In the NFL, there’s always one surprise roster that comes out of nowhere to play at a level nobody expected. And while there’s plenty of teams that could fall under that category this season, maybe it’s time to consider the Las Vegas Raiders as contenders in 2020.
The Raiders have been a team that has slowly been coming together for the past three seasons. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so entering year three of a 10-year contract, Jon Gruden might finally have the pieces needed to contend. Throw in general manager Mike Mayock, and what’s not to love for the future in Sin City?
Mayock and Gruden have equally played a significant role when it comes to the draft and free agency. Trimming the fat of players from the past and adding schematic fits on both sides of the ball, for this first time in his second era, this is now Gruden’s team — his actual team.
“We’ve been good fast-tracking players at every position,” Gruden said. “Last year was a great indication. Over the last couple years a lot of young players have played for us and that was the goal when we got here.”
None of that will matter if the product off the field can match the production on it. What seems to be back-to-back promising draft classes and a well-rounded free agency period, it’s time to start looking at Las Vegas in a positive light. However, which way will the dice roll for Derek Carr and Co. entering the new season?
Are the Las Vegas Raiders contenders or pretenders?
New year, new faces
Mayock’s 2020 Draft class might come with questions, but they have heaps of potential. Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III is a wild card but has that Al Davis speed mentality as the team’s new No.1. Bryan Edwards from South Carolina should provide that clutch “X” receiver skill needed on the outside. Lynn Bowden Jr., another SEC star from 2019, will factor in both the ground and passing game from the backfield as an ideal “flex” option.
Ultimately, Ruggs is the crown jewel of the class after being selected 12th last April. He’ll also be the most scrutinized player should he struggle early. Like fellow college teammate Jerry Jeudy was revered for his route-running or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb’s was heralded for his catch radius, Ruggs is pure speed that can win on the outside while changing direction to mismatch defenders.
There are overall concerns with his ability as a top target, but that could be a lazy narrative based on Alabama’s system. Keep in mind that Ruggs was one of four potential first-round prospects sharing time in the Crimson Tide offense that also featured a top-tier run game.
“We drafted Josh Jacobs out of Alabama and he wasn’t their feature back, we drafted Ruggs he wasn’t their featured receiver,” Gruden said last month. “So we have got to prove that we made the pick … but we like Ruggs.”
What will some of their other new faces bring to the table?
Edwards, a 6-foot-3 former Gamecock his physical with his style of play and is a quality blocker. One will hope that presence is still functional after suffering a foot injury before last year’s combine. Bowden, a “do-it-all guy” for the Wildcats, will be just that early on once again. Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said that he wouldn’t be limited to the backfield despite being listed on the depth chart.
“You see the game changing, with the RPOs and the Taysom Hills and those types of players, they become valuable,” Olson said Tuesday. “We believe that (Bowden) can transition and be a running back, as well as some of those plays at the quarterback position that he did in college.”
The draft wasn’t the only place Mayock won; look no further than free agency. With a glaring need at linebacker, the Raiders added top free agent Cory Littleton and Bears’ linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski on team-friendly deals. Over the past two seasons, Littleton went from undrafted special teamer to vital starter in Wade Phillips defense with the Rams — starting every game and registered at least 125-plus tackles on the year.
The 27-year-old Kwiatkoski flew under the radar as one of the surprise stars in the Windy City. Last season, he collected 76 tackles, collected three sacks, made an interception, broke up four passes, forced one fumble. Likely to play the “MIKE” role in Paul Guenther’s 4-2-5 man front, this could be an even bigger signing that Littleton’s initially.
Smaller additions like Marcus Mariota and Nelson Agholor will push underachieving vets in Carr and Tyrell Williams to improve. Names like Tanner Muse and John Simpson from Clemson bring that pedigree of winning to a team that has finished above .500 once since their 2002 Super Bowl appearance.