Remember when we all thought the Browns were the NFL’s next dominant team? Or that Carson Wentz was a no-brainer future MVP? Or that Sean McVay was the league’s next great mastermind? Some of the NFL’s teams, players, and coaches who were in the spotlight the past few seasons enter 2020 with tempered expectations—but that doesn’t mean we should count them out. Welcome to The Ringer’s Post-Hype Week, when we revisit some of the league’s biggest story lines from seasons past that aren’t getting as much love ahead of this campaign.
Derek Carr is entering his seventh NFL season with a chip on his shoulder. The Raiders quarterback, in his own words, is “tired of being disrespected.” He is expected to lead his team into a new era—and a new city in Las Vegas—but it’s not even clear whether he has the full backing of the Raiders regime, which inherited Carr one season after he signed an extension that, at one point, made him the highest-paid quarterback in the league. In 2020, the 29-year-old will have an opportunity to silence critics—both internal and external. Coach Jon Gruden has reportedly vouched for Carr as the Raiders starter, but earlier this offseason, he signed veteran Marcus Mariota, a former no. 2 pick, suggesting that Gruden might not be totally sold on Carr.
Carr has had a roller coaster of an NFL career. The 2014 second-round pick seemingly helped to revive the Raiders, providing stability at quarterback that the franchise has lacked since Rich Gannon in the early 2000s. In 2016, Carr propelled the Silver and Black to their first winning record in 14 years before a broken leg in Week 16 cost him a chance at leading the Raiders in the playoffs. The team hasn’t come anywhere close to the same success since, and the jury is still out on whether or not Carr is the right player to get the franchise to the next step.
The Raiders’ 2016 season was an anomaly. Behind the play of budding superstar Khalil Mack, receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and Carr, the franchise notched a 12-4 mark under the direction of coach Jack Del Rio. Carr threw for 3,937 yards, 28 touchdowns, and six interceptions. He averaged 7.2 adjusted net yards per attempt and led the league in sack percentage (2.8). Cooper and Crabtree both registered 80-plus receptions and 1,000-plus receiving yards. The Raiders averaged 26 points per game, which ranked seventh in the league—it marked the first time the franchise cracked the top 10 of that category since 2010.
But when Carr broke his leg in Week 16 against the Colts that season—with the Raiders leading 33-14 in the fourth quarter—hopes of a deep playoff run were snuffed. Then-rookie Connor Cook started the wild-card-round loss to the Texans. The Raiders have turned 180 degrees in the years since. Del Rio is out. Gruden, who signed a 10-year, $100 million deal, is in. Carr is one of just four Raiders left from the 2016 squad to make it to Vegas (running back Jalen Richard, offensive linemen Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson are the others). After Gruden arrived, Mack was traded to the Bears, Cooper was traded to the Cowboys, and Crabtree left in free agency.
Carr, who in 2016 tied for third in league MVP voting and led seven fourth-quarter comebacks, was the chief reason the Raiders entered the 2017 season tied for the second-best Super Bowl odds (plus-800). But the hype dissipated as the Raiders struggled to win games, and Carr’s performances weren’t enough to get them into the postseason. He and Gruden have taken time adjusting to one another. As the Raiders slipped to 2-8 in 2018, Gruden’s first season, the two had a spat on the sideline that they each later downplayed.
Jon Gruden's exchange with Derek Carr here is certainly something pic.twitter.com/TUp32y1Z1c— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 18, 2018
Two of the biggest criticisms against Carr are that he’s not an aggressive passer and that he struggles to create and extend plays once the pocket breaks down. Gruden openly commented on this late last season, telling The Athletic’s Vic Tafur that “these bubble screens and checkdowns only go so far with me.”
Carr’s reputation for checking down is well earned. According to Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson, Carr’s 7.0 average depth of target across the past two seasons ranks last among 43 qualified passers. His 2019 ADOT (6.9) ranked third lowest in the league. Carr’s 11.1 percent check-down rate last season led the league. Per NFL NextGen Stats, Carr ranked second lowest in aggressiveness, a metric that tracks the amount of throws a quarterback attempts into tight coverage. He finished 27th out of 35 qualified passers in big-time throw (passes graded within the top end of PFF’s grading scale) percentage, according to PFF.
Carr could also stand to grow as an improviser. He registered an 88.4 passer rating when under pressure in 2019—the best mark of his career—but regressed in other areas. Carr threw the ball away on 16 dropbacks last year, according to Chase Stuart’s database, which tied for ninth most. He scrambled 14 times last season, averaging 5.5 yards per scramble, per Pro-Football-Reference; for comparison, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers logged 24 throwaways last year (second most) but scrambled 26 times, averaging 7.8 yards per scramble.
Carr’s lack of aggressiveness is especially frustrating because when he does want to make plays, he can be a very effective passer. Last season, he notched a 81.2 PFF passing grade (eighth) and ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’ QB DVOA (18.7 percent). He posted career highs in completion percentage (70.4) and ANY/A (7.25). Despite his timidness in pushing the ball downfield, Carr finished second among quarterbacks in yards after catch (2,220), per The Washington Post. He also ranked fifth in first-down percentage on third-down pass attempts.
Derek Carr being a league-best 72.1% accurate on third-and-long when throwing to the first down line was one of last season's most bizarre details. pic.twitter.com/8cTzWj17TA— Cian (@Cianaf) July 27, 2020
The Raiders receiving corps didn’t boast much aside from emerging star tight end Darren Waller, who recorded 90 catches for 1,145 yards. The team’s receiving corps graded as the no. 31 unit last season and ranked 28th in combined yards per route run average (3.31), per PFF. The Raiders upgraded their receivers this offseason through the draft, selecting Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III in the first round, plus South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards and Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. in the third. Vegas also signed veteran wideout Nelson Agholor in free agency. Carr should expect to have an improved receiving group, which, in tandem with the presence of star running back Josh Jacobs and one of the best offensive lines in the league, could portend a return to stardom for the seventh-year pro.
Carr still has three years remaining on his five-year, $125 million contract extension, which includes $70 million guaranteed. That doesn’t mean Gruden won’t look with an eye to the future and consider upgrading the position if Carr can’t take a step in 2020. But while the coach and quarterback have had to grow into their relationship, Gruden has reportedly backed Carr as the Raiders’ starter.
“My understanding in that building is that Jon Gruden is more staunchly behind Derek Carr than maybe people at the very top of the organization,” NFL.com’s Mike Silver said earlier this week. Ahead of the 2020 draft in February, Gruden told Tafur that he “really think[s] Derek is a heck of a player. … I love what Derek Carr did [in 2019], love what he brings to our team, and [am] anxious to build around him.” But whether or not Gruden continues to build around Carr or goes a different route in the future will come down to whether Carr can prove to observers what he sees in himself.