The last time the Las Vegas Raiders made the NFL Playoffs, it was 2016. And so much has changed since.
Not only is the AFC West more difficult (ahem, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert), but the AFC in general is quite the gauntlet. Tennessee, Buffalo, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are all good, with windows of opportunity to go deep in the postseason now. Miami looks dangerous. Indianapolis made moves (hello, Carson Wentz).
So, how do the Raiders make it this year? Amid this crazy amount of talent?
Reason No. 1: The hiring of DC Gus Bradley
It’s a well-reported fact that the 2020 Raiders defense didn’t stop too many opponents. Las Vegas surrendered 478 points last year (29.9 PPG)—30th in the NFL—and surrendered 30 or more points in 10 games, going 3-7 in such contests while winning shootouts at Kansas City, Carolina, and Denver.
Coupled with a top-10 offense, though, averaged out into a .500 season—just two wins away from the NFL Playoffs.
The Raiders never really found a calling defensively, either, posting the ninth-worst rushing defense (2,013 yards, 24 rushing TDs surrendered) and the seventh-worst passing defense (4,212, 28 passing TDs surrendered) across the league. A league-worst 50.3 percent of defensive possessions ended up in a score against the Raiders, and they also gave up a first down on penalties 44 times (third in the NFL) and only created a turnover on 8.4 percent of its opposing drives (fourth-worst in the NFL).
Las Vegas also led the league in missed tackles (143) and finished with just 21 total sacks—fourth-worst in the NFL. Almost every single defensive statistic known didn’t fall in the Raiders’ favor in 2020.
So, out goes former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther (now with the Minnesota Vikings), and in comes Gus Bradley, who just spent the past four years with the AFC West rival Los Angeles Chargers, completely revamping their scheme.
Bradley gets a lot of flak for his tough four years as coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars (2013-2o16), but his stints as a DC aren’t just commendable. They’re elite.
From 2009 to 2012, he helped orchestrate what eventually became the “Legion of Boom” in Seattle, which went from ranked 24th in defensive yards per game in 2009 to fourth in 2012. And most of that was due to the progression of the pass defense, which went from 30th in total yards to sixth in total yards in the same period.
He maintained a similar pedigree in Los Angeles too as the Chargers were never worse than 15th in total defense during his time and never worse than ninth in passing yards allowed.
Bradley is no stranger in working with Raiders coach Jon Gruden either. The two were together in Tampa Bay from 2006 to 2008, where Bradley moved up from defensive quality control coach to linebackers coach and designed schemes for star Derrick Brooks and his Pro Bowl appearances.
Bradley had stars in Seattle and Los Angeles, among them being Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Derwin James, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram III, and Casey Heyward. But he’s got quite a bit of talent in Las Vegas too, particularly in offseason acquisitions like Heyward and elite pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue to pair alongside Johnathan Abram, Trayvon Mullen, Maxx Crosby, Carl Nassib, and Nicholas Morrow.
The Raiders’ defense has only one way to go from this point: Up.
Reason No. 2: The continued bell curve of QB Derek Carr
Ignore Derek Carr’s career record of 47-63 and the fact he’s never taken a snap in the NFL Playoffs. He was robbed of such joy in 2016 when he suffered a broken fibula against the Indianapolis Colts in what was a stellar 12-3 season under Jack Del Rio and company.
Instead, look at the way Carr has continued to impress despite coaching changes, star offensive departures, and the lack of a consistent defensive identity.
The former Fresno State star is only 30 years old and just came off of a campaign in which he finished with a career-best QBR (71.0), quarterback rating (101.4) and total passing yards (4,103)—with his top option being a tight-end (albeit a damned good one in Darren Waller) and his best receiver (Nelson Agholor) being a reclamation project and reinvented deep threat.
Gone is Agholor to the New England Patriots, but in comes John Brown from the Buffalo Bills—just two years removed from a 1,000-yard season. Expanded roles to Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, and Henry Ruggs III are certainly on tap for this team, and Carr is approaching the top of his bell curve in skill. He has yet to regress statistically in any season (aside from fluctuating turnovers) and in 2020 his yards per completion (11.8) was a career-best.
He’s recognizing defenses effectively, progressing through reads for more open passes, and over the last three seasons has been among the best in the league in completion percentage. This is the year he gets his first postseason start.
Reason No. 3: The addition of RB Kenyan Drake
The first two seasons of former Alabama star running back Josh Jacobs have been a revelation for the Raiders. He made the Pro Bowl in 2020 and he’s already got more than 2,600 yards from scrimmage and 19 rushing touchdowns to his name. With defenses keyed on him a little more this last season, his yards per touch did come down a bit (5.0 to 4.3), but Carr looked to him more in the passing game and open space, where he went up from 20 to 33 receptions. And according to Pro Football Focus, Jacobs has forced 120 missed tackles, which is third-most in the NFL.
Enter free agent acquisition Kenyan Drake, who notched his third straight 1,000-yard all-purpose season last year with 10 rushing touchdowns and 25 catches for 137 yards.
It’s an all-Alabama backfield for Gruden’s ground attack and it could put a unique strain on opposing defenses. Jalen Richard is still on board as well, and he’s always been able to maximize his touches, notching 300 or more all-purpose yards in five consecutive seasons.
Pro Football Focus recently ranked the Raiders’ incoming backfield eighth in the NFL (behind Cleveland, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Dallas, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Carolina), and that’s some really nice company to be hanging around with for 2021.