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State of the 2021 Las Vegas Raiders: Jon Gruden must make playoff push

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Raiders organization, Raiders fans around the world and those who will no doubt be seeing me in line at the Pizza Rock concession stand:

This is an exciting time for the Las Vegas Raiders, who will, for the first time, welcome fans into Allegiant Stadium, the football palace and legacy of the vision of late owner Al Davis. The timing couldn't be better. The Raiders have been rebuilding the franchise for years now, and it all looks like it could be coming together at the perfect moment. Because when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big and then you take the house. Or at least, that's what George Clooney told me in Ocean's Eleven.

How the Raiders got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • The Autumn WINNING. The Raiders opened with back-to-back victories over the Panthers and Saints to start off 2-0, then knocked off the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 5 to head into their bye at 3-2. It was the first loss of the season for the defending Super Bowl champs. (Yes, I used the "autumn winning" joke in a my State of the Colts article, but darn it, I'm not going to miss my chance to use a Raiders pun in a Raiders piece.)
  • Streaking. After losing the Jon Gruden REVENGE GAME against the Buccaneers in Week 7, Las Vegas put together a three-game winning streak to improve to 6-3 on the year.

The lows:

  • Bombing in prime time. Riding high at 6-3, it looked like the Raiders were going to complete a season sweep of the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football in Week 11 -- until nobody decided to cover Travis Kelce on the touchdown that put it away for K.C.
  • Getting super-charged (in a bad way). Derek Carr suffered a groin injury on a run during a Week 15 overtime loss to the Chargers on Thursday Night Football. That injury helped derail the Raiders' season after that loss dropped them to 7-7.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Jon Gruden. You all know where you were a few years ago when that famous blond-haired leader from a few years ago -- someone who seemingly didn't age a bit -- donned some familiar head gear, took over one of the most villainous franchises of all time and made some of the most-talked-about, must-see TV maybe ever?

Of course I'm talking about Johnny Lawrence and the return of Cobra Kai.

Oh, did you think I was taking about Jon Gruden and his return to the team he coached from 1998 through 2001? Well, as reboots go, the second Gruden era, which began in 2018, ranks somewhere below the resumption of the Karate Kid franchise and above Hawaii 5-0. Aside from one 4-12 season right off the bat, the Raiders haven't been terrible -- they've increased their win total in each season since Gruden retook the reins. But they also haven't reached the playoffs in that span.

It seems like every year, I come in here and say that I still believe in the Raiders' vision, that Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have them headed in the right direction. It totally feels like they're doing just that. But at some point, this group is going to have to make a playoff push. In other words, strike first, strike hard, no mercy.

Quarterback: Derek Carr. My annual summer traditions include golf, fireworks and defending Derek Carr against a faction of Raiders fans who can't seem to appreciate what they have. Like my friend growing up who had a pool but never quite understood how cool it was to have a pool, mostly because he never had to suffer through life as a non-pool kid.

Last year, some Raiders fans hoped the team was going to make a move for Tom Brady. (And no, Brady was not talking about Derek in that infamous video.) This year, some of them are pining for Aaron Rodgers. (OK, yes, the Raiders would seemingly have a strong chance to land Rodgers in a prospective trade with Green Bay, because Derek would represent a better return value than, say, the Broncos' Drew Lock. But we are NOT going down that road.)

What all the Derek doubters seem to miss is that he had one of the best statistical seasons of his NFL life in 2020, with a career-high 101.4 passer rating. His passing-yards-per-attempt mark (7.9) also matched a personal professional best. And he's one of three quarterbacks with 4,000 passing yards and a passer rating over 100 in both 2019 and 2020 -- the other two were Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. (Two guys the Raiders will absolutely try to acquire via trade. I kid. ... Actually, with all the Russell drama this offseason, that one could gain some traction next year.)

Projected 2021 MVP: Darren Waller, tight end. You could point to the impact of Derek's injury last season and make a compelling case that the QB matters most to this team, but let's talk about Waller the Baller. Waller had 1,196 receiving yards in 2020, which were the most by a Raiders pass catcher since Jerry Rice had 1,211 in 2002 -- the year the Raiders last went to the Super Bowl. Waller has led the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. He's also one of seven players to have 1,100 receiving yards in back-to-back seasons over the past two years. Travis Kelce is the only other tight end to do it.

2021 breakout star: Clelin Ferrell, defensive end. The Raiders will always be lampooned for "reaching" for Ferrell with the fourth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. That's in the past. When Ferrell was dominating the Chiefs' offensive line and haranguing Patrick Mahomes during the team's win in Kansas City last year (three pressures, one turnover caused by pressure, per Next Gen Stats), nobody cared where he was selected. Ferrell ended the season as a top-20 edge rusher, according to Pro Football Focus, and he could become an even bigger force this season if he continues to improve. He's entering his third season, which puts him in prime breakout territory. And he's going to have some help this year, too.

New face to know: Yannick Ngakoue, defensive end. Ngakoue was traded multiple times last season, but he was still pretty damn good. The ex-Jaguar/Viking/Raven excels at getting to the quarterback, evidenced by his eight sacks in 15 games last year. He also chipped in four forced fumbles. And this offseason, he signed with the Raiders. His main task is bolstering the defensive line and hopefully freeing some space for Ferrell. It's kind of like when you're building a tag-team, and you're pairing Ric Flair with Bautista. OK, I don't want to say Ngakoue is on Flair's level, but you know what I mean. Ngakoue needs to be styling and profiling if we want Ferrell to truly break out this year. All right, I'll move on.

Cool story to know: Defensive end Carl Nassib broke barriers by becoming the first active NFL player to come out as gay. He did so on his Instagram account, where he also pledged $100,000 to the Trevor Project to help at-risk teens in the LGBTQ+ community. The announcement was welcomed not only by the Raiders, but around the NFL, the world of sports and beyond.

If you ask me, it's rather fitting that this is happening with the Raiders, a team with a long history of inclusiveness. Tom Flores was the first Latino quarterback in pro football and later went on to be the first Latino coach, winning a pair of Super Bowls and finally getting welcomed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Art Shell was the first black head coach in the modern NFL. Amy Trask was the Raiders CEO from 1997 to 2003, becoming the first-ever female CEO of an NFL team. So kudos to Nassib for his bravery. And to the Raiders for once again leading the way.

The 2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: PRETTY HIGH. The Raiders are entering Year 4 of their rebuild. The initial buzz has now quelled. It's time to start putting together some winning seasons.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Baltimore Ravens, Monday Night Football. This will be the first regular-season game at the brand-new stadium -- where the team moved last season -- to also include fans in the stands. Should be an epic chance to see the late, great Al Davis' vision for a stadium with all of the amenities finally come to fruition. Also note that the Raiders open the season with back-to-back games against AFC North playoff teams (they play the Steelers in Week 2). Las Vegas has the second-toughest schedule in the first four games of the season -- because the Dolphins (in Week 3) and Chargers (in Week 4) are also challenging games.
  • Week 10 vs. Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday Night Football. The 2020 Raiders were one of two teams to beat the Chiefs when it mattered. This year, the Raiders' first look at the two-time defending AFC champions doesn't come until November.
  • Week 18 vs. Los Angeles Chargers. Both the Raiders and Chargers are expected to challenge for a playoff spot, maybe even by pushing the Chiefs for supremacy the AFC West. Should note the Raiders' visit to Los Angeles in Week 4, which I already touched on above, should be very interesting, too.

Will the Raiders be able to ...

Succeed on defense with new coordinator Gus Bradley? In the three seasons since the start of the Gruden Era, Part II, the Raiders have posted the NFL's worst scoring defense, ranking in the bottom three in passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns allowed over that span. They are last in sacks. Last in third-down percentage. The defense also doesn't create turnovers. It's pretty bad. Bradley is going to be charged with rebuilding this thing. Some might want to just knock the whole thing over and rebuild from scratch -- like they did when they knocked down the Las Vegas Club and built Circa. (Which looks pretty awesome, BTW.) Bradley, however, is pretty great at what he does. He's had a top-eight scoring defense in four of his eight seasons as a defensive coordinator. Bradley's defenses have ranked in the top 10 in total and pass defense in four of his last five years in that job (he accomplished that feat with the Chargers from 2018 to 2020, and with Seattle in 2012).

Get help from the rebuilt pass defense? Bradley is great at working with secondaries. I mean, he was the Lex Luthor of the famed Legion of Boom -- which is perfect casting, like way better than Jesse Eisenberg (no disrespect). The key will be getting the most out of Damon Arnette and Trayvon Mullen. Arnette was a first-round pick last year, but he's likely to be feeling a little heat from offseason free-agent signee Casey Hayward. Hayward played for Bradley with the Chargers and would offer a bit more consistency than the Raiders have had in recent years. The current Raiders depth chart in the secondary is filled with first- and second-round picks from the last three years. You have Mullen (second in 2019), Johnathan Abram (first in 2019), Arnette (first in 2020) and safety Trevon Moehrig, a second-round pick in 2021. This is a good place to note the team used five of its seven picks in 2021 on defensive players.

Field a 1,000-yard wide receiver? I know I'm splitting hairs here, because I've already talked about how awesome tight end Darren Waller is -- honestly, he's the best pass catcher on the team. But it would be nice if one of the wide receivers pitched in here, too. The Raiders have not had a 1,000-yard wide receiver (I know I need to be technical here) since Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree both did it in 2016. Can Henry Ruggs -- the first of six receivers selected in the first round in 2020 -- step up in Year 2? Ruggs did have four receptions of more than 40 yards, tied with Justin Jefferson and Jerry Jeudy for most among rookies. But he also finished with less than 500 yards and just two scores, while the Vikings' Jefferson (drafted 22nd overall) was looking like one of the best in the game already. All I'm saying is, the Raiders don't want to be sitting here three years from now, wondering what could have been, if Jefferson turns out to be this elite receiver (don't sleep on Jeudy or CeeDee Lamb, either) while they ended up with the second coming of John Brown. (And that's no disrespect to Brown. Well, maybe a little. Kidding! I love Smoke. However, you get what I'm saying.)

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The Raiders' defense has not been kind to Derek Carr. Here is how the Raiders' defenses have ranked in scoring during the years since Carr was drafted in 2014:

2014: Last
2015: 22nd
2016: 20th
2017: 20th
2018: Last
2019: 24th
2020: 30th

So instead of dreaming of Brady or Rodgers, maybe you Raiders fans should have been conjuring up images of Jalen Ramsey or some other available defensive talent.

... ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: The Raiders will start three new offensive linemen this year. Like, what is happening? The Raiders have allowed just 57 sacks since 2019, which is tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL. But Trent Brown (who did miss 11 games, in fairness), Gabe Jackson and Rodney Hudson were all traded this offseason. That means they're putting a lot of faith in new center Andre James and first-round pick Alex Leatherwood. And it's worth pointing out a lot of people thought Mayock reached on Leatherwood at No. 17 overall. That said, he's the kind of player with upside who could be dominant in the NFL. The flip side is, four years from now, we might still be talking in hopeful terms about Leatherwood maybe developing. That's what I love about Mayock's picks. He's the dude playing yo-11 on the craps table. Sure, that might not be the best bet on the table, but when that is hitting, it's a great ride.

... people are overthinking: The running back situation. I know a lot of people continue to sleep on Josh Jacobs. Dude is the first player in club history to have 2,000 rushing yards in his first two seasons. (I mean, Marcus Allen would have done it if his rookie season hadn't been strike-shortened.) Jacobs has also forced 120 missed tackles since 2019, which is the third-most in the NFL over that time. He's a good running back. In terms of his production in 2021, I'm not tripping about the addition of Kenyan Drake. Sure, I would have liked the Raiders to go for a different style of complementary back. But Drake has posted 1,000-plus scrimmage yards and at least eight scrimmage touchdowns in each of the last three seasons. That puts him in the same company as Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Mike Evans and Tyler Lockett. Fantasy dorks like me might be upset about this pairing, but I imagine Gruden doesn't care about my fantasy team. I mean, it would be nice if he did. But I can't fault him for not caring about it.

For the 2021 season to be a success, the Raiders MUST:

  • Make the playoffs. There was a lot of praise heaped on the Raiders for nearly pulling off the season sweep of the Chiefs last year. But the time for moral victories is over. The Raiders need to reach the postseason. Gruden is one of 14 coaches to coach the same franchise since 2018 -- and he's the only one of those coaches to not make the playoffs in that span. He -- along with the 49ers' Kyle Shanahan -- are the only two to be below .500. Las Vegas has to be playing into mid-January.

In closing

There is a scene in the original Ocean's 11 where Dean Martin says -- and I paraphrase -- "If you want to capture lighting in a bottle twice, I won't try to stop you. Just don't try to capture yesterday." There are times when you wonder how this is going to go for the Raiders. Las Vegas has seen some rebirths of some iconic Sin City brands in the last few years. (I might or might not be talking about the Sahara.) It's cool for the sake of nostalgia, but you have to do something to keep people coming through the door. I still have a lot of confidence in Gruden, as I said previously. The roster looks great. But at some point, we need to see some results -- otherwise, it'll be time to move on to the new and hip establishment opening up right down the street.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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