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The Raiders Remain the NFL’s True Galaxy-Brain Franchise

Do Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock know what they’re doing? That’s hard to answer, but one thing is clear: They will do things their way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Raiders do things their way. That’s how it’s always been—for good and ill. Stubbornness is what has set the franchise apart, including when then-owner Al Davis broke numerous pro football barriers—Tom Flores became the NFL’s second Latino head coach in 1979, Art Shell became the NFL’s first Black head coach in 1989, and Amy Trask became the NFL’s first female chief executive in 1997. That same mindset, though, has also led to some questionable draft choices—hello, Fabian Washington and Darrius Heyward-Bey, among other picks. Davis was a football genius who deeply cared about winning his way, with an unyielding mentality best epitomized by his most famous three words: Just win, baby.

Current coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock are also doing things their way. Last week, during the NFL draft’s first round, the Raiders selected Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at no. 17. Leatherwood was not expected to be chosen until the next round. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly ranked Leatherwood as his no. 42 overall prospect and no. 6 offensive tackle. According to The Athletic’s Consensus Big Board—in which Arif Hasan compiled 70 different analysts’ big boards—Leatherwood was considered the no. 45 overall prospect (no. 10 offensive line prospect, no. 2 guard prospect, and slotted behind six offensive tackles).

“We knew it would be controversial—[we] completely understand that,” Mayock told reporters, per The Athletic’s Vic Tafur. “He fits our offense. … We want to be a power football team. This guy’s going to help us do that. He’s going to start at right tackle for us Day 1 and we’re going to see if he can hold on to that job.”

Several analysts and writers immediately questioned the Raiders’ decision. But according to Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, Las Vegas snagged Leatherwood before it lost out on the chance. According to Nagy, “multiple teams picking in [the nos.] 20-32 range” considered Leatherwood a first-round prospect, and Vegas wasn’t scheduled to be up again until the 16th pick (no. 48 overall) of the second round.

There’s an argument that because the Raiders were able to address a key position of need early in the draft, they could address another one in the second round, when they traded up five spots to draft TCU safety Trevon Moehrig (Kelly’s no. 1 safety), a choice that was universally praised. In fact, if the two picks had been flipped, there’d probably be no uproar over Vegas’s choices.

“When we [picked Leatherwood], we had the TVs on and obviously, I forget which group it was, but they were saying they could have had him in the second round and blah, blah, blah,” Mayock said. “So, I understand that. The fan base is going to listen to that, and the fan base is going to question it.”

Mayock has a point that media members’ reactions to picks influence fans’ reactions. But the Gruden-Mayock pairing (which started in 2019, one year into Gruden’s tenure) hasn’t exactly earned much faith. The Raiders’ shortcomings over the past four years are so obvious that reporters don’t need to point anything out. Since Gruden returned, Vegas is 19-29 and hasn’t finished better than 8-8. During Gruden’s reign, Vegas has made aggressive, risky roster decisions. Las Vegas has discarded key contributors, reached for players in the draft, and suffered a number of failed free agency signings and trade acquisitions.

Few franchises could make those kinds of decisions without incurring heavy ridicule. But the scrutiny is heightened when that franchise is historically known to be one of the NFL’s brashest and its top decision-makers are two former TV analysts.

After last week’s Leatherwood pick, it’s a good time to take a full accounting of Gruden’s tenure with the team. Let’s look at the Raiders’ most notable personnel decisions since Gruden’s return and assess how smart they were:

March 30, 2018: punter Marquette King released over “personality” concerns

Special teams was the Raiders’ only consistent unit for more than a decade. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler—taken in the first and fifth rounds of their respective draft classes—were stalwarts, and when Lechler wasn’t re-signed after the 2012 season, King immediately proved himself a worthy replacement by leading the league in yards per punt (48.9). He also enjoyed dancing after blasting kicks.

Gruden reportedly didn’t enjoy King’s on-field antics, and that played a role in the punter’s release. Cutting King saved the Raiders $2.9 million. But it didn’t help the team’s punting. King had finished sixth in the league in yards per punt (47.4) the year before he was cut. Johnny Townsend—whom Gruden drafted in the fifth round in 2018 to replace King—averaged 43.2 yards per punt (32nd among qualified punters) in his rookie season and is currently a backup on the Ravens. A.J. Cole III, who replaced Townsend in 2019, averaged 46.0 yards per punt (tied for 13th) in 2019 and 44.1 last year (28th).

King didn’t have much success after leaving the Raiders. He spent one season in Denver, punting in four games for the Broncos, but hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since. He’s since played in the XFL and is working on an NFL comeback.

Verdict: This didn’t work out for the Raiders, but considering King hasn’t stuck anywhere, perhaps they were right to move on.

April 26, 2018: Raiders trade third-round pick to Steelers for WR Martavis Bryant

Bryant was talented, but a handful of factors—the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, the presence of Antonio Brown, Bryant’s desire to leave Pittsburgh, and his previous season-long suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy—made him expendable to the Steelers.

Gruden gave Pittsburgh a third-round pick for Bryant, but the Raiders released him before the regular season even started because he faced another possible year-long suspension. The Raiders re-signed him 10 days later, but he eventually landed on injured reserve before being indefinitely suspended for violating terms of his reinstatement. Bryant is no longer in the league. The Raiders ceded a third-round pick for eight games in which Bryant produced 19 catches for 266 yards.

Verdict: This decision didn’t work out.

September 1, 2018: Raiders trade LB Khalil Mack, 2020 second- and conditional fifth-round picks to Bears for 2019 first- and sixth-round picks, 2020 first- and third-round picks

Mack became the second Raider in NFL history (Lester Hayes, 1980) to win Defensive Player of the Year, in 2016. Mack waged a monthslong holdout in the summer of 2018 in a bid to get paid. The Raiders, however, were cap-strapped and determined to not make a financially irresponsible decision. They still could have gotten a deal done. They decided not to.

The Raiders traded Mack to Chicago for a plethora of first-rounders, avoiding having to hand him a massive extension. A haul of first-round picks is great (we’ll get to how Gruden and Co. used them in a bit), but Mack’s departure left a massive hole that the Raiders have still been unable to fill. Since 2018, here’s how Vegas has ranked in sacks, pressure rate, and defensive DVOA, and who its sack leader has been:

  • 2018: 32nd in sacks (13), 32nd in pressure rate (18.1 percent), 31st in defensive DVOA, DL Maurice Hurst Jr. (4.0 sacks)
  • 2019: Tied for 25th in sacks (32), 27th in pressure rate (19.9 percent), 31st in defensive DVOA, DE Maxx Crosby (10.0 sacks)
  • 2020: 29th in sacks (21), 16th in pressure rate (23.5 percent), 28th in defensive DVOA, DE Maxx Crosby (7.0 sacks)

According to Raiders insider Scott Bair, Gruden said during the 2019 offseason that he “cried for three days” after trading Mack. “I wanted to coach Khalil Mack,” Gruden said. “He knows that.” Raiders owner Mark Davis later told ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez in 2018 that the Raiders had tried to make Mack the NFL’s highest-paid defender during the 2017 offseason, a year before trading him. But Mack’s representation wanted to wait a year.

“Jon wanted him,” Davis told ESPN. “Everybody thinks that Jon’s the one who wanted to get rid of him. Jon wanted him badly.”

Verdict: This decision backfired, stripping a bad defense of a generational talent.

October 22, 2018: Raiders trade WR Amari Cooper to the Cowboys for a first-round pick

Cooper recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his career before experiencing a drop-off in production in 2017. Six games into his first year with Gruden, he was jettisoned to the Cowboys. He’s since earned two Pro Bowl trips and totaled at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons. Meanwhile, the Raiders have not had a wide receiver reach the 900-yard threshold since his departure. They have, however, had one of the league’s more efficient passing games since Gruden’s arrival. But the unit is missing a consistently dynamic piece on the outside.

Verdict: Not great, but not catastrophic.

November 27, 2018: Raiders sign TE Darren Waller off Ravens practice squad

The Raiders signed Waller, a former Georgia Tech wideout, to their roster late in the season. He ended up appearing in four games, tallying six catches for 75 yards. What happened next, hardly anyone could have predicted. Waller has produced back-to-back seasons of 1,100-plus receiving yards, and earned his first career Pro Bowl nod last year.

“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen play football,” Gruden told NBC’s Peter King in December.

Verdict: This is the stuff of geniuses.

March 13, 2019: Raiders trade 2019 third- and fifth-round picks to Steelers for WR Antonio Brown

After the 2018 season, the Raiders moved on from GM Reggie McKenzie and hired Mayock. The first major acquisition Vegas made under him was to spend mid-round draft compensation on another troubled Steelers wideout with immense talent. The Raiders also decided to make Brown the NFL’s highest-paid receiver, signing him to a three-year deal worth more than $50 million, including more than $30 million guaranteed.

Things immediately went south. Brown hardly participated in training camp because of frostbite on his feet caused by cryotherapy. Then he got into it with Mayock, who fined him over unexcused absences, and Brown’s frustration boiled over to the point that he had to be physically held back after getting into an argument with Mayock. Brown eventually demanded his release and was granted it. The same day, Brown signed a one-year deal with the Patriots. Amid turmoil over sexual assault lawsuits and reports of personal misconduct, New England cut Brown after one game. He was given an eight-game suspension for the start of the 2020 NFL season for multiple violations of the league’s personal conduct policy, and signed a one-year deal with the Buccaneers. The Raiders wasted two draft picks for a player who didn’t play a single snap for them.

Verdict: This one backfired.

March 13, 2019: Raiders sign OT Trent Brown, make him highest paid OL in NFL history

The former Patriot signed a four-year, $66 million deal ($36.75 million guaranteed) and provided an immediate impact for the Raiders, earning his lone Pro Bowl nod after starting 11 games in 2019 at right tackle. The problem was that Brown couldn’t stay healthy. His Pro Bowl campaign ended with him landing on IR because of a pectoral injury. In 2020, Brown missed 11 games with a variety of maladies.

When he was healthy, he clearly helped the Raiders offense. Vegas traded him (along with a seventh-round pick) to New England in exchange for a fifth-round pick earlier this offseason, though, ending an underwhelming stint.

Verdict: This one backfired, though the Raiders couldn’t have predicted that Brown’s injuries would impact his tenure. He was among the league’s best offensive linemen when he was available.

March 13, 2019: Raiders sign WR Tyrell Williams

The Raiders signed Williams to a four-year, $44.3 million contract that included $22 million in guarantees. The former Chargers wideout was released earlier this offseason after missing the entire 2020 campaign because of a torn labrum he suffered right before the regular season. Williams’s stats with Vegas: 42 catches, 651 yards, and six touchdowns across 14 games—all in 2019.

Verdict: This one backfired, but similarly to Trent Brown, the Raiders couldn’t have projected injuries would keep Williams out for an entire season.

March 14, 2019: Raiders sign DB Lamarcus Joyner

Joyner signed for four years and $42 million. After thriving within the Rams secondary as a free safety, the Raiders utilized him primarily as a nickel cornerback. He saw his playing time decline in the past two years (from 68 percent of snaps in 2019 down to 62 percent last season) despite being healthy. The Raiders released Joyner earlier this offseason, and he signed a one-year deal with the Jets.

Verdict: This one backfired, in large part because the Raiders moved him out of the position where he proved he was capable of playing at a consistently high level.

April 25-27, 2019: Raiders draft DE Clelin Ferrell (no. 4 overall), RB Josh Jacobs (no. 24), S Johnathan Abram (no. 27), CB Trayvon Mullen (no. 40), DE Maxx Crosby (no. 106), Isaiah Johnson (no. 129), TE Foster Moreau (no. 137), WR Hunter Renfrow (no. 149) and DE Quinton Bell (no. 230)

The Raiders’ first attempt at replacing Khalil Mack was to select Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell in the top five, even though Ferrell wasn’t expected to be chosen until later in the first round. That decision birthed one of the best memes of the 2019 draft:

Ferrell has not matched the production that is expected of a top-five pick, with just 4.5 sacks in 2019 and two in 2020. But, for all the flak that Mayock will catch for reaching on Ferrell, he did a decent job with the rest of the class, particularly in the middle rounds.

Jacobs has opened his career by rushing for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (though the Raiders would like for him to be a better contributor in the passer game). Mullen is developing into a solid defender, and Crosby looks the part of a mid-round gem having produced 17 sacks in two years. Renfrow immediately solidified himself as a reliable slot target, recording more than 600 receiving yards each of the past two years.

Verdict: Mayock’s first draft was a mixed bag.

March 2020: Raiders sign LB Cory Littleton, QB Marcus Mariota, TE Jason Witten, WR Nelson Agholor, LB Nick Kwiatkoski, S Jeff Heath, and DE Carl Nassib

Littleton hasn’t played at the consistent high level his three-year, $35.3 million contract (including $22 million guaranteed) warranted, but Kwiatkoski, when healthy, proved to be a solid contributor in his first season with Vegas. Mariota gives Gruden insurance at quarterback behind Derek Carr, and looked like he could have netted the Raiders some solid compensation this offseason when the quarterback market heated up. Witten—who spent a year as an ESPN color commentator before signing—might have made sense as a veteran mentor for Moreau and Waller, but he didn’t produce much on the field. Nassib signed for three years and $25 million (including more than $16 million in guarantees) but wasn’t particularly productive (2.5 sacks). The gem of the free-agent class was Agholor, who tallied a career-high 896 yards and eight touchdowns, only to join the Patriots in free agency for a solid payday. The Raiders’ longer-term and bigger signings need to show more promise for this class to be considered good.

Verdict: This free-agent class was underwhelming.

April 23-25, 2020: Raiders draft WR Henry Ruggs III (no. 12 overall), CB Damon Arnette (no. 19), WR Lynn Bowden Jr. (no. 80), WR Bryan Edwards (no. 81), S Tanner Muse (no. 100), OG John Simpson (no. 109), CB Amik Robertson (no. 139)

Ruggs, the first receiver chosen in the 2020 draft, wasn’t as productive as some of his other rookie receiver counterparts, such as Denver’s Jerry Jeudy, Dallas’s CeeDee Lamb, and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson. But he flashed what he’s capable of when healthy, influencing defenses by forcing them to account for and respect his speed.

Once again, the Raiders surprised by reaching for a player taken earlier than most expected in Arnette. The Ohio State product landed on IR because of a thumb injury midway through the year and struggled at times in coverage during the season. The Raiders traded Bowden to the Dolphins before the year started, while Edwards is an intriguing player who could benefit from Agholor’s departure. Muse didn’t play last season because of season-ending toe surgery, and the Raiders might have drafted his replacement in the 2021 class. Meanwhile, Simpson and Robertson look like potential contributors who could carve out roles down the road.

Verdict: The jury is still out.

March 19, 2021: Raiders sign DE Yannick Ngakoue, RB Kenyan Drake, DL Solomon Thomas, and WR John Brown

Three years later, the Raiders still haven’t found adequate pass-rushing help to replace Mack. Perhaps they will find a consistent force in Ngakoue, who signed for a fully guaranteed two years and $26 million.

The signing of speedster John Brown is a boon, especially at the discounted price (one-year, $3.75 million deal) they got him for. However, signing Drake for two years and $11 million—all guaranteed—when Jacobs is already on the roster is questionable. Thomas is a fine depth signing who may be asked to contribute more after Vegas released Maurice Hurst.

Verdict: These decisions are head-scratchers.

March 19-20, 2021: Raiders trade C Rodney Hudson and 2021 seventh-round pick to Cardinals for 2021 third-round pick; Raiders trade OG Gabe Jackson to Seahawks for 2021 fifth-round pick

The Raiders’ formula for offensive success has revolved around keeping Derek Carr clean in the pocket. Instead of running it back with the veterans on the roster, the Raiders gutted their offensive line, leaving only veteran guard Richie Incognito—who was released, then brought back on a cheaper deal this offseason—and left tackle Kolton Miller—who signed a massive extension in March—as the only returning starters. Hudson was one of the NFL’s best centers, but Vegas appears confident in his backup, Andre James, as well as Nick Martin, whom they signed in free agency.

Verdict: These moves are questionable, at best.

April 29-May 1, 2021: Raiders draft OT Alex Leatherwood (no. 17 overall), S Trevon Moehrig (no. 43), DE Malcolm Koonce (no. 79), DB Divine Deablo (no. 80), S Tyree Gillespie (no. 143), CB Nate Hobbs (no. 167), OL Jimmy Morrissey (no. 230)

If you flipped the Raiders’ first two picks, few would take issue with their selections. Sure, Las Vegas’s draft was funky, but it netted what should be two starters at areas of need on both sides of the ball. Vegas spent a mid-round pick on a pass rusher in Koonce while selecting a defender in Deablo who will likely play as a linebacker-safety hybrid. After Oakland finished 28th in defensive DVOA, any help on that side of the ball should be welcomed.

Verdict: These picks weren’t as questionable as initially thought, but this franchise can’t have a normal draft.