As the Raiders prepare to open training camp this week, expectations are on the rise.
Now in his fourth season at the helm, Jon Gruden has built a playoff-caliber offense led by quarterback Derek Carr, who is coming off the best season of his career and has an impressive group of weapons. Gruden has also enlisted the help of old friend Gus Bradley to help get the defense in position to finally hold up its end of the bargain.
If Bradley succeeds, the Raiders could be a legitimate playoff team.
In order of importance, here are the most pressing issues.
1. Can the front four get pressure on the QB?
The Raiders generated just 14.5 sacks last year from their defensive line, an embarrassingly low number that had a ripple effect across the rest of the defense. A similar output in 2021 is unacceptable.
The good news is newcomer Yannick Ngakoue has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL since arriving in the league in 2016. His presence should strengthen a defensive end rotation that features Maxx Crosby, Cle Ferrell, Carl Nassib and perhaps rookie Malcolm Koonce. The Raiders also beefed up the interior by adding Quinton Jefferson, Darius Philon and Solomon Thomas and re-signing Johnathan Hankins.
Bradley hopes to build a two- or three-line rotation, the objective being to put the Raiders in better position in late-game and late-season situations by using fresher players.
Keep an eye on Ferrell, who should start drives at defensive end but could move inside on known passing downs to make room for Crosby and Ngakoue to tag team off the edge.
2. Is a rebuilt offensive line ready?
The Raiders took a calculated risk this offseason by trading veteran center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson. They also moved on from oft-injured right tackle Trent Brown. In doing so, it puts pressure on rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood, new center Andre James and either Denzelle Good or John Simpson to replace Jackson at guard.
A full offseason, coupled with a normal training camp in which they will practice against the Rams — and All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald — gives the offensive line a jump start on the transition.
Also, the return of preseason games should mean some extensive playing time for a group that has to hit the ground running. It also helps that veteran left guard Richie Incognito is back after missing all but two games last year and will resume his role alongside left tackle Kolton Miller.
3. Who wins the slot cornerback position?
Lamarcus Joyner, who is now with the Jets, was a disappointment the last two years, but he at least was a veteran presence in the slot. As the Raiders head to training camp, that is a position they will have to figure out on the fly.
Bradley mentioned veteran Nevin Lawson as a candidate, but keep in mind he will open the season on the NFL’s suspended list for the first two games for a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. That opens the door for either second-year corner Amik Robertson or rookie Nate Hobbs, who impressed the staff during OTAs.
The Raiders are eagerly awaiting the full pads period of training camp to get a better idea of who is ready to claim the position. But it likely won’t be until after the three preseason games that a winner emerges.
4. Is Henry Ruggs ready to shine?
While the Raiders expressed satisfaction with Ruggs’ rookie season, they also need him to take a big step forward and become the explosive weapon they hoped for upon drafting him 12th overall in 2020.
Ruggs will be fascinating to watch during training camp, as it is incumbent on him to make the most of his opportunities to build trust with Carr and Gruden. The more Ruggs seizes his opportunities in camp and during the preseason, the more Gruden will call his number and Carr will feel comfortable getting him the ball.
It is also on Gruden to figure out better ways to get Ruggs activated early and often. Don’t expect the Raiders to completely pull the curtains back on all their plans for Ruggs during camp, but getting off to a good start is vital for the second-year wide receiver.
5. Can Cory Littleton bounce back?
The Raiders believed they were getting a difference-maker upon signing Littleton to a free agent contract in 2020. But the former Rams linebacker was a huge disappointment and played tentatively almost all year.
Littleton should benefit from the more player-friendly defense of new coordinator Gus Bradley. Plus, a better command of his role could free him up to be the player who dominated games with the Rams earlier in his career. Bradley talked Littleton up during OTAs, a sure sign that the veteran linebacker could be settling back down.
The Raiders need him to be the player they envisioned upon signing him. It likely won’t take long for the real Littleton to step up. If not, it could mean another long year for him.