It hasn’t always been easy to “trust the process” when it comes to the Raiders’ rebuild strategy in the past two seasons. The team has made some, shall we say, bold moves since signing Jon Gruden to a 10-year, $100 million contract in 2018, shipping off two of its most talented players (Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper), and swapping GM Reggie McKenzie for an untested former media scion, Mike Mayock. With all that wheeling and dealing, the Raiders picked up a treasure chest of high-end draft picks, but those picks are worth only as much as the players they’re used to select. Gruden and Co.’s plan amounts to a massive gamble: They’ve offloaded elite, proven talent for a chance to turn a profit in the notoriously unpredictable, crapshoot draft.
We won’t know the true impact of the Raiders’ mad-scientist scheming for years, but early returns indicate that the process is working. Oakland has exceeded all expectations this year en route to a 6-4 start, and plenty of credit should go to Mayock’s debut rookie class: The precocious group is playing key roles on both sides of the ball and helping push Oakland into postseason contention. Starting with its trio of first-rounders, let’s break down the team’s impressive draft class.
DE Clelin Ferrell (first round, fourth overall)
Ferrell was widely panned as a reach at no. 4, and he didn’t change many minds early in the season when he got off to an excruciatingly slow start and recorded just one sack and 11 tackles in Oakland’s first six games. But the former Clemson star has come on strong in the past few weeks and has notched 2.5 sacks, seven pressures, two tackles for a loss, and two pass deflections during the team’s current three-game win streak. According to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, a “light went on” for the team’s top pick during the second half of the Raiders’ Week 9 win against the Lions, and Ferrell has looked like a high-end impact defender ever since.
Part of Ferrell’s recent jump may be attributed to his improved understanding of his role in the team’s scheme. The Raiders played him all along the line during the early part of the season, something that Gruden admits may have “compromised” Ferrell’s numbers a bit. Now that he has a more defined role playing primarily on the edge in the past three games, Ferrell has started to live up to his lofty draft billing. (It also helps that he’s finally back up to his peak fighting weight of 266 pounds after dropping down to about 250 earlier this season while battling an illness.)
Now he’s got to keep that momentum going. Ferrell’s performance, both down the stretch and beyond, will play a massive part in how the Raiders’ 2019 rookie class is ultimately judged.
RB Josh Jacobs (first round, 24th overall)
Jacobs is the headliner of Mayock’s first class so far. He’s an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate who’s helped give Oakland’s offense a smash-mouth identity on the ground. The former Crimson Tide standout has rushed for 923 yards and seven touchdowns through 10 games, and added 17 catches for 144 yards through the air. Jacobs seems to have a “wow” run in just about every game, and his lightning-fast change of direction has already become his signature trait.
Jacobs ranks second among all qualifying running backs in Pro Football Focus’s elusive rating this year (107.4), with a league-high 62 broken tackles on 208 total touches. The rookie back has room to grow in the team’s passing game (he’s averaged just 1.7 receptions per game), but Jacobs has been a foundational piece of Gruden’s seventh-ranked offense by Football Outsiders DVOA.
S Johnathan Abram (first round, 27th overall)
Abram’s rookie campaign was limited to just one game after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the team’s Week 1 win against the Broncos, but there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the hard-hitting safety’s impact. Abram’s strong preseason performance helped the rookie earn a starting job right out of the gates, and he’s the team’s defensive counterpart to Jacobs: He can give that unit the physical, intimidating presence that Gruden and Mayock are trying to cultivate. Abram’s full-tilt, pedal-to-the-metal playing style and on-field personality reminds me of Jets star Jamal Adams.
CB Trayvon Mullen (second round, 40th overall)
Mullen’s solid performance in spot duty during the season’s first six weeks surely played a part in Oakland’s decision to deal then-starter Gareon Conley to the Texans just before the trade deadline. That move opened up a bigger role for Mullen, and the former Clemson standout hasn’t disappointed: In 10 games this season―including four starts since Conley was dealt―Mullen is tied for the team’s third-highest-graded defender, per PFF, notching three pass breakups and one pick while allowing a 65.6 completion percentage in coverage.
His best game came on Sunday in the Raiders’ 17-10 win against the Bengals, when he registered five tackles, two pass breakups, and his first career pick—the game-sealing play with 1:29 to go.
Mullen has a long way to go before he cements his starting role on the outside opposite Daryl Worley, but the 6-foot-2, 199-pound playmaker is off to a great start.
DE Maxx Crosby (fourth round, 106th overall)
Crosby was one of my favorite Day 3 picks and he’s already played his way into a feature role. The tenacious former Eastern Michigan star racked up 4.0 sacks in Oakland’s win against the Bengals on Sunday to join Brian Orakpo (2009) as one of just two rookies since 1988 to manage that feat. That performance gave the long-limbed, high-motor pass rusher 6.5 sacks on the year, to go with with eight tackles for a loss, 11 quarterback hits, and 22 hurries. Crosby is still developing, but he plays with a berserker’s intensity off the edge and consistently causes problems for opposing lines.
The Raiders’ rookie pass-rush duo of Ferrell and Crosby has posted a collective 10 sacks―best among rookie classes this season. It’s easy to see why Gruden and Mayock were so fired up to add Crosby with their first pick in the fourth round: His combination of size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds), speed (he registered a 4.66-second 40-yard dash prior to the draft), agility (6.89-second three cone), explosiveness (a 36-inch vertical jump), and overall vigor for taking down opposing quarterbacks gives him the potential to end up as one of the biggest steals of the 2019 draft.
CB Isaiah Johnson (fourth round, 129th overall)
Johnson was activated from the injured reserve on November 4 and has played just eight defensive snaps in two games this year. The big-bodied cornerback out of Houston is a reserve and special-teams player with the size, speed, and athleticism to play his way into a starting job. Johnson has all the traits teams look for in a physical press cornerback.
TE Foster Moreau (fourth round, 137th overall)
The Raiders have gotten a breakout performance from Darren Waller this season (56 catches, 666 yards, and three touchdowns), but Waller’s eye-grabbing numbers shouldn’t completely overshadow how good Moreau has been as the team’s no. 2 tight end. The rookie out of LSU has shown a good feel for route running, has made a handful of acrobatic catches, and demonstrates top-tier athleticism, soft hands, and body control in the air.
Moreau’s caught 16 passes for 142 yards and four touchdowns this season, and he’s shown off the speed and talent as a pass catcher to develop into a true mismatch threat for the Raiders.
WR Hunter Renfrow (fifth round, 149th overall)
Renfrow’s lack of size and elite physical traits caused him to fall to the fifth round, but the former Clemson standout was a reliable and productive pass catcher in all four years of his college career because of his innate feel for spacing and his sharp route-running skills. Those talents have translated to the NFL, and Renfrow has already emerged as one of Derek Carr’s most trusted middle-of-the-field targets: The rookie slot receiver is second on the team to Waller in targets (48) and receptions (33) and has tallied the third most yards (365) to go with two touchdowns this season. His late-fourth-quarter touchdown grab in the team’s Week 9 win against the Lions was the game-winner. Renfrow may never be a star, but he’s got soft hands and can separate against both man and zone coverages.
DE Quinton Bell (seventh round, 230th overall)
Bell was released at the team’s final roster cut-downs and signed to the practice squad. He’s now in Tampa Bay. You can’t win ‘em all.