After a lacklustre season that saw the Las Vegas Raiders miss playoffs for a third consecutive year under Jon Gruden, the team followed up with a puzzling free agency period.
The Raiders looked set to make a splash on the market, as they cleared cap space and began addressing their very obvious needs on both sides of the ball, signing Yannick Ngakoue and veteran speedster John Brown to bargain deals.
But before long, Gruden and Mike Mayock were up to their usual antics and making unexpected moves. The confusion peaked with the trades of linemen Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson and Trent Brown, which only brought more position needs.
The signings of running back Kenyan Drake to a two-year, $11 million deal, and later, receiver Willie Snead only added to the perplexity.
The Drake deal is difficult to fault – when you have a near 1,000-yard rusher willing to take a backup role for just $3 million in his first year, it becomes hard to resist. As well as this, the presence of Drake benefits Josh Jacobs, as by taking a share of the carries, the risk of injury to the starter is somewhat diluted – a risk which is especially high in the Raiders’ run-first offense.
However, it cannot be denied that the timing was odd, considering the major needs desperately needing to be addressed after the Raiders’ continuously poor defensive performances.
It is no surprise that the Raiders have been reluctant to sign a corner, as Gruden and co. have a lot of faith in their young talents Damon Arnette, Keisean Nixon, Isaiah Johnson and Trayvon Mullen.
But, the reshuffling of the offense still seems irrational and may suggest that big changes are being made to the attacking scheme in Vegas.
The west-coast offense which Gruden swears by relies on attrition, with repetitive runs up the middle and bombing passes down the field. The passing game appears prepared for this – Carr was the third-best quarterback when throwing deep in 2020, and John Brown will replace Agholor as a consistent deep threat.
The run game is a different story.
The Raiders offensive line was not nearly as dominant as it appeared in 2020, finishing 27th in run block win rate, and it has only regressed since.
Among the three linemen who departed during free agency was Hudson, the anchor of the offensive line. His potential replacement, former Texans center Nick Martin, is known to struggle with run-blocking. The alternative, Andre James, is unproven.
Kolton Miller is the future of the Raiders line, as he continues to improve every season in all aspects of his game. Denzelle Good is an option at right tackle, however with Gruden’s current success at picking out offensive line talent, and a tackle heavy draft right around the corner, it is likely that Vegas can find their guy within the first two rounds come late April, and Good can start at guard.
While it becomes clear that the tackles will be more capable of holding down the run game than the interior linemen, it is equally obvious that the run game will struggle either way.
For these reasons, the Raiders seem set to operate differently in 2021 and rely much less on pounding the ball up the middle for short gains, and more so on off-tackle carries.
Such a change would accommodate their new backup. In Arizona, Kenyan Drake benefitted from an offensive line featuring strong tackles such as Kelvin Beachum, allowing them to run him out wide and utilise his terrific open-field speed. The Raiders’ big physical receivers such as Brown and Bryan Edwards and their deep tight-end group will also be of big help, creating space out wide.
As for the starter, Jacobs led the league in broken tackles in 2019 and finished 6th in the stat in 2020. A change could do him well, having been used as a battering ram since he was drafted, especially coming off a season where it became clear that such contact is taking a toll on the young back.
But with jobs on the line, the Raiders must recognise their strengths and act accordingly. Carr has an arsenal of weapons in Ruggs, Edwards, Brown, Snead and Hunter Renfrow. Not to mention, the linemen that remain with the team are pass blockers above all else. The course of action required could not be made more obvious.
After leading the league with nine red-zone touchdowns, one major flaw in Vegas’ offense has been fixed by the arrival of Drake. But, if the Raiders are to get serious about winning, and finally take a step forward after four consecutive years of .500 or less, they must do more.
The time has come for the Raiders to step into the 21st century and become a pass-first team.