Wednesday, July 1, 2020 / by Ken Couture
The Raiders were 6-4 and sitting on the cusp of the playoffs heading into the finals six weeks of the season. Then the bottom fell out, with the Raiders losing four straight and five out of their last six to finish with a 7-9 record.
A lot has changed since then, with significant moves made to shore up defensive holes and add explosiveness to the offense.
As a result, a big step forward could be in store in 2020.
For that to happen, though, the Raiders need to be able to count on a handful of players delivering consistent and meaningful performances at positions of major importance.
Here are five players who could dramatically shape the Raiders’ season:
Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III (11) carries the ball after a reception against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Starved for a No. 1 wide receiver who can create separation and put pressure on a defense, the Raiders opted to draft Ruggs with the 12th pick in the first round over fellow wide receiver standouts Jerry Jeudy of Alabama and Cee Dee Lamb of Oklahoma.
While his fellow rookies may end up with more catches, Ruggs’ effect on the Raiders could be more impactful. The electrifying speed he adds can’t be ignored. He will force defenses to rethink how they defend the Raiders.
Chances are, that means fewer instances in which teams bring a safety closer to the line of scrimmage to defend running back Josh Jacobs, which will give him more room to run. The attention Ruggs receive also figures to create more room to operate for tight end Darren Waller and wide recivers Hunter Renfrow and Tyrell Williams.
For that to happen, however, Ruggs needs to master the role Jon Gruden maps out for him and produce. If he can consistently do damage with the ball in his hands, he will lift the entire Raiders offense.
Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore fumbles while Los Angeles Rams inside linebacker Cory Littleton (58) and linebacker Bryce Hager (54) scramble to recover during the first half an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Cory Littleton, LB
The Raiders reeled in Littleton last March with a three-year, $35.25 million contract, and the best linebacker on the free-agent market immediately improves the Raiders’ weakest position group. Littleton’s ability to play the run and the pass — along with fellow free-agent linebacker pickup Nick Kwiatkowski — dramatically lessens the ability of opposing offenses to attack the Raiders’ linebackers in the passing game.
Provided Littleton merely replicates what he did with the Los Angeles Rams the last two seasons, he can help change the complexion of the Raiders’ defense.
Oakland Raiders defensive end Clelin Ferrell in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Carson, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Clelin Ferrell, DE
The Raiders invested the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft on Ferrell, knowing he wasn’t a one-dimensional speed rush defensive end who would wow with his sack production. In their vision, he projected as a traditional edge-setting end who could stand up against the run and, in time, rush the passer
Ferrell flashed some of those traits in his rookie season, but he needs to do more in Year Two. After vowing to return this year a changed player both physically and mentally, by all indications he’s completely changed his body and is on target to make good on his promise.
If he blossoms in year two, he and fellow second-year defensive end Maxx Crosby could be one of the best young tandems in the game.
Oakland Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen during the second half of an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Trayvon Mullen, CB
The Raiders drafted the Clemson cornerback in the second round last year, and after an up-and-down beginning to his rookie season he came on over the last half of the season. While he had some major swings in production after taking over as a starter — Mullen had two games that earned a Pro Football Focus grade above 80.0, but three games with grades below 50.0 — the skill-set his flashed in his best games as a big, rangy pass defender and tackler gave indications that he has a high ceiling
If Mullen can become more consistent in Year Two, he can give the Raiders the kind of dependable play they need from their top cornerback position.
Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in action during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Carson, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Derek Carr, QB
It always comes down to the quarterback, right? In the Raiders’ case, the improvements they made offensively with the addition of Ruggs and fellow rookie weapons Lynn Bowden and Bryan Edwards, coupled with holdovers Darren Waller, Josh Jacobs and Hunter Renfrow and an offensive line that graded out among the top 10 when healthy, should put Carr in position for a breakthrough season.
Heading into his third straight year in Gruden’s offense, there was a lot to like about Carr’s season in 2019. He reached the 4,000-yard passing mark for the second straight season and completed 70.4 percent of his passes. He also threw 21 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. He did all that without a true No. 1-caliber wide receiver.
Unfortunately, the production didn’t always translate into points. Far too often the Raiders bogged down in the red zone, where Carr’s completion percentage fell below 60 percent and the Raiders finished 22nd in red zone touchdown scoring percentage.
Some of that can be attributed to Carr’s weaponry. But with Ruggs and his fellow rookies changing that dynamic, Carr will have more options to turn to when the field shortens.
If that happens, the Raiders offense has a chance to be one of the most productive in the NFL.
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