How the Las Vegas Raiders can get back on track

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 14: Derek Carr #4 of the Las Vegas Raiders stands on the field during warmups before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium on November 14, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 14: Derek Carr #4 of the Las Vegas Raiders stands on the field during warmups before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Allegiant Stadium on November 14, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

For all the wrong reasons, the 2021 Raiders have had a season to remember.

After a promising 3-0 start, the Raiders have experienced profound dysfunction, mayhem, and tragedy. The resignation of former head coach Jon Gruden, the unspeakable tragedy involving Henry Ruggs, and the release of former first-round pick Damon Arnette have since unfolded and painted the Raiders’ 2021 season as exceptionally bleak.

Where do the Raiders go from here? Since their hot start, the team sits at 6-7, good for 3-7 since being 3-0. While 6-7 is hardly a disastrous record, the Raiders’ future feels as uncertain as some of the NFL’s cellar-dwellers. After all, Gruden wasn’t merely the Raiders coach; he was also the team’s chief architect, wielding considerable say in personnel decisions and captaining the team on-field. Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million dollar contract back in 2018 for a reason: to mold and lead a near-generation of Raiders football. The future of Raiders football must start with a commitment to a new vision.

The Raiders’ organizational issue

Accordingly, the first problem for the Raiders to tackle is that of leadership. However, filling or addressing the leadership void is not as simple as finding a great head coaching candidate. The Raiders can’t fully move on from the Gruden regime without thinking about the future of general manager Mike Mayock.

Mayock was hand-picked by Gruden to serve as general manager back in 2018. When speaking about the Raiders’ front office decisions, there’s a tendency to assign credit and blame to the combination of Gruden and Mayock. Because of this, it can be challenging to parse precisely where certain draft or free agent decisions have originated.

If the Raiders opt to keep Mayock, that’s a message that Mayock might be a better GM without Gruden.  It’s not as if Mayock had much success with Gruden, though. Here are the last six first-round draft picks by Mayock/Gruden:

  1. Alex Leatherwood (2021)
  2. Henry Ruggs (2020)
  3. Damon Arnette (2020)
  4. Clelin Ferrel (2019)
  5. Josh Jacobs (2019)
  6. Jonathan Abram (2019)

Ruggs and Arnette are no longer with the team. Alex Leatherwood has struggled mightily thus far. Ferrel has not come close to living up to his top 5 pick status. Abram has been ok at best but struggles in pass coverage and finishing tackles. Jacobs has shown flashes of stardom, but the opportunity cost of selecting any running back in the first round is stark.

While Mayock/Gruden found the occasional diamond in the later rounds (Maxx Crosby, Hunter Renfrow), their failure to find talent in the first round is concerning and part of a trend. So, here’s the question for the Raiders: are you willing to bet that Mayock minus Gruden is a better talent evaluator than Mayock plus Gruden? Because if you aren’t confident that Mayock alone, or with a new coach, can deliver hits in the early rounds, then that should warrant question about moving on from Mayock.

When the Raiders select their new HC/GM combo, they need to have clear boundaries regarding who makes the personnel decisions, especially when it comes to drafting. We are seeing the fallout of not making those considerations right now. When a coach with a lot of personnel control fails or gets fired, the franchise is tasked with replacing the coach, the X’s and O’s, and remedying the sudden disruption to their personnel structure.

As stated earlier, replacing Gruden requires making some decisions regarding the general manager position. The Raiders are going to want to avoid this kind of messiness. So, whoever they hire—be it, Byron Leftwich, Kellen Moore, or Matt Eberflus—must establish clear boundaries around personnel control between GM and Coach. Your drafting and decision-making structure deserve to be questioned when you miss almost all of your six most recent first-round picks. The Raiders should come away from this saga with a commitment to a more structured front office/ coaching relationship.

Fixing drafting issues

Getting a better leadership nucleus in place should be the Raiders’ priority. In theory, correcting this will improve some of their more recent issues with drafting. Getting a bit better at drafting-say, hitting on at least 1/3 of first-round picks- will improve the long-term viability of the roster. It’s hard to quickly retool when you’re only picking once in each round, though. If the Raiders opt for a more aggressive style of rebuilding this offseason, they may want to consider a trade. And the Raiders quietly have an excellent piece of trade bait on their roster: Derek Carr.

Carr has played pretty well this year in less-than-ideal circumstances. He’s tied for his career-high in yards-per-attempt (7.9) and has the 11th best QBR in the league. With a year left on his five-year, $125 million dollar contract, Carr would certainly garner interest on the trade market from some QB-needy teams, given his reasonable contract and high level of play.

For reference, Carr has a slightly higher career passer rating than Matthew Stafford (92.5 vs. 91.2, respectively). Each is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2022 season. Stafford is on a slightly bigger contract (5 years, $135 million). Given that Stafford was traded to the Rams for two first-round picks, one third-round pick, and Jared Goff, could Derek Carr command similar trade value? One relevant difference between the two is that Carr was traded before this season, which meant the Rams traded for him while he had two full seasons on his current contract. If Carr is traded this offseason, he’d only have one season left on his current deal.

For the sake of argument, suppose the New York Giants offer a first, a second, and a third-round pick for Derek Carr. If you’re the Raiders, you can either settle into a large-scale rebuild or make a serious play for Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers. Either way, the point is that the future Raiders HC/GM combination will have some flexibility regarding approaching the future.

I only include the Carr trade as a possible way the next regime can work to establish things for the future. The primary reason the Raiders haven’t been that good in recent years is abysmal drafting. A Raiders fan can at least be hopeful that a change in leadership, with more established boundaries between coach and front office, will improve things.

Next. Five genius changes that saved the Chiefs season. dark