The Las Vegas Raiders are built to be a playoff team in 2021 and it’s because of Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock. While it’s been a slow progression, the Raiders are moving in the right direction. After finishing 8-8 in 2020, they’re ready to take the next step in Gruden’s fourth year as head coach.
Thanks to the collaboration of Gruden and Mayock, Las Vegas will have one of their strongest rosters heading into a season. Let’s take a look at the key reasons why the Raiders are set to burst onto the playoff scene in 2021.
Development of Recent Draft Picks
2019 was the year that changed the future of the Raiders. The Raiders drafted nine players, including three in the first round. Of those nine draft picks, seven of them are set to play a key role in 2021, led by Josh Jacobs and Maxx Crosby. These two in particular seem to have taken on more of a leadership role in the offseason.
Jacobs finally gives the offense an alpha leader who knows what it’s like to be a part of a winning program. Crosby brings an attitude and production to the defense that has been missing since Khalil Mack was traded to the Bears.
When you look at the rest of the 2019, 2020, and 2021 draft classes, you are starting to see how many of these players are set to play key roles for the team. You often hear Mayock and Gruden talk about drafting high character guys who love football. Those traits pay off in the first few years of a player’s career because you start to see them work on their craft as they learn how to be professionals.
The majority of the players who were brought in to the team in 2019 and after are all under 25 years old. The continued development of these players will have a huge impact on both sides of the ball. When the Raiders make the playoffs in 2021, it will be because of the play of these young players who were brought in to lead the way.
The Offense Will Learn How to Win Games
The Raiders offense hasn’t been able to score more than 20 points per game for two seasons in a row since the 2015 and 2016 seasons. While many tout their 27.1 ppg in 2020 (10th in the NFL), the reality is many of those points were empty points that either had no effect on the final outcome or were not enough to cover the mistakes of a bad defense. The Raiders struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone and only four teams in the league had more turnovers than the Raiders in 2020.
In 2021, you’ll see a big difference in how the Raiders offense scores points. It’s not about how many points per game you score that makes an offense successful, but more about when they score and if they can close out games early. This year, the Raiders offense features a strong arsenal of weapons led by Jacobs, Darren Waller and Henry Ruggs III. Expect these three to have a huge impact on the scoreboard, especially Jacobs and Ruggs III.
The redzone issues should go away with the return of Foster Moreau, who led all rookie tight ends in touchdowns in 2019 before suffering a torn ACL and missing the final three games of the season. Players like Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, Kenyan Drake and even potential packages with Marcus Mariota should give the Raiders more ways to attack the defense and finish drives with a touchdown.
Of course, none of this will be possible without Gruden showing more aggression in his play calling, Derek Carr showing more aggression in his overall game play, and the offensive line showing they haven’t regressed after replacing proven veterans with younger players. They have to play to win instead of playing not to lose. There is a big difference in those approaches. I expect this team to learn from the last two seasons and make the adjustments necessary to score when it matters.
The Defense Will Lead the Way
As previously mentioned, young players drafted over the last few years are playing a key role on this team, especially on defense. In addition to the draft picks, the Raiders have added key free agents to the team over the last couple of years. You add the injection of new players with a much needed change at defensive coordinator and you have a lot of promise on the defensive side of the ball.
It’s no secret that an offense that can finish drives and reduce turnovers is an asset to any defense. As the Raiders offense cleans up and progresses, it’s going to change the game situationally for this Raiders defense.
While they may not have a Khalil Mack along the defensive line, the entire defensive line is deeper and better than any defensive line this team has had in quite some time. Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue are going to be one of the best pass rushing duos in the league.
Perhaps the biggest difference for this defensive line will be the push and the rush they get on the inside with Jonathan Hankins and Quinton Jefferson. You should expect Gus Bradley to keep guys fresh and use a heavy rotation of players that will keep the pressure on the opposing quarterback.
A strong defensive line and rush is going to be key for this young Raiders secondary. Casey Hayward is the only experienced veteran over 25 years old. This secondary, while young, has shown the ability to make plays despite not having a strong front seven that can produce pressure.
The Raiders were a bottom 10 team when it came to pressuring the quarterback and that was a problem for this secondary. Add that to the fact that oftentimes these young players seemed lost in a complicated defensive system, and it led to a lot of mistakes and points for the opposing team.
A simplified defensive scheme that better fits to the strengths of the players and more pressure coming from the defensive line is sure to make a big difference for this secondary.
The linebackers are definitely a concern for this team as they’ve been hit by injuries, but if Cory Littleton and Denzel Perryman can play well while the rest of the guys get healthy, you should see this defense vastly improve compared to 2020.
The reality is the Raiders don’t need a top 10 defense. They just can’t be one of the worst defenses in the league. We should expect this defense to step it up with the development of recent draft picks and the addition of veteran players.
The Jon Gruden Investment Will Payoff
When you get paid $100 million over 10 years to coach a football team, many people expect an immediate return. The reality is that Gruden chose to take a step back in 2018 to rebuild this team, and then brought in a new GM in his second season. That led to three underwhelming seasons to start his 10-year tenure as the Raiders head coach. Don’t expect Gruden to be satisfied with a big contract. There’s no doubt the will to win burns deep inside him.
There’s a lot riding on this season for Gruden and he knows it. He has built this offense to be one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. Now he has to hope that the investments he and Mayock have made on the defensive side of the ball start paying dividends. Gruden’s start has been far from perfect, but he’s far from a disaster and this season will show exactly why he was brought in.
As the younger players start taking on leadership roles and Gruden’s coaching staff starts better preparing this team for each opponent, you’re going to see a shift in this franchise that many fans have wanted to see for far too long. Having the right players is one thing, but being able to put it all together is something totally different. After two seasons in a row of collapsing in the final stretch of the season, Gruden will show that even an old coach is capable of learning knew things.
This team will end up finishing 12-5 in 2021. It’s going to be because Gruden’s vision finally comes together, and because he finally put the players and coaching staff together necessary to Just Win Baby.
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