The Las Vegas Raiders come off one of the most peculiar seasons in recent history. Their head coach was forced into a second retirement, they cut two first-round picks, lost five of six games at one point, and still made the playoffs in the AFC. But now they have expectations.
The organization has new leadership in the front office. Dave Ziegler took over as general manager, while Josh McDaniels took the head coaching role. McDaniels also reeled in a big fish by hiring Patrick Graham as the team’s defensive coordinator.
So there goes Gus Bradley’s “bend but don’t break but in reality, almost always break” Cover 3 defense. While the AFC West looks like a metaphorical warzone in 2022 with an astronomical influx of talent infused into the division from the NFC, this Raiders team has already proved how scrappy it is.
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Las Vegas made the playoffs against all odds in 2021. During the offseason, they gambled away two first-round picks to acquire Davante Adams. Ziegler also bartered with Chris Ballard and the Colts, swapping Rock Ya-Sin for Yannick Ngakoue. Then he went all-in on the pass rush with the acquisition of Chandler Jones.
Las Vegas is a city of sensory overload. The oxygen pumps life into casino-goers, keeping them awake and at the tables for far longer than they planned. One won’t find a clock when they peek around the Venetian Poker Room.
Can the Raiders make all their new toys into one cohesive unit, keep the attention on them for the entire 17-game schedule, and surprise once again with an unlikely playoff birth?
What will Josh McDaniels’ offense look like?
One thing is for sure; Derek Carr will be getting the ball out of his hands quicker on average than he was with the previous regime. The New England Patriots teams McDaniels has coached over the years always boasted some pretty good talent on the offensive line.
Still, McDaniels’ quarterbacks always got the ball out quickly on average. Tom Brady did it within the confines of the offense and because he had seen and done it all. Despite getting the ball further downfield on average than in New England, Brady continues to use a football as a laser-guided hot potato.
Still, Mac Jones got the ball out quicker than Carr on average last season, despite having a far better offensive line. Jones isn’t the playmaker at the position (yet) that Carr is, but the main difference is in the implementation and execution of pass-catching backs. If Kenyan Drake can remain relatively healthy, he should get significant usage as a pass catcher.
But McDaniels thrives at conjuring up easily manufactured completions that allow playmakers to thrive. He’s also proven to be kind to tight ends. With Darren Waller, the Raiders have one of the few genuinely unfair players at that position in the league. And we’ve all heard the endless “slot receiver” jokes coming out of New England forever. Hunter Renfrow is one of the best in the game as a true slot target.
Patrick Graham must get the most out of the Raiders’ defense
Las Vegas ranked fifth in explosive pass rate on defense last season. They ranked 23rd in drive success rate and dropback success rate. The Raiders also ranked 26th in dropback EPA and defensive points per drive, while also finishing dead last in the NFL with just six interceptions.
That will change. Las Vegas may give up more big plays, but they’ll be far more aggressive, both in coverage and on the front line. Graham’s New York Giants blitzed twice as often (25%) as Bradley’s Raiders did (12.1%) last season.
Graham is schematically diverse, but his ability to mask post-snap responsibilities with pre-snap mischief makes him such a sought-after defensive mind. That complexity can lead to mental mistakes by opposing quarterbacks.
Yet, it’s a double-edged sword. If the players cannot grasp his philosophy, he’ll be hamstrung into more static pre-snap looks and less complex coverage variations. His ability to connect with the Raiders’ defensive depth chart and succinctly teach his defensive principles will be the key.
Chandler Jones must remain a forethought
Last season in Week 1, Jones exploded onto the scene with arguably the most dominant defensive performance of the entire season. But after that Week 1 performance against the Tennessee Titans, Jones went six weeks without registering another sack. He managed just 5.5 sacks over his final 16 weeks.
But the more disturbing statistic is his 47 pressures, which was good for just 26th in the league. He had a similar number in 2018 before rebounding with 75 (and 19 sacks), so he’s not dead in the water yet. Jones could rebound again, and having Maxx Crosby on the opposite side should free him up. What can’t happen is teams consistently helping Crosby while being able to stifle Jones in 1-on-1 situations. At 32, Jones must prove he has the horsepower to be a weekly problem.
The Raiders’ safety rotation will be key
The Raiders’ defensive personnel is… detrimental to a scheme like Graham’s. Since Day 1, Johnathan Abram’s coverage has been a problem. Yet, Bradley’s system allowed Abram to play about half of his 1,052 snaps in the box and another 244 in the slot where he wouldn’t be tasked with any deep coverage responsibilities.
It’s hard to envision Abram’s fit in Graham’s defense, which will utilize far more two-high looks and multiple coverages. He projects more as a big nickel who can play as the third linebacker in base or the second linebacker in big dime personnel groupings.
Meanwhile, second-year safety Trevon Moehrig should thrive in Graham’s defense. He was a promising rookie in Bradley’s defense, playing in the single-high role. However, he hails from Gary Patterson’s complex TCU defense, allowing him to think and react with match principles.
Duron Harmon could be the second back-end safety, but hopefully, Tyree Gillespie can eventually supplant Harmon in that role. But it was Dallin Leavitt who got those free safety snaps last season, not the Missouri product.
Graham will most likely give Moehrig the more complex role to the strength of the formation. Usually, the “better” free safety takes a boundary role in quarters-based defenses, but allowing Moehrig’s intelligence to process more information might lead to fewer mishaps in coverage.
A more explosive Davante Adams
Sorry Raiders fans, Adams isn’t going to start magically running a 4.40. Nevertheless, at the end of the season, Adams’ yards per catch average should rise, his targets should drop, but he should remain around the same total yardage.
Adams will remain a target-rich receiver with high overall efficiency, but his aDOT and yards before catch numbers should rise. McDaniels will use backs and Renfrow as outlets, while Adams will most likely patrol the intermediate levels of the field more.
Because the offensive line is still an important question, we’ll still at times see the ball in Adams’ hands quickly. He’s still the top option in this offense, but because the Raiders do not have a proper designated speed threat despite having middle-of-the-field monsters in Waller and Renfrow, we could see Adams utilized more downfield.