Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Oakland Raiders.
Everything that could go wrong in 2017 went wrong for the Raiders.
Expectations were high entering the season. The Silver and Black should’ve been competing with the top teams in the AFC. Instead, they limped through the middle and final stretches of the year, losing four straight games two separate times, including the final four.
Moreover, head coach Jack Del Rio seemed to continually make bad choices regarding his coordinators. Instead of retaining last season’s offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, he promoted quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. Admittedly, Downing was a young success story receiving looks from other teams.
But it proved to be too much for the first-year OC. The Raiders offense went from 6th in the NFL to 17th. Derek Carr playing through injury didn’t make things easier, but the unit went from a high-powered threat to a mediocre one.
Del Rio did keep Ken Norton Jr. as defensive coordinator despite two seasons of finishing 22nd and 26th in the league. Things got worse, enough that Del Rio had to fire Norton Jr. midseason. Interim DC John Pagano did a bit better, but the defense still finished 23rd in total defense, 26th against the pass.
Despite the disappointment, cutting ties with Del Rio seemed rash. He had just gotten an extension around this time last year, and he still had the backing of the locker room. But team owner Mark Davis had stars in his eyes. There was one man that he’d be chasing for years.
He’s got a face that you can’t forget. He’s a beloved figure amongst Raiders fans. He’s Chucky. And he wanted to come back to Oakland before they left for Las Vegas.
As soon as the final game was finished, Del Rio was fired and Jon Gruden was brought back with a record-breaking deal for a head coach. The motive was clear: Davis wanted to be back in good graces with the Black Hole after a disappointing season and the announced departure from Oakland. It appears to be working at the moment.
Brakes need to be pumped though: is this just a play for nostalgia? The Raiders, both as a cultural force and as an organization, are obsessed with the “good ol’ days.” Gruden’s premature ousting from the team due to a dispute with Davis’ father, the late and great Al Davis, left many longing for what might have been.
Mark has to feel the same way. He wants to do what his daddy couldn’t: hoist a Lombardi Trophy with Chucky’s cheeky grin reflected in the glistening silver.
Gruden seems to be playing with that mindset as well. He’s brought in a ton of coaches he’s worked with in the past. The entire staff seems to be screaming “GLORY DAYS!” to the world.
Two of the new coordinators, OC Greg Olson and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, worked under Gruden when he was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The new DC, Paul Guenther, coached alongside Gruden’s brother Jay Gruden with the Cincinnati Bengals. Olson was also the Raiders OC for two seasons, including Carr’s rookie year.
Even elsewhere in the organization, connections to yesterday are apparent. General manager Reggie McKenzie was already a former linebacker for the Raiders. The new QB’s coach is Brian Callahan, the son of Bill Callahan, who was the OC under Gruden and his immediate replacement as head coach. Former Raiders head coach Tom Cable is also back as the offensive line coach.
Maybe Gruden just has a clear vision of where he wants to take the team. Or maybe he just has delusions of grandeur. But his passion and expertise can’t be underestimated. He wants the Raiders to succeed more than anyone, even Raider Nation.
This is either going to end in triumph or disaster. There’s no in-between. Rest assured, it’ll be amazing to watch. Get your popcorn ready.
Current number of draft picks: 11 (#9 or 10 in the first round; will be determined via coin flip at the NFL Combine)
Cap space: $20-23 million
Notable free agents
NaVorro Bowman, MLB: Things looked dire for Bowman early on this season. He looked slow through the first games of the year, perhaps due to injuries from the previous season, and the San Francisco 49ers eventually decided they’d rather let their younger linebackers get more reps. He and the team eventually decided to part ways, with the Niners releasing him so he could get an opportunity elsewhere.
He didn’t have to go far. The Raiders linebackers were dealing with injuries and poor play, and the team decided that a veteran presence would help better the defense. It was the right move. Despite playing ten games in his new home, Bowman was tied for first on the team in total tackles with 89. He had their first interception of 2017 as well following a drought of ten games to begin the season. The Raiders have to bring him back.
Reggie Nelson, S: Nelson led the team in interceptions during 2016 in route to his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. He was definitely not the same guy this season. While he did finish tied for first on the team in total tackles with 89, he only had one interception (down from six the previous year) and was generally weak in pass coverage most of the way. At 34, is he really worth keeping around?
T.J. Carrie, CB: In a season where the Raiders secondary was borderline embarrassing, Carrie stood out as the closest to functional. While he did allow 4 touchdown passes, he also led the team in pass breakups with 9 and was third in total tackles with 84 (70 of them solo, the most on the team as well). With the money the Raiders are spending on the rest of the corners, Carrie might be the odd man out.
Denico Autry, DE/DT: Autry is a very underrated (and arguably underused) player. Mostly used as a rotational pass rusher, he finished with a career-high of 36 tackles and 5 sacks. He also topped the league in batted passes among defensive linemen with 7. The Raiders could regret letting Autry walk in free agency; he may blossom with another squad.
Sebastian Janikowski, K: Crazy as it seems, Janikowski was actually on the team when Gruden was still the head coach. In fact, he was a first-round pick! Seabass has been with the Raiders since 2000, and he’s a beloved fixture among the fanbase.
Unfortunately, he had to miss all of 2017 with a back injury, and the team specifically restructured his contract beforehand, leading to speculation that it was a quasi-retirement gift. He’ll be 40 at the start of March. Is it time for Seabass to walk off into the sunset? Or does he give it another go with Gruden back in his corner?
LB: The situation at linebacker was so dire for the Raiders early on that they had to bring in Bowman to shore up the group. But he’s a free agent, and even if he does return, the other two spots drastically need improvement. Could they take Roquan Smith with their first-round pick?
CB: The cornerbacks for the Silver and Black were a mess this season, ravaged by injury and inconsistent play. The best of the group, Carrie, is a free agent. First-round pick Gareon Conley only played in two games, struggling with a shin injury. David Amerson and Sean Smith took a huge step back, and they’re saddled with big money contracts. Something has to be done.
DT: The Raiders struggled to get consistent production from the interior defensive line in 2017. The closest was Justin Ellis, who was solid against the run but offers next to nothing as a pass rusher. He’s a free agent as well. The other starter, Eddie Vanderdoes, tore his ACL in the final game of the year. They could spend an early draft pick to smooth things out.
T: Donald Penn‘s foot injury late in the season has to have the Raiders thinking about the future at left tackle. Rookie David Sharpe filled in ineffectively afterward, and right tackle Marshall Newhouse was clearly the weak link on the offensive line. Another developmental prospect to pair with Sharpe has to be considered.
S: While Nelson will be a free agent, the Raiders anticipated his potential departure by drafting Obi Melifonwu in the second round of last year’s draft, planning to use him and Karl Joseph for the future. However, Melifonwu only played in 5 games and spent two separate stints on injured reserve. Backup Keith McGill is also a free agent. Depth should be boosted at the position.
RB: Marshawn Lynch was one of the few bright spots down the stretch for the Raiders, but he was fairly benign during the first half of the year. Rumors have leaked about the team’s displeasure with Beast Mode’s antics, and the Raiders do have the option to get out of his contract early. His second half play could save him from that.
QB: Carr signed a then-record-breaking contract extension back in July, but backup EJ Manuel will be a free agent. The Raiders will probably stick with Connor Cook as a long-term backup to Carr, but Manuel was okay in his lone relief start this season. Why not let them battle for the #2 job again?
K and LS: The two longest-tenured players of the team, Janikowski and long snapper Jon Condo, will both be hitting free agency. Seabass missed all of 2017 with a back injury, so the Raiders have to decide whether to give him one last chance or stick with replacement kicker Giorgio Tavecchio, an exclusive rights free agent.
Best player/building block
Khalil Mack, DE/OLB: Who else but Mack? Sure, he had a down year by his standards, but he still ended up leading the team in sacks with 10.5. He was also fourth in total tackles with 78. PFF graded him at 92.1, the fifth best edge rusher in the league. In his four seasons of pro football, Mack has averaged an insane grade of just under 93.4.
His rookie contract will be up at the end of 2018. The Raiders will make it a priority to extend Mack before that happens. Don’t be surprised to see him get the richest contract for a defensive player in history.
Rodney Hudson, C: In a season full of brilliant performances from the center position around the NFL, courtesy of Jason Kelce, Alex Mack and Travis Frederick, Hudson hasn’t got as much acclaim as he should have. He deserves it though; he was in many ways just as dominant.
PFF graded Hudson at 81.3, fifth among centers. That number was brought down by his decent but not-great run blocking grade of 75, which was a problem for all of the Raiders offensive linemen this year. His pass blocking though? 91.8, not just the best for the centers, but the best in football. He allowed one sack, one hit and one hurry. That’s it. The Raiders couldn’t ask for a better performance. If only the rest of the team could compare.
AFC East: New York Jets
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
AFC West: Denver Broncos
NFC East: New York Giants
NFC North: Chicago Bears
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers