NFL draft: Raiders’ resurgence arrives with outstanding rookie class

The Oakland Raiders were easy marks when they hired Jon Gruden — and, let’s face it, well before that, too. A 4-12 season made Gruden and his staff look outdated last year. They were mocked again during “Hard Knocks,” and the Antonio Brown saga added salt to the fresh wounds. 

Now the Raiders have won three straight games and sit at 6-4, which is more victories than they’ve had in four of the previous seven seasons. This is a competitive football team, even with some narrow victories and a point differential of minus-25, that could head into a Week 13 matchup at Arrowhead with the Kansas City Chiefs with the AFC West crown on the line.

There are myriad reasons for the turnaround. One of the most surprising and important reasons has been the contribution of Oakland’s rookie class.

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The Raiders had three first-round draft picks last spring, so that aspect can’t be overlooked. Their first selection, edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, has been up and down, and Oakland’s third first-rounder, safety Johnathan Abram, has been out for the season with a shoulder injury since Week 1.

One day, both will be solid players. But the Raiders have several other first-year contributors who have more than picked up the slack.

Josh Jacobs has been a rookie godsend for the 6-4 Oakland Raiders. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Josh Jacobs has been a rookie godsend for the 6-4 Oakland Raiders. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Running back Josh Jacobs has touched the ball 208 times as a rookie, which is more than he had in his 2017 and 2018 seasons at Alabama combined. Yet he’s no worse for the wear, ranking sixth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 1,067 — behind only Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb and Michael Thomas.

Jacobs also has seven touchdowns, the most on the team this season and two more than any other NFL rookie. He has become one of the leading Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates.

The Raiders also have a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate suddenly, and he wasn’t taken anywhere close to Round 1. Fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby has been an absolute find from Day 3 of the draft, earning four of his 6.5 sacks on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Those four sacks knocked the Bengals back a whopping 42 yards, and he added a forced fumble for good measure.

Crosby became only the fourth rookie to rack up four or more sacks in a game since the statistic became official in 1982. That list also includes Brian Orakpo, Cornelius Bennett and Leslie O'Neal — pretty decent company, and all three of those other players were first-round picks. Crosby couldn’t even crack the top 100 selections after declaring early from Eastern Michigan, where he had 18.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles in his final two seasons combined.

Lest you think he’s merely compiling stats against the worst team in the NFL, consider this: Crosby slowly has been working himself into the rotation after suffering a broken hand in training camp. His snaps gradually increased in the first few games, and since earning his first start against the Chicago Bears in London in Week 5, Crosby has logged all of his snaps, eight tackles for loss, 10 QB hits and two forced fumbles.

How the Raiders put this strong group together

General manager Mike Mayock deserves a lot of praise for this rookie crop he assembled. Gruden might be the one pulling the free-agent strings, we’ve been led to believe, but the draft is Mayock’s baby. The Raiders coached at the Senior Bowl in February and handpicked several of their current rookies — Abram, CB Isaiah Johnson, TE Foster Moreau, WR Hunter Renfrow, and undrafted rookies FB Alec Ingold and WR Keelan Doss — from the game.

If the Raiders can have this much success with their 2020 selections, they might be in line for an even bigger jump next season. Let’s not forget that they currently own two first-rounders (both sitting in the top 20 picks today) and three third-rounders in the draft that’s being held in their future hometown of Las Vegas.

Like any rookie class, the Raiders still have a few incomplete answers. 

Ferrell has come on recently after a slow start but remains a developing player as he’s being force-fed starter’s reps. We won’t see Abram again until 2020, even though he was projected to be a starter. Johnson has played sparingly in only two games; he broke up a key third-down pass on Sunday, helping force a punt with the Raiders down 7-0 in the second quarter.

Foster Moreau has been part of the Raiders' strong rookie class of contributors. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
Foster Moreau has been part of the Raiders' strong rookie class of contributors. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

On the Raiders’ next offensive possession, they drove 91 yards for a touchdown with QB Derek Carr finding Moreau, the team’s No. 2 tight end behind breakout performer Darren Waller. Moreau, however, leads all rookie tight ends in TD receptions (four) — the same number as first-rounders T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant combined.

And like Jacobs, Moreau’s production on a game-by-game basis has exceeded the work he did in college. In 30 games at LSU, Moreau caught only 52 passes with six TDs. That’s why scouting traits — and not box scores — is crucial in evaluating college talent.

Throw in third-round CB Trayvon Mullen, who has been developing nicely as a starter, and Renfrow, the team’s slot receiver who is fourth among all rookies in receptions with 33, and you’ve got a heck of a rookie crop right there.

Knock on wood if you’re with me.

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