The Raiders are, surprisingly to most on the outside, in the thick of the AFC playoff race at 6-4 as the number of games remaining has dwindled to six.
This is not the time in the NFL schedule for the timid and, usually, the young. With just a few weeks left in the college season, most NFL rookies are starting to hit the proverbial wall after playing more football in the past four months, starting with training camp and through 14 games (including preseason), than ever before in their careers. In their first NFL season, most rookies start to wear down around this time, as the grind takes its toll.
That apparently doesn’t apply to the Raiders’ young guns.
The first draft class for Raiders general manager Mike Mayock is no group of wallflowers as the NFL’s big dance gets closer. No, they are just now rounding into form as a unit and are playing crucial roles as the Raiders make their playoff push. Sunday’s 17-10 victory was the latest and best example.
One big disclaimer: Drawing any big conclusions off a seven-point home victory over a team that a) could go 0-16, b) started a fourth-round rookie quarterback (Ryan Finley) making his second career start, and c) didn’t have its best offensive weapon (receiver A.J. Green) is extremely dangerous. There really should be more questions than platitudes after that kind of game.
But the truth is, the Raiders were in complete control throughout and just a few careless mistakes (fumble and interception) kept Oakland from running away with it.
And the Raiders were in that position largely because of their rookies. A look at their performances, in order of importance:
CB Trayvon Mullen, second round
You’re probably a little surprised that Maxx Crosby isn’t leading this list, but Mullen was that good in this game, and the pass coverage of the Raiders was the biggest story on defense. To hold any quarterback to a 41.9 completion rate and a 39.0 rating is a great accomplishment, especially for a secondary that ranked 30th in pass defense coming in.
The confidence in the Raiders’ secondary is obviously growing among the coaches because the players are being asked to play more and more man coverage each week. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, usually not much of a blitzer, sent 10 pressures at Finley, including three of the all-out variety. The Raiders knew they weren’t playing Tom Brady, but you have to have some confidence to call three zero blitzes. And Mullen, Darryl Worley, Nevin Lawson, Erik Harris and Curtis Riley delivered with terrific coverage all game.
Mullen wasn’t perfect. An early missed tackle led to a 17-yard gain, and he was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, but he allowed four receptions on seven targets for a total of 24 yards, jumped a route for a near interception on third and 6 near the end of the third quarter, and then clinched the game with an interception. The decision to trade Gareon Conley looks better every week.
DE Maxx Crosby, fourth round
What more can you say about Crosby other than he’s played like a first-round pick, not a fourth-rounder? Crosby had an amazing 12 impactful plays in this game, including four sacks, a forced fumble, 7½ total QB pressures and two half-stuffed runs. He’s like J.J. Watt Jr. at this point and should be in the conversation with Nick Bosa for defensive rookie of the year.
The good news is he’s far from a finished product because his work on the edge of the running game is still subpar, and it’s being targeted more and more by opponents (including on Joe Mixon’s touchdown). A little more controlled aggression would go a long way and will come with experience.
WR Hunter Renfrow, fifth round
With tight end Darren Waller being the top focus of opposing defenses, there’s an opening for a good possession receiver. Renfrow has stepped into the void and earned Derek Carr’s trust. All six of Renfrow’s targets came on third down, and the result was five catches for 66 yards, three conversions and one that came up 1-yard short (Raiders would pick it up on fourth down). There was also one interception, which was partially just a great play by Bengals safety Jessie Bates realizing the Raiders were running the same play that picked up 20 yards earlier, and part Renfrow fading his route too much.
RB Josh Jacobs, first round
The fumble took points off the board, but Jacobs is just so good. He averaged 4.9 yards, and 72 percent of his yards came after contact. He’s always quick to the hole and has to be gang tackled. He tied a season-high with three explosive runs of at least 10 yards.
TE Foster Moreau, fourth round
Moreau continues to get more work as a blocker than a receiver, but he had a touchdown when the Bengals busted a coverage.
FB Alec Ingold, undrafted free agent
Ingold had the big fourth-down conversion and continues to be an effective blocker for the backs.
DE Clelin Ferrell, first round
Ferrell came down to earth after his three-sack performance against the Chargers. He had a pass breakup and just two shared hurries, and his edge work, like Crosby, needs a lot of work.
CB Isaiah Johnson, fourth round
After making his debut with one snap against the Chargers, Johnson played six and, while he was in coverage on Auden Tate’s 20-yard conversion on third and 19, he did have a third-down pass breakup.
That’s eight rookies making big-time plays in a got-to-have-it game in mid-November. If the Raiders are to make the postseason, that’s going to have to continue.
Rodney Hudson: Didn’t allow a quarterback pressure and did his usual great work in the ground game. He’s outstanding.
Hunter Renfrow: Might have been partially at fault on the interception, but he had five catches on third downs to move the chains.
Maxx Crosby: With 7.5 total quarterback pressures, including four sacks, teams are now going to have to have a play for the end, like they do with Darren Waller.
Nicholas Morrow: The weak link on a defense that is getting better every week. Perhaps that’s why Preston Brown was signed.
Kolten Miller: Had a really rough time against Bengals DE Sam Bullock with a sack and 4.5 QB pressures allowed.
Gabe Jackson: Allowed a sack and had issues sustaining in the run game.
Greg A. Bedard covers the NFL for the Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @GregABedard on Twitter.