Barnwell: How Jon Gruden’s roster-building left the Raiders in terrible shape, and what’s next

Sports

As you’ve surely heard by now, the Las Vegas Raiders and Jon Gruden parted ways on Monday. It goes without saying that the emails uncovered as part of the NFL’s investigation into Daniel Snyder and the Washington Football Team were abhorrent and unbecoming of a leader. My colleagues have addressed Gruden’s firing, and what’s now left in the wake of his absence is a suddenly rudderless Raiders organization.

The franchise was rebuilt to Gruden’s specifications after he took over as coach and de-facto football czar in 2018, and while general manager Mike Mayock and the rest of the staff remain, there’s no doubt that things will change without him in charge. Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia has been given the interim job, and team owner Mark Davis suggested Wednesday that the arrangement of power has moved from a split of 51% Gruden, 49% Mayock to 51% Mayock, 49% Bisaccia.

By the time we hit next offseason, the Raiders might be in a new arrangement altogether. As the only coach with a 10-year contract, the one sure thing for the organization seemed to be that Gruden would be in charge. Now, on the fly, everything is changing.

Let’s evaluate the lasting effects of Gruden’s second run with the Raiders in terms of player personnel and where Mayock and Bisaccia — or whomever takes over in 2022 — sit with the current roster. Gruden took over a 6-10 team that was one year removed from a 12-4 season and a trip to the postseason. The Raiders were 22-31 in Gruden’s second tenure, and I’m not sure they’re much closer to the postseason than they were before he was hired. Let’s see where the Raiders stand with 12 games to go this season.

Jump to a section:
The big trades | The draft record
Free-agency issues | The roster
What’s next? | Postmortem

Gruden’s big trades

Gruden’s most significant personnel moves came early in his run, as he tore apart the young core of former general manager Reggie McKenzie’s teams. With two trades, Gruden dealt away cornerstones on both sides of the football in edge rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper. In return, he netted four high draft picks, including three first-rounders. Those selections became running back Josh Jacobs, cornerback Damon Arnette, safety Johnathan Abram and wide receiver Bryan Edwards.

These moves set back the franchise significantly. Jacobs has struggled with injuries and doesn’t have a role in the passing game at a position in which two-down backs are readily available for the veterans minimum. Arnette was responsible for the coverage breakdown on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s big play at the end of the game in the crucial Week 16 loss to the Dolphins last season; he lost his starting job in camp and has been the subject of trade rumors. Abram missed all of his rookie season with an injury and was a mess in coverage in Year 2. He has been better this season, but his most notable moment has been getting stiff-armed by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris. Edwards, the only one of the four not to be drafted in the first round, looks to be the most promising player among them.

Gruden repeatedly traded for veterans over the course of his tenure, and those moves almost universally failed. The most notable came when the team sent third- and fifth-round picks to the Steelers for receiver Antonio Brown, which failed in ignominious fashion before Brown ever suited up for the team.

I couldn’t fault the Raiders for that deal at the time, but Gruden’s other deals for wide receivers looked bad at first glance and got worse quickly. The Raiders sent a third-rounder to the Steelers for Martavis Bryant and then cut him at the end of camp. Defensive end Jihad Ward was shipped off for Ryan Switzer, who was then dealt away for a swap of late-round picks without having played for the team. The Raiders sent a fifth-rounder to the Bills for Zay Jones and a sixth-rounder to the Packers for Trevor Davis, who was cut after two and a half months. The Packers used that pick on Jon Runyan, who is now starting for Green Bay at guard.

Receiver wasn’t the only spot in which the Raiders traded picks for players with limited success. Gruden shipped a fifth-round pick to the Bills for quarterback AJ McCarron, who threw a total of three passes before leaving. The seventh-rounder Gruden sent the Jets for QB Christian Hackenberg was a conditional pick, thankfully. Last year, the Raiders swapped midround picks with the Dolphins to acquire linebacker Raekwon McMillan; he played a total of 169 defensive snaps before leaving the team. McMillan served as a special-teamer, but that’s the sort of player organizations should be able to find with the late-round picks Gruden was shipping away in failed swaps.

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Booger McFarland shares his thoughts on the reports Jon Gruden is out as the Las Vegas Raiders’ head coach.

Gruden’s track record of trading up and down in the draft was more mixed. He had success trading down in his first draft to acquire offensive tackle Kolton Miller, Gruden’s most successful first-round pick. He also moved up for wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, but trades up for defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, edge rusher Arden Key and offensive lineman Brandon Parker weren’t successful. It’s difficult to look at Gruden’s track record of trading as much more than a brutal failure.


Gruden’s draft record

Gruden oversaw four drafts, which means that we should be seeing his picks make up the core of the existing Vegas team and the teams we’ll see over the next couple of seasons. Let’s take a look at the picks he made over the first three rounds of the 2018, 2019, and 2020 drafts:

2018:

2019:

2020:

We’ve already discussed some of these selections. Ferrell, the highest-drafted player of the Gruden era at No. 4 overall, was viewed as a significant overdraft at the time and hasn’t looked like an impact player at any point of his career. The former Clemson pass-rusher lost his starting job this offseason and was a healthy scratch in Week 1. He has played 18% of the defensive snaps this season. The next player selected in that first round was linebacker Devin White, who has become one of the league’s best players at his position for the Bucs.

The only first-rounder we haven’t discussed is Ruggs, who has flashed significant potential while struggling to command a significant target share. The hope is naturally that he takes a step forward in his second season, in which he’s on pace to rack up 1,113 receiving yards (although his average of 20.5 yards per reception will be tough to sustain). He was the first wideout taken in a draft that included CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman and Chase Claypool; he wouldn’t be the first wideout off the board in a redraft today.

It doesn’t get much better after the first round. Miller has been a solid tackle, but Parker was bad as a rookie and hasn’t been trusted as more than a swing tackle since. Hall and Key are no longer on the roster. Neither is Bowden, who was moved to a “Joker” role as a hybrid running back/wide receiver after being drafted. He was traded before ever playing with the Raiders, who sent him with a sixth-round pick to Miami for a fourth-round selection. Muse was also released without ever playing a snap for the Raiders. Two of the their three third-rounders from 2020 are no longer on their roster; of the other 39 players drafted, just one has been cut or traded (Jabari Zuniga of the Jets).

In all, while acknowledging that there’s plenty of time left on the clock for these young players, the only players the Raiders would take again at their same spots would probably be Miller, Mullen and Edwards. That’s a disaster for a team that had six first-round picks over this span.

It’s too early to say anything about the 2021 class, but as was the case with Ferrell and Jacobs, the Raiders used a first-round pick on offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood when most public resources pegged him as a midround selection. Leatherwood struggled enough at right tackle for the Raiders to move him to guard during the Week 5 loss to the Bears. Teams sometimes take prospects much higher than public perception and prove to be right, as the Cowboys did with center Travis Frederick in 2013. It’s too early to make any proclamations about Leatherwood, but if he doesn’t pan out, the Raiders will have repeatedly gone against the grain and been wrong about it every time.

The best pick Gruden made during his time in charge was likely someone taken outside the top 100: edge rusher Maxx Crosby, a 2019 fourth-round pick. The Eastern Michigan product racked up 10 sacks as a rookie, and while he has only two sacks in five games to start 2021, he has been a consistent disruptor and has 13 quarterback hits this season. Renfrow, taken a round later, has proven to be a valuable slot receiver. Those are nice finds, but the Raiders also used a fifth-round pick on a punter in Johnny Townsend, who lasted a season before being released.

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Keyshawn Johnson looks back at his two years playing under Jon Gruden.

Naturally, it’s difficult to parse the responsibility for these selections between Gruden and Mayock, whose primary work over the prior decade had been as a draft analyst for NFL Network before joining the Raiders in 2019. Given how poorly the top picks have performed and how long Gruden had left on his contract, it’s entirely possible that Mayock would have been the fall guy for a disappointing 2021 season. Now, that’s no longer the case.

The easy answer is to say that they both deserve some of the blame, because it’s impossible to know why the selections are failing. Are the Raiders struggling to bring through young talent because they’re picking the wrong players? Or are they picking useful players and struggling to develop them into viable starters? There’s one reason to think that the latter might be the bigger problem with Vegas …


Gruden in free agency

… That reason? That just about every significant free agent who came to play for the Raiders looked much worse in silver and black than they had in their prior stop. Free agency isn’t the best way to build a roster, but it’s hard to think of a team that has gotten less out of its significant signings than the Raiders over the past several seasons. Here’s every free agent, with an average annual salary of $5 million or more, the Raiders added over the Gruden era, and what happened next:

2018:

  • WR Jordy Nelson (two years, $14.2 million): cut after one season

  • LB Tahir Whitehead (three years, $19 million): lost starting role in Year 2, cut

  • CB Rashaan Melvin (one year, $5.5 million): started seven games

2019:

  • OT Trent Brown (four years, $66 million): started 16 games over two seasons, salary dumped to NE

  • WR Tyrell Williams (four years, $44.3 million): started one game over two seasons, cut

  • S LaMarcus Joyner (Four years, $42 million): moved to CB, benched in Year 2, cut

2020:

  • LB Cory Littleton (three years, $35.3 million): suffered drastic decline in play

  • LB Nick Kwiatkoski (three years, $21 million): lost starting job after one season

  • EDGE Carl Nassib (three years, $25.3 million): four sacks in 19 games

  • QB Marcus Mariota (two years, $17.6 million): 28 pass attempts with LAR

  • DT Maliek Collins (one year, $6 million): one QB hit in 504 snaps

2021:

  • EDGE Yannick Ngakoue (Two years, $26 million): two sacks in five games

  • RB Kenyan Drake (Two years, $11 million): playing almost exclusively as receiving back, averaging 2.4 yards per carry

That’s a brutal list, and it might even undersell how dramatically these players dropped off. Whitehead, Nelson and Littleton went from being excellent in their prior spots to wildly disappointing with the Raiders. Williams might have been unlucky with injuries — and Mariota hasn’t been needed very often behind Derek Carr — but the franchise has nobody but itself to blame with someone such as Joyner. The 2014 second-rounder had bounced around the Rams’ defense before settling at free safety, where he emerged as a star. The Raiders promptly signed him and moved him back to slot corner, where he struggled wildly for two season before being released.

On the other hand, the best move the team made during the Gruden era was a much less notable free-agent signing. After Darren Waller dealt with substance abuse and moved to tight end, the Raiders signed him off Baltimore’s practice squad in 2018. He emerged as one of the most exciting tight ends in all of football in 2019. They quickly moved to sign him to a four-year, $29.8 million deal that October. At that price tag, he is one of the league’s most valuable non-quarterbacks on a veteran deal.

Owing to the missing draft picks and the disappointing top-100 selections, the Raiders have needed to be active in signing veterans to short-term, low-cost deals in free agency. The vast majority of those contracts are one-year pacts. The Raiders might be happy with players such as Casey Hayward Jr., Solomon Thomas and K.J. Wright, and their contracts are reasonable, but they’re all free agents after the season.


What’s left on the roster

The Raiders have one of the league’s least impressive cores. A coach or a general manager looking to build the organization would be looking at Miller and Crosby as the only under-25 players on whom they can count as above-average starters. A second tier might include players who have shown some promise but haven’t been consistently impactful, such as Edwards, Ruggs and Mullen, plus anyone who emerges from the 2021 class, with fifth-round corner Nate Hobbs off to a promising start. Waller just turned 29, and Carr is 30. Both will be looking for new deals after the season. So will Jacobs and Renfrow, who are useful, albeit at positions in which it’s often easy to find useful players. The Raiders simply aren’t in the same universe in terms of core talent as the other teams in the AFC West.

They have been able to approach league-average play by staying efficient and effective on offense. Gruden’s best asset as a coach was getting the most out of his offensive talent, especially in the passing game. Carr’s best seasons came in 2019 and 2020. Waller went from being a practice-squad player to a superstar. Every team passed on Renfrow multiple times. Receiver Nelson Agholor was essentially a meme before producing a career season with the Raiders in 2020.

These guys aren’t going to suddenly turn into afterthoughts without Gruden around, and the defense has been much better in 2021 than it was across the first three years of his regime, but the final game of his tenure was an example of how this team would look if the offense isn’t up to its prior level of play. In a 20-9 defeat to the Bears, the Raiders were buried with subpar field position, didn’t have a single play produce 30 yards or more and scored nine points on 10 possessions. Vegas’ 3-0 start marked the third year in a row in which it has enjoyed a three-game winning streak at some point during the season, but after the past two-plus weeks, it feels like another lifetime.


What’s next for the Raiders

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Raiders a 31.7% chance to make the playoffs. Making it to the postseason would probably encourage Davis to stick with the combination of Mayock and Bisaccia into 2022. If they fall short, they would presumably look to hire another coach, although Mayock’s future in that scenario would be unclear. Former head coaches such as Gus Bradley, Tom Cable and Rod Marinelli are also on staff, so it’s possible the Raiders could decide to promote one of their other assistants into the head role, as the Browns did when they named Freddie Kitchens head coach ahead of interim coach Gregg Williams before the 2019 season.

I’m not sure this will be a particularly appealing job. Vegas will be an exciting destination for free agents, but the talent gap between the Raiders and the rest of the division is apparent. Davis has been willing to spend on talent, and he’ll be saving money by not paying the remaining $60 million or so left on Gruden’s deal.

At the same time, consider what happened before Gruden arrived. Former general manager McKenzie took over a team that was in horrific salary-cap shape and missing draft picks after years of disastrous decisions by Al Davis and months of poor choices from former coach Hue Jackson. McKenzie’s Raiders ate nearly $77 million in dead money over 2012 and 2013 and began to work their way back. After drafting Mack and Cooper, they jumped from 3-13 in 2014 to 7-9 in 2015 and 12-4 in 2016. Their record was inflated by an unsustainable performance in one-score games, but for a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs or posted a winning record since 2002, 12-4 is 12-4.

A year later, Davis got distracted by shiny things and fired coach Jack Del Rio after a disappointing season to give Gruden full control of football operations (McKenzie was let go in December 2018). That example is going to be in the back of anyone’s mind if they get approached by the organization. The next guy probably isn’t getting a 10-year deal.


What we learned

Gruden’s second act with the Raiders was an unqualified failure. Focusing solely on his work over the past few years, it was a failure in exactly the ways we would have expected based on his time in Tampa Bay. He did a solid job of running the offense and got just about everything else wrong. Virtually every one of his significant personnel decisions turned out to be a mistake. He dismantled the organization and turned the core he inherited into pennies on the dollar.

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Stephen A. Smith believes Jon Gruden’s career is finished after reports of offensive emails he wrote over a 10-year period.

Organizations should learn from the tenures of Gruden and Jacksonville’s Urban Meyer, the other coach who was in the spotlight before Gruden resigned. Both would qualify as offensive minds with success in their past. They were each charismatic on television and capable of convincing ownership that they were single-handedly capable of turning around their fallen franchises. They were each given control of football operations despite the fact that Meyer has never been involved with pro personnel and Gruden’s track record as football czar in Tampa, Florida, was spotty at best.

If you’re hiring a coach, giving him complete control of football operations and resting the entire organization on his shoulders, you better make sure he’s up to the task. Even before the revelations of the past few days, it was clear that Gruden was not.

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