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2019 NFL Preview: It’s time to give Raiders coach Jon Gruden a fair chance

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphic by Paul Rosales)

It’s fun to make all the Jon Gruden jokes, but let’s be realistic for a moment.

He inherited a mess last year, and he likely knew it.

One of the easiest jokes to make about the Oakland Raiders’ head coach is that he got rid of all his good players. That’s not entirely fair. He barely had any good players. The Khalil Mack trade was bad (Raiders fans who do mental gymnastics to defend it, just take the L as it was awful). Amari Cooper was inconsistent and the Raiders got a first-round pick for him before he was ready to cash in big on his second contract. That’s at least reasonable.

Who else did Gruden dump that the Raiders regret? Michael Crabtree, who was mediocre with the Ravens and is still unsigned this offseason? T.J. Carrie, who was Pro Football Focus’ No. 58 cornerback last season? Punter Marquette King, who was a disaster in Denver and cut during the season? Denico Autry, who had nine sacks with the Colts last season, could have helped. But mostly, Gruden likely looked at the roster he inherited and realized a rebuild was needed.

It’s fine to keep telling the Gruden jokes, since they’re fun and easy, but one bad season shouldn’t define his return to the NFL. People acted like Gruden broke up the 1991 Redskins. Vince Lombardi in his prime couldn’t have saved the 2018 Raiders.

The flip side of giving Gruden a pass for a 4-12 season is that he didn’t do a lot to acquire talent last year. He relied on old free agents, for the nebulous reasons of having leaders to get his program going. What Gruden needed was talent and he failed to acquire it. Passing safety Derwin James (among others) for offensive tackle Kolton Miller in the first round of last year’s draft looks like a bad mistake, but we’ll see. The rest of last year’s draft class has some promise, but nobody who was an immediate star. Very few of his 2018 free agents are set for big roles in 2019.

This offseason, Gruden got some players. The trade for Antonio Brown was bargain hunting at its finest, getting an all-time great player for pennies on the dollar from a fed-up Steelers team. Right tackle Trent Brown, receiver Tyrell Williams and safety Lamarcus Joyner are top free agents all in their primes. And the Raiders add a trio of first-round picks: defensive end Clelin Ferrell, running back Josh Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram.

The Raiders, amid all the jokes, showed some progress late. They won three of six games at one point in the second half of the season, including a victory against Pittsburgh. Quarterback Derek Carr, written off early, had a 10-game stretch with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions for a 99.6 passer rating. And that came with a terrible supporting cast. The Raiders had a chance to draft Daniel JonesDwayne Haskins or any quarterback other than Kyler Murray, but passed. That says something.

Even if you’re willing to cut Gruden some slack, he has a lot to prove. Until we see Gruden 2.0 make some progress, there will be skepticism. The criticism will be especially harsh if the Raiders are terrible again despite adding many new starters in free agency and the draft. Gruden didn’t earn all the jokes at his expense last season, but they weren’t all unfounded.

If the Raiders stink again, there will be some real worry as the team moves to Las Vegas next year. And also a lot of concern about Gruden’s famous 10-year contract that runs through 2027. But for now, he deserves a chance to prove he’s worth that big deal.

Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden had a tough first season back in the NFL. (AP)

For a team that claimed it wanted to find the right types of players in the draft, signing controversial, aging and potentially disruptive free agents Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito was weird. At least “Hard Knocks” will be interesting. And let’s not over-credit the Raiders for their three first-round picks; the team paid a heavy price in trades for the extra picks. That said, the Raiders added a lot of talent. Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Trent Brown, Josh Jacobs, Lamarcus Joyner, Johnathan Abram, Clelin Ferrell, linebacker Brandon Marshall — and yes, Burfict and Incognito too — should all start or play major roles and provide huge upgrades. That’s a lot to add in one offseason. Tight end Jared Cook left and that’s a blow, but the Raiders seem confident Darren Waller can surprise as his replacement.

GRADE: A-

Derek Carr didn’t dominate the NFL over the second half of last season, but he was good and did so with one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL. The Raiders have dramatically improved around Carr. Antonio Brown is a future Hall of Famer, Tyrell Williams is an excellent deep threat with a 1,000-yard season on his résumé and perhaps rookie Hunter Renfrow can be a productive slot receiver. The Raiders’ passing game should be much better. If it’s not, Carr will probably be gone next year.

On Sept. 15, the Raiders will host the Chiefs in Oakland. The Raiders won’t play again in Oakland until Nov. 3. There will be four road games, a bye and a game in London in between. The Raiders’ move to Las Vegas, which is scheduled for 2020, led to a long search for a 2019 home that eventually brought them back to Oakland. But, as the weird schedule indicates, this team might feel like one in between homes.

Derek Carr was left for dead early last season when he started slow (in a new offense, with a bad supporting cast), and then nobody seemed to notice when he played pretty well. Over a 10-game stretch from mid-October through Week 16, Carr had that 12-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating just shy of 100. That doesn’t mean Carr was great and is absolutely the Raiders quarterback of the future, but it wasn’t bad. Carr deserved another look in 2019. How he plays will determine whether the Raiders keep him around beyond that. And if Carr struggles, the Raiders will likely be in a position to draft one of the top quarterbacks in a strong 2020 class.

Antonio Brown is Oakland’s best player, but Clelin Ferrell might be the most important as Oakland builds. When someone is drafted fourth overall, the hope is he’ll be a foundational player. When you draft that player No. 4 when nobody else had him ranked that high, it better work.

“Look, it all goes back to there were flashier players, players that other people may have had higher on their boards, teams may have had higher on their boards,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said, according to Raiders.com. “On our board, it was he and [Nick] Bosa at that position, right next to each other at that position.”

The Raiders passed players with huge upsides to take Ferrell, a classic three-down end. He was very good for a fantastic Clemson team. It seemed like a reach for the Raiders, but Ferrell can prove that wrong.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Antonio Brown used to be a lottery windfall in fantasy football — available only to a select few who landed in the early part of the draft. In 2019, he’s more open to the masses. With an early ADP of 19 (both in Yahoo leagues and elsewhere), most gamers will be considering Brown once or twice. And for the first time in a long time, we’re not really sure what to do.

“The résumé speaks for itself: Brown has graded a top-three fantasy wideout for five years running (WR1, WR1, WR3, WR2, WR2). He’s into an age-31 season; not a plus, necessarily, but not a value crusher. And his new coach, Jon Gruden, has an extensive history of preferring experienced wideouts and peppering them with targets (maybe that partially explains why Amari Cooper, in his age-24 season, flamed out in Oakland last year). Tyrell Williams was also acquired, but he’s clearly the secondary option while Brown assumes the alpha role.

“Brown and Ben Roethlisberger were never really copacetic, but they produced. Brown will quickly recognize Derek Carr is a quarterback downgrade. Also, if the Raiders hit an iceberg this season and fall out of contention early — something Brown never experienced with the Steelers — will Brown’s Silver and Black debut start to resemble the failed Randy Moss experiment? When you mash all of this together, I can’t pull the trigger on Brown in the first round. In the second round, it’s a matter of how things fall; I view him as a reactive pick in that pocket, not a proactive one.”

The Raiders had 13 sacks in 2018. No other team had fewer than 30. Yes, the Raiders could have doubled their sack total and still been the worst pass-rushing team in the NFL. Maybe they should have just paid Khalil Mack? Oakland hopes Clelin Ferrell has an instant impact, and second-year players like Arden Key and Maurice Hurst develop. The Raiders need to find a pass rush somewhere.

HOW WILL ANTONIO BROWN WORK OUT?

Brown is one of the most productive receivers ever. His 86.2 yards per game is third in NFL history, behind Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. In NFL history there have been four instances of a player catching more than 125 passes in a season, and Brown has two of them. But there are two big concerns as Brown moves to Oakland: He posted those numbers with future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger, and Brown will be 31 this season. That age isn’t a death sentence for a receiver, but it’s worth noting. As is the downgrade in quarterbacks. Brown’s numbers, other than touchdowns, were down across the board last season from an All-Pro year in 2017, and we all know he brings locker-room baggage. Brown should be great again, and likely for a few more years, but it’s not a move without risk. Consider that no other team was willing to give more than the third- and fifth-round picks Oakland shipped to Pittsburgh.

Of all the teams near the bottom of these rankings, the Raiders might be the one in which you can talk yourself into a big jump. They added a lot of talent over the offseason. Derek Carr played fairly well last season after a slow start. Jon Gruden should feel more comfortable. The Raiders were bad in 2018, but this isn’t the same team.

If there aren’t signs of progress, then what? Oakland is stuck with Jon Gruden no matter what happens. The Raiders might also need to replace a quarterback if Derek Carr has a bad season. Maybe the combustible mix in the locker room between Antonio Brown, Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict blows up — and it’s easy to see that happening. This was a bad team in 2018, there is no guarantee all the moves fit well, and then maybe the Raiders are moving into Las Vegas next year as a franchise coming off two miserable seasons under Gruden with serious worries about the future.

There are tangible reasons to believe the Raiders will be much better, though a tough schedule limits their ceiling. So does the weird second lame duck season in Oakland. And while I’ll give Jon Gruden a chance, I need to see signs of progress before I believe. There are too many questions to be wildly optimistic, though it probably can’t be worse than last season.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab