HENDERSON, Nev. -- The Las Vegas Raiders open 2021 NFL training camp Wednesday at the Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:
No more excuses for Derek Carr as he enters Year 4 in Jon Gruden's system, which returns a pair of Pro Bowlers in running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller and should see a jump in productivity from receiver Henry Ruggs III, right?
To be fair, Carr has never publicly complained about his station with the Raiders and claimed he would "probably quit football" than play for another team, saying he'd "rather go down with the ship" if he had to. Yeah, he also torpedoed his own trade value with the decree but with his contract situation -- the guaranteed money in the five-year, $125 million extension he signed in 2017 is all paid out and he is entering the penultimate year of the deal -- Carr, in search of another extension, might be entering a make-or-break season. Even if he is coming off career highs in passing yards (4,103), passer rating (101.4) and Total QBR (71.0) Still, a reimagined offensive line, in the wake of center Rodney Hudson, right guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Trent Brown all being traded away, offers a hint of apprehension.
Is defensive coordinator Gus Bradley the miracle-worker the Raiders need to overcome last year's porous D that cost them late in losses to the Chiefs, Chargers and Dolphins?
He had better be. It only seems like the Raiders have been looking for a dominant defense since Howie Long, Lyle Alzado, Ted Hendricks, Matt Millen, Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes were suiting up. So yeah, a competent defense authored by the architect of the Legion of Boom would be a huge upgrade.
Bradley does have youth on his side, with the likes of safety Johnathan Abram, cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette and defensive ends Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell and Yannick Ngakoue. None of it matters, though, if the re-tooled defense can't get a stop in crunch time. And as Bradley said, it's a "race to maturity" for his unit, which was the No. 25 overall defense last season and had just 21 sacks, which ranked 29th, and 15 takeaways while giving up the third-most points in the NFL.
Did the Raiders really have the worst offseason of any team in the NFL?
Define worst. Yeah, we know all about Bill Barnwell's less-than-inspiring assessment. And Carr did take umbrage with it. Kind of.
"You know I love, absolutely love, [people saying] we had the worst offseason, all that kind of stuff," Carr said. "Time will tell. We'll see. But we believe that we've gotten better, and we believe that we're progressing. It's an exciting time for me."
Besides, if you can't truly judge a draft class until two or three years out, shouldn't it be the same for offseasons? Look, the Raiders had epic needs on defense and five of their seven draft picks were on that side of the ball. In free agency, the Raiders added Ngakoue and amplified an already-electric offense with running back Kenyan Drake and receivers Willie Snead IV and John Brown. Still, they did create a new need with the retooling of the offensive line, as mentioned above. The answer then? Too soon to tell.
While Gruden may have the most job security in the NFL, courtesy of that 10-year contract, might his seat get a little warm if the Raiders collapse again at the end of the season?
A short answer to a long question -- yes. Now, that does not mean that Gruden is about to lose his job anytime soon. On one hand, the Raiders have shown improvement in the win-column, going from four victories his first year back to seven in 2019 to eight last season. On the other hand, the Raiders have had disheartening collapses the last two seasons after playoff-contending starts -- 6-4 in 2019, 6-3 in 2020 -- and Gruden's record in December and January is just 8-22 his last six years as a head coach (2006-08 with Tampa Bay, 2018-20 with the Raiders).
In Gruden's first stop with the Raiders (1998-2001), he had them in the AFC title game in Year 3. Now, he's got to contend twice a year with an established star QB in the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and a rising star QB in the Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert. True, the heat is rising but no one is going to put more pressure on Gruden than himself.