The Oakland Raiders have persevered through countless injuries and one of the NFL's toughest first-half schedules on their way to a respectable 5-4 record, placing them right in the thick of both the AFC West and Wild Card playoff races.
Following coach Jon Gruden's bold moves from a year ago — trading away All-Pro edge-rusher Khalil Mack and the deep threat wideout, Amari Cooper — the Raiders had a lot to prove heading into their final season in Oakland. First on the docket for Gruden and GM Mike Mayock was landing NFL-ready talent with their trio of first-round draft picks.
Taking DE Clelin Ferrell (4th), RB Josh Jacobs (24th), and S Johnathan Abram (27th), seemed solid enough on draft day. There were questions regarding the decision to take the Clemson edge-rusher several slots higher than many draft "experts" had projected. Yet, Mayock and Gruden maintained that Ferrell was the type of player around whom they wished to build their team.
Aside from the exciting injection of fresh talent, questions still lingered in regards to how QB Derek Carr would fare in his second year under Gruden's offensive system, as well as what the ultimate fallout would be following the hilariously short Antonio Brown tenure with the Silver and Black.
The offensive line was retooled this past offseason with the additions of former-Patriot offensive tackle Trent Brown and the controversial ex-retiree, G Richie Incognito – both of whom joined perennial Pro-Bowlers C Rodney Hudson and G Gabe Jackson, along with second-year LT Kolton Miller.
Beast Mode had moved on and Alabama's sensational rookie running back Josh Jacobs was handed the keys to the backfield, as coach Gruden would look to the youngster to shoulder the "every down back" load.
The receiver corps was obviously dealt an astonishing blow when AB was released, without ever having played a regular season snap for the Raiders, putting pressure on newcomers Tyrell Williams (ex-Charger) and rookie Hunter Renfrow (Clemson) as well as the tight end trio: Darren Waller, rookie Foster Moreau (LSU), and Derek Carrier.
On the defensive side of the ball, coordinator Paul Guenther was given a group that gave up a league-worst 467 points in 2018. However, there were several bright spots leading into the 2019 campaign.
Former first-round picks CB Gareon Conley and S Karl Joseph were fixtures at their respective positions in the defensive backfield. Second-year defensive linemen DE Arden Key and DTs Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall had a season of NFL experience under their belts and were ready to take the next step in their careers. And finally, the rookie crop was a veritable gold mine of potential plug-and-play studs: DE Ferrell, S Abram, CB Trayvon Mullen, DE Maxx Crosby, and CB Isaiah Johnson.
Loaded with young, unproven talent the Raiders were. However, the challenge set before coach Gruden and his staff was to skillfully integrate these prospects in where they would most likely add value to the whole.
Ten weeks into the 2019 NFL season, the questions surrounding this Oakland team seem to have been answered and a measure of success achieved. Their 5-4 record places them a half game behind the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs (6-4) and tied for the final Wild Card spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts.
Offensively, the Raiders are a throwback "run first" squad. RB Jacobs has already passed Hall of Famer Marcus Allen's team record for most rushing yards in his rookie season with 811. As a team, Oakland ranks eighth in the league with 129.9 yards per game on the ground, while Jacobs' rounds out the NFL's top-5 with 90.1 rushing yards per game.
Carr is having his most efficient season as a passer in his career. The former-Fresno State star ranks second in completion percentage (70.8%) and ninth in QBR (61.3), to go along with 14 touchdown passes versus just four interceptions. Thanks to his stellar offensive line, Derek has only taken 12 sacks on the year, good for third-fewest in the NFL.
This is a perfect time to segue into what the O-line has accomplished thus far. Before getting into their triumphs, the lineman and their coach – former Raider head coach Tom Cable – must be given their props for juggling injuries to RT Trent Brown, C Rodney Hudson, and RG Gabe Jackson as well as LG Richie Incognito's two-game suspension. As mentioned earlier, this unit is responsible for providing elite-level protection for their quarterback, while clearing the way for slashing and gashing runs made by their future-star running back, Jacobs.
As for the defense, well, this group seems to be hell-bent on doing just enough to keep the Raiders in games long enough for Carr and the offense to bail them out. Oakland's D currently ranks 26th in both total yards per game (381.7) and points allowed per game (26.7). What appears to be their saving grace is the fact that the Raiders are actually the ninth-least penalized defense in the league in terms of yards-penalized (502), and they boast a positive turnover differential of plus-2, good for 15th.
Ultimately, the Raiders have navigated the treacherous seas that were their first nine games. Their difficult overall schedule was a murder's row in the first half, with five of their first seven games being played against teams who currently sport winning records. Of those initial seven contests, Gruden and the Raiders had a stretch of five consecutive games played away from the confines of the Oakland Coliseum – their lone "home" game during that stretch having been played in London. Arguably, the Silver and Black lost to the teams against whom they were supposed to lose. Conversely, their wins at Indianapolis (5-4), in London vs. Chicago (4-5), and at home against Detroit (3-5-1) and the LA Chargers (4-6) each represented games which easily could have been lost.
The road ahead gets much easier for the Silver and Black. With seven games remaining in the 2019 campaign, Oakland's remaining opponents have a combined record of 24-42. That includes the bottom-feeding Cincinnati Bengals (0-9), New York Jets (2-7), and Denver Broncos (3-6). Perhaps most importantly, the Raiders have another opportunity to take out the division-leading Chiefs, should the West-rivals remain neck-and-neck through their December 1st rematch at Arrowhead Stadium.
The bottom line here is this: The Raiders have a real shot at making the playoffs in their farewell (to Oakland) season. Considering the fact that the A's were one-and-done in postseason play and Golden State took their dwindling talents to the Chase Center in San Francisco, the East Bay is in need of a good Raider run at a playoff appearance.