Barber: Raiders’ rookie class is repairing Jon Gruden’s reputation
ALAMEDA - I will now write the five most painful words in the lexicon of the sports columnist: I was wrong about something.
I’m just not entirely sure what I was wrong about. I began the year with two related opinions. One was that Jon Gruden is in total control of the Raiders’ roster and personnel decisions. The other was that Jon Gruden is not very good at making roster and personnel decisions.
I had good reason to believe those things. Gruden has always been considered an able practitioner of football Xs and Os, but he has never had a great track record as a talent evaluator. It’s safe to say he made more bad moves than good ones when he ran the Buccaneers from 2002 to 2008.
Gruden drafted defensive end Gaines Adams with the fourth overall pick in 2007, plucked running back Cadillac Williams fifth overall in 2005, selected wide receiver Michael Clayton fifteenth overall in 2004. He overvalued all of them. He won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson at quarterback in his first season in Tampa Bay, a notable achievement, but never found a suitable replacement during his years there. And in his first year back in Oakland, Gruden signed oldies like Derrick Johnson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and traded for Martavis Bryant while shipping out the revered Khalil Mack.
As for Mayock, whom the Raiders hired on the last day of 2018, it was simply hard to believe that a first-time NFL general manager would hold much sway over a head coach who was making $10 million per year.
But if both of those things are true — if Gruden is bad at roster management, and Mayock is strictly a junior partner — how do we explain the Raiders’ celebrated 2019 rookie class? Because for the most part, it is looking very good, with a chance to be great.
And that’s without much production from its two of its first three members. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell, the No. 4 overall selection, has been solid in some ways. He had a 2½-sack game against the Chargers in Week 10. Mostly, though, the Clemson product has failed to stand out. He’s the 2019 Raiders version of the 49ers’ Solomon Thomas in 2017.
Meanwhile, safety Johnathan Abram, a lower-first-round draft choice, tore his rotator cuff in the first game of the season and was lost for the year.
Beyond that, the Class of ’19 has been golden. Running back Josh Jacobs (first round, No. 24 overall) is a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year; he’s currently fourth in the NFL with 923 rushing yards. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen (second round) has assumed a starting position and held his own. Defensive end Maxx Crosby (fourth round) has been an absolute revelation, especially on Sunday when he terrorized the Bengals with four sacks. Tight end Foster Moreau (fourth round) has four touchdowns and an 80-percent catch rate. Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow (fifth round) has 250 receiving yards over the past four games.
If Abrams can make an impact next season… if Ferrell can develop into more of a finisher … and if cornerback Isaiah Johnson (fourth round) can find a role as he returns from a head injury as the team believes he can, this could go down as one of the finest draft classes in Raiders history.