After a horrible 2017 season, many had hopes that things would turn around for the Oakland Raiders in 2018 with the hire of Jon Gruden. The Raiders were only a year removed from a 12 win season and were seen as a team with a young and talented core.
Then, Khalil Mack was traded, Gruden’s offense took longer than expected to get going and before we knew it, the topic of conversation was draft positioning rather than playoff seeding.
But despite the fact that 2018 ended up being a season that was almost more painful than 2017, there were some bright spots worth talking about.
For the second straight year. Rodney Hudson proved himself to be untouched by Raiders dysfunction. As almost everyone on the team around him struggled, Hudson held his own and remained one of the best centers in the entire league in both 2017 and 2018.
The former Chief continues to prove his worth and make an argument for being one of the best free agents to ever join the Silver and Black. He has excelled no matter the scheme or the coach and we can only assume he will continue to do so for years to come.
MAURICE HURST, PJ HALL AND ARDEN KEY
There were high expectations for this trio of rookies after all three showed flashes in training camp and the preseason. But perhaps a big part of the issue was the overhyped expectations rather than their in season performances.
Of the three, only Hurst was a guy seen as a day one, big time impact player before the draft. And while Hurst wasn’t exactly a game changer for the Raiders, he definitely showed flashes of that ability during the season. With better players around him and another year in Paul Guenther’s scheme, I think Hurst will break out and fully live up to expectations sooner rather than later.
Hall is a guy who was originally seen as a project who might not be able to contribute much in his rookie year. But then he had a big preseason and people started to think he would be an impact player right away. That never came to fruition, but much like Hurst, Hall had a number of moments this season where he showed that he’s more than capable of playing well at this level. With some more time to develop, I really think there’s a chance that Hall ends up surpassing Hurst as the best interior defender on the Raiders defensive line.
And then there’s Arden Key, perhaps the biggest victim of training camp hype. He was expected to come in as a rotational pass rusher but after the trade of Khalil Mack and the release of Bruce Irvin, he found himself starting far earlier than anyone expected. That was both good and bad. It was good because he received a ton of reps and clearly improved during the season. But it was also bad because he wasn’t ready to be a starter and there were plenty of times that he was a liability for the defense
But at the end of the day, when you watch his season, you have to believe that if he can just learn to break down and wrap up, his sack and tackle for a loss numbers would have been very impressive in his rookie season. Key has shown an ability to accomplish the most difficult part of being an edge rusher: Getting into the backfield. He did it with an exciting level of frequency his rookie year. The problem is, he often whiffed on the tackle once he got into the backfield. That, however, seems like something that can be fixed and if so, Key could still be the beast we hoped he would be.
THE GROWTH OF GRUDEN
Perhaps the biggest reason for positivity we saw from the Raiders this season came from the sidelines.
The hope was that Gruden would come back to the sideline and take the NFL by storm with an offense that was a decade in the making.
The fear was that Gruden would come back to the sideline and show that the game had passed him by as he sat in the booth calling Monday Night Football games.
At first, it looked like the biggest fear had come true. Gruden’s offense was putting up yards but not points and things looked dire. But as the season progressed, and players became more acclimated to his offense, Gruden also became more acclimated to the 2018 NFL. His playcalling improved and the offense showed real signs of life later in the year. It still has a long way to go, but the fact that Gruden’s playcalling improved is a major reason for hope. The fact is, the Raiders aren’t going to move on from Gruden any time soon so the biggest and best hope for their success is him improving.
GAREON CONLEY AND KARL JOSEPH
Early in the season, the Raiders looked prepared to be the worst secondary in the NFL yet again. But once the coaching staff decided to start letting some of their younger players on the field, Gareon Conley and Karl Joseph in particular, things changed.
Conley has looked like a legitimate number one corner who could be a lock down starter for the Raiders for years to come. Meanwhile, Joseph went from a guy that seemed destined to be traded to a guy who looks like a key to the entire defense. These two ended up being the best players on the Raiders defense in the latter parts of the season and are a big reason to think positively moving forward.
It wasn’t who we thought it would be and it didn’t happen the way we thought it would happen, but on their third try, the Raiders look like they’ve found their kicker of the future.
After signing Eddy Pineiro as an undrafted free agent, many assumed the future was in the strong legged kicker out of Florida. But an injury landed him on the injured reserve list for the year. Not long after, the Raiders tried another rookie kicker, Matt McCraine, but that experiment didn’t last long.
And just when things were looking dire at the kicking position, Daniel Carlson appeared and set the franchise record for field goal percentage in a season, a record formerly held by Sebastian Janikowski. And now, the Raiders appear to have an answer for one of their biggest holes on special teams.