Preseason Takeaways : Las Vegas Raiders
By Tyler Arthur
With the NFL Preseason in the books, it’s time to evaluate where we stand. This year there was one less preseason game and the use of starters in said games was at an all-time low. Las Vegas for example almost exclusively gave reps to starters if it was their first year serving as one, with a handful of rookies or newly promoted players. Now that all three games are done, with the Raiders winning two of them, it’s time for my Las Vegas Raiders Preseason Review.
Here are all of my biggest takeaways and storylines from the last months, ahead of their week one prime time start against the Baltimore Ravens.
Young Wide Receivers Expected To Step Up In 2021
When you don’t start your starters in the preseason, that means you can make it nice and clear where you stand on players. The depth chart of the Raiders has been made clearer than ever, including at wide receiver. Henry Ruggs will be the starting Z receiver and Bryan Edwards is the locked in as the X, with Hunter Renfrow as the starter in the slot. None of them played in any of the preseason games, because their roles are secure. The thing that all three of these guys have in common? They’re all 25 or younger.
Last year, Renfrow was the only one of this core who made a regular mark on the offense. He is a fantastic slot receiver and excels in key situations, moving the chains. His nickname ‘Third and Renfrow’ is well earned. Ruggs showed flashes but not enough to stop Raiders fans wishing they drafted CeeDee Lamb instead. Bryan Edwards is the one to watch this year, though. He hasn’t had anywhere near the opportunity that he deserves yet. In 2020 he only had 15 targets in 12 games. The belief from Jon Gruden is well-justified according to people at training camp.
When the Raiders cut John Brown, I knew that this was the trio, without a shadow of a doubt. He is too good of a receiver to let go if you’re not confident in the guys ahead of him. These three receivers will be ones to watch.
New Younger Offensive Line Cannot Disappoint
The Oakland Raiders were famous for their fantastic offensive line; the Las Vegas Raiders don’t want to be any different. Within the last few years, their O-Line has drastically changed. Kolton Miller has shown huge improvement in his first two seasons, so he should be a great anchor at left tackle. He’s athletic and he’s strong and he’s got the scheme down. Next to him is the veteran presence of Richie Incognito, who is the most experienced on the team by some way, but who has struggled with some injuries later in his career.
At centre is Andre James, one of the two players who actually featured in the preseason games. He served as Rodney Hudson’s understudy before the Raiders moved on from their long-time C. To his right is another player who has spent some time in the scheme, Denzelle Good. Good will have his work cut out, he’s between second-year James and rookie RT Alex Leatherwood…
The tackle from Alabama was a pick that the Raiders (in an incredibly on-brand move) surprised people with. He has a lot of potential, but he isn’t quite there yet. They drafted him above players considered more polished, believing in their ability to get the best out of the young OL. It worked with Miller, now they need to get the whole new-look line to lock in. In the Raiders’ offense, their OL is absolutely pivotal to any success. Let’s put it this way… if I was the play caller for one play, I’m running HB Power to the left.
Young Secondary Looking To Step Up
Everybody knows that the defense is Vegas’ biggest sticking point. The secondary is not good, but not for a lack of trying. They are adding new players with every passing draft, and 2020 was no different. Trevon Moehrig is an absolutely fantastic pick, who should be a perfect scheme fit in Gus Bradley’s cover 3 heavy approach. Johnathan Abram is going to be the box safety who comes downhill harder than any player on the team, and then the rookie Free Safety will play behind him as the traditional center fielder, patrolling the deep middle third.
One of the biggest wins of this preseason was the excellent performance of Nate Hobbs, a rookie corner out of Illinois. The Raiders picked the 22-year-old in the 5th round and he absolutely killed it in all three games. PFF actually rated Hobbs as the highest graded player in the preseason among all rookies drafted outside the first round. His excellent performance will give him an opportunity to break into the nickel package personnel.
This also frees up another young corner, Amik Robertson, who had a tough first season, getting few reps and not feeling as comfortable as you’d hope. After spending his first season exclusively playing as a slot corner, the Raiders are now giving him an opportunity to get work in on the outside, too, and that added depth will be invaluable. Trayvon Mullen Jr., Casey Hayward Jr. and Keisean Nixon should be the top three options for the outside, but having Damon Arnette and Robertson fighting for reps will be great for depth throughout the season.
Defensive Line Adds Veteran Presence To Young Core
Yeah, when I said that the defense was the Raiders’ problem, you knew I wasn’t just talking about the secondary. Las Vegas had the fourth-fewest sacks in the entire NFL last year, with 21. That is a total of 21 sacks in 16 games – for context, the Rams and Steelers had more than 50. This is not good enough.
They’ve made a notable effort to improve the D-Line though, adding some veterans to a young, inexperienced group. Yannick Ngakoue was by far the biggest addition, at DE. The edge rusher has struggled to find a home, moving from team to team since leaving Jacksonville, but his talent is inarguable. The production speaks loud and clear. Since his rookie season in 2016, Ngakoue has amassed 45.5 sacks. You are reading that number correctly; in 5 years he has produced – singlehandedly – more than twice the amount the Raiders totalled last season. He has never had a season with less than 8 sacks. This signing was incredibly exciting for Raiders fans. Pairing standout rusher Maxx Crosby with a dominant opposite-side rusher will elevate the entire defense.
Mike Mayock has also recruited the talents of Solomon Thomas, a promising DT who has disappointed since being drafted 3rd overall just four years ago. Finally, they invited Gerald McCoy to return to football after two years out. That might not sound particularly exciting, but a leader with a lot of experience and a genuine excitement to be on the field and supporting the players around him can only be beneficial. Obviously, previous production is irrelevant – the Raiders need results in silver and black. This season is the first since Khalil Mack was traded where I can actually say that the Raider pass rush has taken a true positive step.
New-Look Running Back Room
One thing that nobody expected this offseason was for the Raiders to dive into the running back free agent pool. They did, though. They signed Kenyan Drake, previously of the Miami Dolphins and then Arizona Cardinals. Obviously, adding some depth behind Josh Jacobs is a nice thing to do, keeps him fresh and provides Jon Gruden a way to change the offensive look, with a very different RB. Drake is an excellent receiving back and is very comfortable out in open space.
Jacobs will take on the primary load with rushing attempts, naturally, but there is something to say for having a change of pace. We have a head coach who absolutely loves being creative. There are suggestions that Drake will be deployed as a wingback and potentially even an extra wide receiver, too. This could either be a waste of money – $11m over two years – or an entirely new element to the offense. Drake said himself that he is happy to let Jacobs be the main man, but he believes he will have a notable role, and that could be really refreshing.
Foster Moreau Ready To Breakout?
The Tight End starter for the Raiders is probably the most locked in position in the entire team. There is no debate that Darren Waller is the guy. However, the number two spot should become locked in this year, too.
LSU product Foster Moreau was drafted in 2019, but got injured and didn’t get an opportunity to do much behind Waller’s breakout. That knee injury left him lagging behind on the depth chart and 2020 put him behind the one-year addition of Jason Witten. He’s gone now and it’s Moreau’s time. They also released Derek Carrier (which made me sad because having Derek Carr and Derek Carrier on the same team was phenomenal), too.
This is very clear, now. Waller is the TE1 and Moreau is the TE2. Gruden and coordinator Matt Olson like using multiple TE sets, so they can both get involved. I believe that this year will be his opportunity to break out, while the big man in 83 is drawing all the attention.
feature imeage credit: Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports
A Journalism Graduate, Tyler has been writing about American Football for five years. He has worked for numerous websites and is now the social media and content lead for the UKFL, a professional league launching in 2023.
He played Wide Receiver and eventually Quarterback for his university team at DMU, and is now using his knowledge and passion for learning to dive deeper into the analysis of X’s and O’s in the NFL. He loves fantasy football, playing Madden and watching All-22.