August 2, 2021

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Las Vegas Raiders training camp questions: Whither…

5 min read
Las Vegas Raiders training camp questions: Whither...

The Las Vegas Raiders open 2020 NFL training camp on July 28 at the Intermountain Healthcare Performance Center in Henderson, Nevada. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines:

Is this really, truly, finally the make-or-break year for quarterback Derek Carr?

Yes, of course it is. Unless it’s not. Look, while it seems as though everyone gets a mulligan with the lack of a true offseason, Carr, in a weird way, actually benefited from the shutdown. Consider: For the first time in his seven-year career, Carr will play in the same system for the third straight season. And he’s coming off career highs in passing yards (4,054) and completion percentage (70.4). With more weapons around him in first-round pick Henry Ruggs III, matchup nightmare tight end Darren Waller, bell-cow back Josh Jacobs and a stout offensive line, another step forward is expected.

Plus, coach Jon Gruden has yet to get his hands on Marcus Mariota, whose skill set more closely resembles what Gruden wants to do on offense. Then there’s the contract situation. All the guaranteed money on the five-year, $125 million extension Carr signed in June 2017 is paid out. Yes, he carries a $21.5 million cap number this season and will earn $19 million, but should the Raiders choose to cut him next season, it would be only a $2.5 cap hit to the team. Look at it this way — Mariota is guaranteed $7.5 million this season, while Carr is guaranteed $2.9 million. Yet this is still Carr’s team. No question. A slow start, though, coupled with Mariota picking up the offense quickly, would move the needle. Weird times.

Is Ruggs the yin to Antonio Brown’s yang when it comes to the Raiders’ once-vaunted vertical game?

And then some. An argument can, and has, been made that Brown did more to blow up the Raiders’ offense last season than any defense it faced. (Pssst, the offense was built around Brown’s prodigious talents and, oh yeah, he never played a down for the Raiders.) So when it comes to the burner that is Ruggs (he ran a 4.27-second 40 at the combine), he is more Cliff Branch than AB. And that’s a good thing. Raiders owner Mark Davis, who was best friends with the late Branch, told general manager Mike Mayock that his late father, Al Davis, was smiling at the unconventional-yet-oh-so-fitting selection of Ruggs, who is the deep threat the Raiders need to clear out underneath routes for the likes of Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow and Waller.

Ruggs, drafted 12th overall and the first wideout taken, had six catches on go routes in 2019 at Alabama, with three of them going for scores. He also caught four slants, taking three of them to the house, while averaging 31.8 yards after the catch on those plays. Indeed, the pieces are there. It’s up to Carr to throw the ball deep then, right? After all, in throwing the third-most passes to RBs and TEs last season at 275, Carr averaged a league-low 6.2 yards per air attempt.

Can Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell elevate the Raiders’ pass-rush and take the defense to the next level?

After they combined for 14.5 sacks as rookies, the Raiders seem to think their self-described Salt-N-Pepa connection can indeed, ahem, push it on the edge to be foundational franchise pieces. Or did you not notice Las Vegas passing on drafting another edge rusher? Sure, the Raiders added Carl Nassib in free agency and an interior pass-rusher in Maliek Collins. But Crosby, whose 10 sacks were the second most by a rookie in team history (behind the 10.5 sacks Greg Townsend had in 1983), is becoming a folk hero in the streets of Silver and Blackdom.

Meanwhile, Ferrell might not have lived up to his lofty draft standing as the surprising No. 4 overall pick, but he played out of position for most of the year and lost upward of 15 pounds due to what he said was food poisoning in London. After playing last year at a listed 262 pounds, Ferrell says he has put on 13 pounds of muscle to get up to an imposing 275. A reimagined and, hopefully for the Raiders, improved secondary will also help Crosby and Ferrell in their pursuit of opposing passers, giving them that extra second or so they need to close the deal. Otherwise, fans will continue to yearn for Khalil Mack.

Will the glitz and glamour of Sin City be a distraction or a distinct home field advantage for such a young and impressionable group?

Paging pastor Randall Cunningham. Pastor Cunningham to the Silver and Black courtesy phone in the (insert casino name here) lobby. The floor is yours.

“I have a responsibility to look after these guys in this town,” Cunningham, the former longtime NFL quarterback-turned-pastor who has called Las Vegas home since the late 1990s, told last week when revealing he had been hired by the Raiders as team chaplain. “And I accept that responsibility.”

So there. It wasn’t that long ago that anyone within ear shot was told the NFL would never go to Las Vegas, what with the gambling aspect. The party lifestyle? Ever heard of Bourbon Street the night before a New Orleans Saints game? Sure, Las Vegas is a different animal … in normal times. But in the throes of a global pandemic? Who knows what vices will be readily available. Bummer for the Raiders is that they get this brand-spanking-new state-of-the-art playground in the desert and no one is sure yet if fans will be allowed in for games. There had been a concern early in the process that the distinct home field advantage the Raiders enjoyed in Oakland might dissipate in the bells and whistles of a new market. Sans fans, every game becomes a neutral-site game, right? At least the Raiders will have all they need to succeed when it comes to facilities.

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