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NFL Draft

Gruden-Mayock Experiment Being Tested By Baffling Raiders Offseason

  • The Draft Network
  • March 22, 2021
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Most teams use free agency to build their offensive lines. The Las Vegas Raiders are using it to tear theirs down.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. The Raiders had to become cap compliant, and their expensive offensive line offered good options to getting there. They traded away their right tackle in Trent Brown—an expected move that returned a 2022 fifth-round pick—and their star center, Rodney Hudson—an unexpected move that returned a 2021 third-round pick, even after it was rumored the Raiders were releasing Hudson. They cut Richie Incognito just to bring him back, traded Gabe Jackson away, and signed Nick Martin to replace Hudson. 

It’s not that any particular move was that bad. A starting offensive line of Kolton Miller, Richie Incognito, Nick Martin, Denzelle Good/John Simpson, and a draft pick can get the job done, at a cheaper price and a younger average age. But after quarterback Derek Carr’s best season as a pro behind an offensive line staunch in pass protection and dominant in road-grading, it’s surprising to see head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock shake up the band. Good offensive line play is about continuity, and good Derek Carr play is all about pass protection—both of those are now in jeopardy.

As Vic Tafur of The Athletic detailed, this is the second sudden shift in direction in Gruden’s fourth offseason with the Raiders. On a legendary 10-year, $100 million contract and bestowed with roster control, Gruden was initially meant to take a star-powered roster of Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack to the playoffs. That plan quickly fell through, when Mack forced the issue of his rookie contract and was eventually traded to the Chicago Bears; the driving force behind the Amari Cooper trade is still undefined.

Once incumbent general manager Reggie McKenzie was shown the door in favor of Gruden’s handpicked GM in longtime NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, the Raiders went all-in on offense. They poured resources into the offensive line, signing Brown and Incognito, and hired Tom Cable as their offensive line coach to develop 2018 top-10 pick Kolton Miller. The offensive line became the strength of the team, but three of the five pieces (Miller, Hudson, Jackson) were holdovers from McKenzie’s tenure. At other positions, which required more movement, the Raiders have still struggled to find a foothold. 

Wide receiver needed a facelift; so the Gruden-Mayock pairing signed Nelson Agholor and Tyrell Williams; drafted Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, and Lynn Bowden; traded for Antonio Brown. Yet the Raiders’ top target-getters of 2020 were Agholor, tight end Darren Waller—a practice squad steal from 2018 that shocked the league in 2019—running back Josh Jacobs, and Day 3 wide receiver Hunter Renfrow.

As the offense got the money, the defense was left untreated. The few big-money signings on that side of the ball—EDGE Carl Nassib, LB Cory Littleton, LB Nick Kwiatowski, S Lamarcus Joyner—have all offered little impact. The accompanying early draft picks—EDGE Clelin Ferrell, S Johnathan Abram, CB Trayvon Mullen, CB Damon Arnette—are also struggling to find their footing. Who is the exciting young talent for the Raiders on that side of the football? 

When Mayock was hired at the end of 2018, I wrote about my concern for the Mayock-Gruden pairing as an unorthodox, all-in front office without the necessary power balance to succeed. To that point, the Gruden-led Raiders were a haphazard, rudderless team that seemed willing to jump at every possibility for roster improvement without much concern for scheme or culture fit, let alone resource management. Three offseasons later, and they seem much the same: disassembling the offensive line that spurred their offensive surge, switching coordinators in an effort to jump-start an idling defense, and praying that this year’s aggressive free agency approach—EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, WR John Brown, DT Quinton Jefferson, RB Kenyan Drake—is finally the one that pays off.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this is Mayock, a general manager without final roster control, without any experience in league front offices, and without a body of work besides two poor draft classes on which he may not have been pulling the trigger. Mayock is the first to say that the rookie classes need to be better—but does that, by proxy, mean he needs to be better? Or that the HC-GM dynamic needs more balance?

Too many NFL teams convince themselves that the way out is through, and in doing so, spend so many years going down the wrong road that the eventual rebuild takes just as long to execute. Smart owners know how to cut ties: quickly and prudently. 

The Raiders and Mark Davis aren’t afforded that option. They’ve tied themselves to Gruden for the foreseeable forever, and for the moment, Gruden is tied to Mayock. The decision-makers in Las Vegas may have improved the Raiders’ record, but it's tough to argue that they’ve improved the team as a whole—and their singular, inarguable success was just disassembled in one fell swoop. What remains is a roster with plenty of money and picks spent, but little talent in return and a potentially explosive collapse waiting far below the cliff edge on which they teeter.

The Gruden-Mayock pairing was a bold experiment, and the longer it goes on, the more it looks like a failed one.

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