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Exit Interview: Oakland Raiders

After being eliminated from playoff contention in Week 13, it’s officially time for the Raiders to look to 2019. Can Jon Gruden find that pass rusher he’s long sought?

Jon Gruden Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. First up is the Oakland Raiders, who were finally, mercifully knocked out of the playoff picture in Week 13.

What Went Right

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad. There’s a real case to be made that head coach–de facto GM–Oakland Overlord Jon Gruden’s strategy for blowing up the Raiders makes sense. Dealing Amari Cooper for a first-round pick just as the wide receiver was set for a raise was a win, and the Khalil Mack trade may even look good with a few years of hindsight as well. (Really, I swear.) But the Raiders have too many bridges to cross this offseason to declare anything a success just yet.

What Went Wrong

How long do you have? The first year of Gruden’s decade-long reign was the NFL’s Milgram experiment: How much can a coach antagonize his fan base if given absolute power? In what many thought would be a rebuilding year, he assembled the oldest roster in the league by adding veterans and purging first- and second-round draft picks. He half-joked about not knowing how to pronounce data, said he wanted to take football back to the 1990s, and then showed the team film from the 1970s. Before the season even began, Gruden released the team’s leading scorer (Michael Crabtree) and the team’s most fun player (punter Marquette King), and then, one week before the season, he traded the team’s best player (Khalil Mack). A few days after the Mack trade, the city of Oakland threatened to sue the Raiders, a rare instance of government serving the will of the people in 2018.

Then the season began, and everything got worse. The Raiders are 2-10 and tied for the worst record in football (the team they are tied with, Bay Area rival San Francisco, beat them by 31 points). Through 13 weeks, the Raiders are 29th in points scored and 21st in yards gained, while the defense is 31st in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. The defense allows the highest percentage of opposing drives to end in a score in the NFL at a whopping 47.3 percent.

The starting quarterback, Derek Carr, who not so long ago was the league’s highest-paid player, is having the worst season of his career. Less than a year removed from reports that Carr was one of the reasons Gruden took the job, Carr is already rumored to be a lame duck who will not be around when the team gets to Vegas in 2020 (the team could save $15 million and eat $7.5 million in cap money by cutting him this offseason). Also, he’s been reduced to tweeting that he did not cry during a game and that reports that he lost teammates’ support because of the crying were false.

The two rookie tackles Oakland drafted in the first and third rounds to protect Carr have looked overwhelmed at the NFL level. The Raiders’ best player might be 35-year-old safety Reggie Nelson. The team is at the stage when a seven-point loss to the Chiefs is considered a positive turning point for team chemistry. The 2018 Raiders season is Gruden slapping Raiders fans across the face with their own hands while yelling whyareyouhittingyourself?

Free Agency

The upside of making Oakland a retirement home is the high turnover rate. The Raiders have loads of players who will be free agents after this year, but only a few notable members of that class will still be in their 20s next season (Johnathan Hankins, Jalen Richard, and Daryl Worley). The rest are a who’s who of players that could have already retired: tight end Jared Cook, running back Marshawn Lynch, receiver Brandon LaFell, running back Doug Martin, defensive lineman Frostee Rucker, cornerback Leon Hall, wide receiver Dwayne Harris, and Nelson headline the current contributors to this year’s Oakland squad who are unlikely to return in 2018.

We don’t know what Gruden’s strategy will be in 2019, but he has nearly $80 million of cap space to play with, the fifth most in the league. Oakland could invest in high-priced free agents of Gruden’s liking, but the team has so much draft capital that it may double down on the 2018 strategy of bringing in veterans who can help establish a culture for the young players who will be the future of the team. Expect more Jordy Nelsons, not Jadeveon Clowneys.

Draft Targets

Oakland has three first-round picks (Chicago’s, Dallas’s, and its own), one of which may be first overall, and the team has enough capital to run the draft. Gruden may be tempted to take a quarterback to be his next Gruden Grinder™, but if he doesn’t fall in love with Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, West Virginia’s Will Grier, Oregon’s Justin Herbert (if he enters the draft), or any of this year’s quarterbacks, the smart bet is on the defensive line.

Gruden has, to the great pain of Raiders fans, lamented the team’s lack of a pass rush this season. Luckily, this is one of the best defensive line draft classes in recent years. Half of the players on Mel Kiper’s big board are either interior defensive linemen or edge rushers. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is very much in play for Oakland’s first pick, and a plethora of pass rushers from Kentucky’s Josh Allen to Florida’s Jachai Polite to Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell are all in the mix for later in the first round. As painful as trading Mack was, by the time the Oakland Raiders become the Las Vegas Raiders, they may have a combo of pass rushers (Bosa and Ferrell?) who combine to earn half of Mack’s salary.

Yet none of the picks the Raiders have accumulated matter if the team doesn’t select the right players. It’s hard to imagine Gruden will let Reggie McKenzie spearhead the Raiders’ draft efforts after cutting bait on the GM’s past picks, but Gruden does not have a strong history of scouting talent himself. The key to 2019—and Gruden’s tenure—will be how much and to whom Gruden delegates power. That starts with the draft. If the Raiders nail all three of these picks, they may waltz into Vegas like the Golden Knights on steroids, and Gruden will look very smart. If they whiff, it’s going to be a long decade.