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Exit Interview: Oakland Raiders

Jon Gruden’s squad was eliminated in the final week of the season. What does this team need to fix before its move to Las Vegas?

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It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Raiders, who were eliminated when the Titans beat the Texans (and then just to drive it home, they lost to the Broncos minutes later).

What Went Right

The Raiders weren’t eliminated until Week 17. Sure, they weren’t exactly on the cusp of a playoff spot coming into Sunday—Oakland needed four games to go right to squeak into the postseason—but playing 16 consecutive games that “matter” for the postseason counts as progress for a franchise that has rarely gotten that opportunity over the past decade or two.

Raider Nation can look forward to seeing how the team continues to rebuild around this young core. Oakland had arguably the best rookie draft class of the year. Clelin Ferrell still looks like a reach at no. 4, but first-round running back Josh Jacobs is fourth in the league in rushing yards per game, second-round corner Trayvon Mullen earned a starting job partway through the year, fourth-round defensive end Maxx Crosby has 10 sacks and 14 quarterback hits, fourth-round tight end Foster Moreau has five touchdowns, and fifth-round wideout Hunter Renfrow has accumulated over 600 receiving yards. To be fair, none of these guys look like surefire future stars, and the Ferrell selection remains a massive head-scratcher, but getting production from this many rookies is a positive sign.

What Went Wrong

Entering Week 12, Oakland was 6-4 and had a great shot at the playoffs. They faced the hapless Jets that week, and theoretically should have gone into a Week 13 matchup with the Chiefs with seven wins and dreams of taking the AFC West crown. Then they lost to New York, 34-3. It was the beginning of the end of Oakland’s season.

The Raiders lost 40-9 to the Chiefs the next week, and ended up losing five of their final six games, finishing 7-9. In their final, must-win game against the Broncos, they scored just 15 points and lost on an unsuccessful two-point conversion, their first attempt of the year. It’s the type of late-season skid that makes you look at head coach Jon Gruden’s 10-year, $100-million contract and wonder whether he’ll see the end of it.

But Gruden is an offensive coach, and if Oakland’s struggles have to be pinned on any one thing, look at the defense. The Raiders defense came into Week 17 ranked 31st in DVOA, while the offense was an incredible eighth. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther could be on the hot seat, but the Raiders have a talent problem, not a scheme problem. This team still desperately misses Khalil Mack.

Free Agency

Oakland could cut Derek Carr this offseason and save $19 million of his scheduled $21.5 million cap hit. That may not be likely, but Carr also hasn’t quite lived up to his contract—his 6.6 air yards per attempt ranks third to last in the league. Gruden deserves credit for fielding a top-10 offense with Captain Checkdown under center. The Raiders should be tempted to move on from Carr and use their draft capital (more on that in a minute) to acquire a quarterback and their cap savings to fill out the rest of the roster. But that’s not typically how NFL teams operate.

Most of the Raiders’ attention in free agency will be on the team’s defense. Corners Daryl Worley and Nevin Lawson, defensive end Josh Mauro, safety Karl Joseph, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict (who was suspended for the season after a Week 4 hit on a defenseless Colts tight end) are all set to enter unrestricted free agency. All of those players spent at least some time as starters this season. But this is hardly a disaster: Given Oakland’s defensive struggles, an overhaul on that side of the ball is exactly what the team needs. The Raiders are also projected to have $70.3 million in cap space, the seventh most in the league, so they have plenty of flexibility before their move to Las Vegas.

The Draft

The Raiders have extra first- and third-round picks from last year’s Khalil Mack trade with the Bears, though they also gave up their second-rounder as a part of that deal. They also have the Seahawks’ third-rounder via a deal with the Texans, which all adds up to a decent chunk of draft capital.

The Bears’ pick will be no. 19, while Oakland’s—Las Vegas’s?—own selection will be no. 12. A talented wide receiver like Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III, or LSU’s Justin Jefferson could be tempting for Gruden and Mike Mayock after the Antonio Brown fiasco forced the team to rely on Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow. The team could also prioritize the pass rush, looking at defensive linemen like South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, Boise State’s Curtis Weaver, and Alabama’s Raekwon Davis. In fact, defenders at any position are needed for the Raiders, so keep an eye on prospects from that side of the ball for this squad.

Mayock knocked his first draft out of the park. If he does the same with this one, the Raiders could arrive in Las Vegas with the talent to contend for a wild-card spot.