easy. When you go by pure numbers and production lost, you have to put “worse” next to this group … for now. Consider: the Raiders lost their best and most productive wideout in Agholor to free agency after he went for career highs in receiving yards (896), yards per reception (18.7) and receiving TDs (8).

That’s a lot for Brown and Snead to make up for, but Las Vegas is expecting Ruggs, the first receiver drafted in 2020, to step up big time in his second season. Expect more slant passes to go Ruggs’ way in 2021 (he only had two such targets as a rookie, per Associated Press) after taking three of the four slot passes thrown his way in 2019 at Alabama to the house while averaging 31.8 yards after catch.

Carr threw the ball deeper last year than before with 63 passes of at least 20 yards downfield thanks, in part, to Agholor — so Brown, Snead and Ruggs will need to fill that gap. Renfrow remains Carr’s third-down security blanket and a healthy Edwards should be a red-zone threat on the outside.

Offensive line

Additions: Alex Leatherwood (first-round draft pick), Jimmy Morrissey (seventh-round draft pick), Nick Martin (Houston Texans), Parker Ehinger (Ravens), Devery Hamilton (rookie free agent), Patrick Omameh (Kansas City Chiefs)

Losses: Rodney Hudson (Cardinals), Gabe Jackson (Seattle Seahawks), Trent Brown (Patriots), Erik Magnuson (unsigned)

Returners: Kolton Miller, Richie Incognito, Andre James, Denzelle Good, John Simpson, Lester Cotton Sr., Brandon Parker, Sam Young, Jaryd Jones-Smith, Kamaal Seymour (Reserve/NFI)

Better, worse or the same? Worse

On one hand, the Raiders absolutely gutted a potentially dominant offensive line by trading away three starters. On the other, the projected starting O-line of LT Miller, LG Incognito, C Hudson, RG Jackson and RT Brown played all of three — THREE! — snaps together last season, making it a terrible return on a huge investment by Las Vegas.

Still, no way we can say the reimagined offensive line is better or even the same before training camp. Not with so many new pieces in new places and the Raiders falling in love with Leatherwood, who was not as highly rated outside of the walls of Silver and Blackdom, to make him their first-round draft pick and the starting right tackle after being on the left side in college.

Incognito is the literal and spiritual leader of this group, but he is 38 and coming off an Achilles’ injury. Miller is a cornerstone piece with a new contract. James has a lot on his plate and Good will be counted on heavily to replicate his team MVP-style campaign of versatility on the O-line. Yeah, the Raiders offense should be explosive, but if there is a weakness and potential built-in excuse for Carr, it is here. Stay tuned.

Next week: Defense

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