The Raiders cemented their status as one of the NFL’s great dynasties with their victory in Super Bowl XVIII, the franchise’s third championship in less than a decade. Perennial contenders between the late-1960’s and mid-1980’s, they continued to remain competitive up through the 2002 season, which culminated in a Super Bowl loss. That was the end of the ride, however. The Raiders would not make another playoff appearance in owner Al Davis’ lifetime; he died in 2011. They’ve only enjoyed the postseason twice since. Once one of the legendary franchises, too often over the past two decades, they’ve been relegated to a punchline.
So far, recent years have seen more of the same. Mark Davis, Al’s son, lured glory years head coach Jon Gruden away from the broadcast booth with a whopping 10-year, $100 million contract. Gruden mustered just a 22-31 record before resigning five games into the 2021 season after racist and offensive emails emerged. Davis then tabbed longtime New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but poor culture and player discontent marred McDaniels’ brief tenure, much as it did in his earlier head coaching stint in Denver.
The Raiders find themselves in a state of upheaval. That’s where they’ve spent the last 20 years.
Owner: Mark Davis
General Manager: Champ Kelly (interim)
Head Coach: Antonio Pierce (interim)
Al Davis not only owned the team, he also served as head coach from 1963 to 1965 and as the de facto general manager from 1966 until his death. His passing left a power vacuum that the team has struggled to fill. Most recently, Gruden’s resignation prompted the team to fill both the general manager and head coach roles, but with the firing of McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler, both positions are open once again.
Interim general manager Champ Kelly boasts a fascinating and diverse resume. A former player, coach, and GM in the United Indoor Football League, he has scouting bona fides from working on the college and pro personnel side of the front office. Unusually, he holds a computer science degree and an MBA, suggesting an ability to understand and navigate the shifting world of analytics and the salary cap. He’s an intriguing candidate to stay beyond the interim tag.
Antonio Pierce began working in the NFL in 2022, so his pro experience is thin. Still, the team seems to have responded to his leadership, with victories over the New York Giants and Jets. It may be early in his career for Pierce to earn a permanent head coaching role, but he’s shown himself to be a fast riser.
The biggest concern for the future, perhaps, is Davis’ willingness to see a plan through. McDaniels and Ziegler got off to a very poor start, but were fired after just 25 games. If that were the exception, not the rule, we could excuse Davis his impatience. But Gruden is the only hire to coach 50 games. Former general manager Reggie McKenzie inherited a terrible situation, turned the team into a 2016 playoff group, then got demoted after a down 2017. The next coach and GM need a longer leash to turn things around.
Despite overall poor performance, the Raiders have some pieces on offense. Pro Football Focus ranked the offensive line tenth in the NFL in 2022, and it remains an effective unit. Few left tackles fit the prototype better than Kolton Miller, and he’s under contract through 2025 on a very reasonable deal. Star wideout Davante Adams is on pace for yet another 1,000-yard season, and free agent pickup Jakobi Meyers has contributed as a secondary option.
Lost among 2023’s tumult, the defense has improved from arguably the worst in the NFL last year to a respectable 13th in scoring defense this season. Edge rusher Maxx Crosby continues to harass quarterbacks regularly, and he’s signed long-term through 2026. Ziegler and McDaniels filled out much of the supporting cast with veterans—the Raiders opened the year with the fourth-oldest roster in the NFL—but some young players mix in, including 24-year-old safety Tre’Von Moehrig and rookie seventh-overall pick Tyree Wilson.
Needs abound in Sin City. First, the team must decide on a general manager and head coach to set the direction for the future. Perhaps more importantly, Davis must refrain from interfering with that braintrust, giving them the time and resources to see through that vision.
The remainder of the season will serve as an audition for fourth-round rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell. While the Raiders have won two of his first three starts, O’Connell’s 4.41 Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt exceeds that of only two qualifying passers. Derek Carr, the team’s starter from 2014 through 2022, may have only been average, but that’s better than his replacement Jimmy Garoppolo, who has played much less efficiently separated from the friendly supporting cast in San Francisco. Most likely, O’Connell isn’t the QB of the future, but he’s worth taking a look at in this transitional period.
Beyond that, the Raiders could use help throughout the roster. The contracts of center Andre James, right guard Greg Van Roten, and right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor all expire after the season. Adams is still a great player but on the wrong side of 30, and the team could use more complementary receiving options. Running back Josh Jacobs hits free agency after the season. The defense has shown improvement this year but could use an injection of youth at every level.
The Raiders rank in the top 10 in projected cap space for 2024, about $67 million per Over the Cap. They’ll need to make some key decisions as to whether to re-sign older veterans such as Van Roten, Eluemunor, cornerback Marcus Peters, and defensive linemen John Jenkins and Bilal Nichols.
At 5-5, the Raiders don’t figure to be in play for a plum quarterback draft prize like Caleb Williams or Drake Maye. They have the typical array of draft selections, plus two extra seventh-round picks.
Prognosis and Plan
Davis must first take a look in the mirror and consider his own mistakes and what he needs to do moving forward. After that, he must hire the right general manager and head coach tandem, perhaps even Kelly and Pierce. Whoever Davis hires, he must give them enough time and autonomy to build a contender. That will likely involve some short term pain, as the team replaces solid veterans with cheaper, younger players better positioned to contribute in the future. It may even involve trading Adams or other older players who still have value.
The team should use the rest of 2023 to evaluate O’Connell closely. At 25, he’s an older prospect, and few fourth-round picks make it as starting quarterbacks, but he’s their best option. They also need to do their homework on this draft’s quarterbacks. They’ll be out of the Williams / Maye sweepstakes, but there are plenty of intriguing options available later on.
If they don’t love a quarterback with their first selection, this looks like a draft where the Raiders should trade back. They need to improve in a lot of areas, but even in areas of relative strength, they could stand to get younger. With so many roster holes, they have the freedom to choose the best players available. It’s been too long since a draft like 2014, where they netted six multi-year starters, including Carr and star edge rusher Khalil Mack. The draft looms large for jumpstarting the rebuild—but first, Davis must decide who will actually be making the selections in April.