The Las Vegas Raiders went 10-7 last season. Everyone is excited about the Cincinnati Bengals after their playoff run, but the Raiders came 9 yards from tying a wild-card game at Cincinnati (or going for two and the win) in the final minute.
Then this offseason the Raiders added arguably the best receiver in the NFL, Davante Adams, and Chandler Jones' 107.5 career sacks. They also hired Josh McDaniels, one of the game's most accomplished offensive coordinators, as their new coach. The Raiders also hired former New England Patriots director of player personnel Dave Ziegler as their new general manager.
You'd think there would be a lot of excitement about the Raiders. Instead, most people are picking the Raiders to finish last in the AFC West.
There are legitimate reasons for the disrespect to the Raiders. The Raiders' advanced stats from last season indicate they were fortunate to win 10 games. McDaniels' first attempt at being an NFL head coach was a catastrophe. The rest of the AFC West is loaded after an active offseason.
However, maybe we're sleeping on a Raiders team that is coming off a good season. Las Vegas overcame a tremendous amount of adversity to make the playoffs, and it got better in the offseason.
The trade for Adams was a big moment. The Raiders sent a first-round draft pick (No. 22 overall) and a second-round pick (No. 53 overall) to the Green Bay Packers for Adams. That's not too much for a receiver who has made five straight Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro each of the past two seasons. Over the past two seasons Adams has a 238-2,927-29 line. Those are Hall of Fame numbers. The Raiders signed Adams to a five-year, $140 million contract after the trade. They're expecting him to have a huge impact.
Derek Carr already had weapons to work with. Hunter Renfrow emerged as one of the best slot receivers in the NFL with 103 catches, 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Darren Waller had a down season, but he's a rare tight end with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons on his resume. Carr had 4,804 yards last season and should get a healthier Waller and an elite alpha receiver in Adams.
McDaniels is still a wild card. He was undeniably awful with the Denver Broncos in 2009-10. McDaniels admits it. He alienated the locker room and just about everyone else in the organization; was given too much personnel power and used it poorly, often by overvaluing anyone who had played for New England (every former Bill Belichick disciple seems to fall into this trap for some reason). The entire debacle was topped off by a scandal in which the Broncos and McDaniels were fined for taping a San Francisco 49ers' practice in London.
McDaniels lost 17 of his last 22 games as Denver's coach. He was a knockoff Belichick, like most failed Patriots assistants, taking the worst parts of Belichick into a head-coaching job and not backing it up with enough wins. Despite that, McDaniels was so good as the Patriots' offensive coordinator that teams kept flirting with him, even after he took the Indianapolis Colts' job in 2018 and then backed out before flying to Indiana. Maybe his second turn as a head coach will be better. It can't go any worse.
You'd think that taking a job with a 10-win team that just added key pieces on offense and defense would be a great situation, but McDaniels is entering one of the toughest divisions in recent memory. The AFC West is so good that Carr, an underrated three-time Pro Bowler, is easily the fourth-best quarterback in the division. The Raiders could end up being the best last-place team we've seen in a long time.
Or maybe they won't be in last place. Jones and Maxx Crosby are a good pass-rushing foundation on defense, and new coordinator Patrick Graham is a respected defensive mind. The offense should be fine, though the offensive line is a pretty big question after left tackle Kolton Miller. The Raiders showed a lot of resilience and heart in overcoming the Jon Gruden controversy and dealing with teammate Henry Ruggs III being charged with DUI resulting in death and reckless driving. That toughness should carry over, even if interim coach Rich Bisaccia wasn't hired as the team's full-time head coach.
“I think those guys in [the locker room] did a great job, and to some degree, changed the culture,” Bisaccia said after the playoff loss to the Bengals, according to the Las Vegas Sun. “They put the culture on a winning track — a winning mentality.”
This season will be a test. If the Raiders can navigate a brutal AFC West to make the playoffs again, we'll know the McDaniels era is off to a great start.
For too long, before the Los Angeles Rams showed a different way, NFL teams held on too tightly to draft picks. It's hard to land a great player like Davante Adams, and it's a good bet the 22nd or 53rd overall picks of this year's draft won't be anywhere near as good as Adams. The Raiders made an aggressive move and it filled a huge need. Chandler Jones is a remarkable pass rusher and while there's risk as he enters his age-32 season — he's unlikely to be an impact player for all three years of his $51 million deal — he should have at least one good season left. The Raiders lost some good players, like receiver Zay Jones, quarterback Marcus Mariota, cornerback Casey Hayward, defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson, but overall they upgraded. The draft was light due to the Adams trade but they ended up with some mid-round draft picks that can help the offensive and defensive lines, as well as Georgia running back Zamir White. White could be a good starter soon since the team passed on Josh Jacobs' fifth-year option for 2023.
Derek Carr admitted he watched the Patriots' offense from afar for many years.
“I was always very intrigued by the things they would do, schematically,” Carr said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The Josh McDaniels-Carr marriage could be perfect. Carr has never been a great deep thrower (he was effective on deep balls last season until Henry Ruggs III was cut) but the Patriots thrived off quick, short-to-intermediate passing. The Raiders have the targets to make that work very well. Davante Adams was helped by playing with Aaron Rodgers, but he's also undeniably great. McDaniels adapted after Tom Brady left New England, first adjusting for Cam Newton and then having a good season last year with rookie quarterback Mac Jones.
Carr had a very good season last year, after annual speculation that the Raiders would get rid of him. He is set up well to have a career year in 2022.
The Raiders' win total of 8.5 at BetMGM seems like it should be an easy under. There is some regression coming (more on this in a bit). They'll have the second-hardest schedule in the NFL according to analyst Warren Sharp, who uses win totals to project how hard each team's schedule is. Still, it's hard to punch an under ticket on a team that won 10 games a season ago and added two blue-chip players in the offseason. I have a lean on the Raiders' under of 8.5 but that has more to do with the AFC West than the Raiders themselves.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Darren Waller has a Yahoo ADP of 46.1, about eight picks higher than his NFFC tag. In this case, I think the NFFC market has it right.
"Waller enters his age-30 season, not necessarily a kill shot for a tight end, but the arrows are pointing downward. His yards per target have dropped for two straight seasons, and he scored just two touchdowns a year ago. I don’t think the Hunter Renfrow toothpaste is going back into the tube; he’s a star now, and Josh McDaniels loves throwing to slot receivers. And obviously new receiver Davante Adams is a target monster and a dynamic touchdown scorer, especially in tight space around the goal line.
"If I draft a vanity tight end — an early-pick choice — I want him to be the unquestioned No. 1 option in his team’s passing game. It’s possible Waller could be No. 3 in Las Vegas. Unless the market corrects, I’ll likely sit this one out."
Nothing about the Raiders' statistical profile from 2021 indicates they should have won 10 games. They were outscored by 65 points, the worst mark of any team that posted a winning record last season. Their pythagorean win total, which uses point differential to determine what a team's record should have been, was 6.8. Their estimated win total from Football Outsiders was 8.4. They finished 21st in Football Outsiders' DVOA, including 19th in offense, 17th in defense and 21st in special teams. Not finishing in the top half of the NFL in any of the three phases and still posting a winning record is fluky. The Raiders' Pro Football Focus team grade ranked 18th overall. A 7-2 regular-season record in games decided by seven points or less and a 5-1 record in games decided by three or less was the reason the Raiders made the playoffs. That's unsustainable. In their last four regular-season games they beat the Cleveland Browns (who were decimated by COVID-19), Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers by a combined 13 points. It was a great season and the mental toughness the Raiders showed to make the postseason was commendable. However, they aren't going to catch so many green lights in 2022.
How good is Maxx Crosby?
The Raiders might have blown their three first-round picks in the 2019 draft, but they hit a grand slam on Crosby in the fourth round. Crosby has 25 sacks through three seasons and had a breakout in 2021. He made his first Pro Bowl. His Pro Football Focus grade ranked second among edge defenders, behind only Myles Garrett. NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt was sixth. Crosby plays a ton of snaps (977 last season, fourth in the NFL among edge defenders) and is equally good defending the run and rushing the passer. The Raiders signed him to a four-year, $94 million contract, which might have come as a shock to anyone who hasn't watched Crosby emerge as an elite defender. He signed the deal on the second anniversary of his sobriety. The Raiders' defense has issues, like uncertainty at safety, questionable options on the interior of the line and no elite off-ball linebacker. But Crosby is a good cornerstone.
Coaches can learn from disastrous first chances. Josh McDaniels seems aware of his mistakes and is regretful of how he handled things in Denver. He has had a long time to prepare for his second chance.
“I’m not Bill [Belichick], and I can’t be, so I’m not going to try,” McDaniels said, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I just want to try to be myself and hopefully I can be a good leader for our team.”
He's a smart football coach, and perhaps he'll finally prove to be a good head coach. There's a reason teams kept chasing him. McDaniels could bring Derek Carr to a new level. There is more than enough talent to have a dynamic passing offense. It's not out of the question Maxx Crosby could win Defensive Player of the Year. He and Chandler Jones could lead the defense to an improvement. It would be a huge upset if the Raiders won a stacked AFC West, but it's not impossible.
Remove the rest of the AFC West from the picture for a moment. The Raiders were due for a big regression from last season, no matter what happened around them. Now combine that regression with the Chargers and Broncos loading up to catch the Chiefs, who are still great, and the Raiders have a very difficult road to make the playoffs again. Winning nine or 10 games and coming up just short of a wild-card spot would be understandable, and that could happen. We might also watch the Raiders implode as the pendulum of their 2021 good luck swings the other way, Josh McDaniels is exposed as a coach who is far better off as a coordinator, and they're out of the AFC West race by Thanksgiving. Maybe sooner.
The Raiders are an interesting case. I respect how they overcame challenges no other team had ever gone through to make the playoffs last season. I've felt for a while that Derek Carr has been unfairly maligned. Davante Adams is one of the best players in the NFL and the Raiders got him without spending too much in terms of draft capital. But I also believe in analytics. Just about every single statistic you can find indicates the Raiders were out over their skis at 10-7 last season. I also need to be convinced that Josh McDaniels has changed since that Denver wreck. I'll split the difference and say the Raiders will be a better team this season but with a worse record, and finish last in a brutal division with no return to the playoffs.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints