The Las Vegas Raiders are in first place in the AFC West. Technically, they are tied with the Broncos. Yes, it has only been two games. The Chiefs are better. Perhaps the Broncos and Chargers as well. And yes, the Raiders have one of the ten most difficult remaining schedules, but the Raiders have already faced a demanding schedule. Unlike Denver, who played the Giants and Jaguars to get to 2-0, the Raiders hosted the Ravens and then traveled to Pittsburgh on a short week after an overtime Monday night game—winning both games as decided underdogs.
The season is in its infancy, but these are undisputed facts. The most impressive aspect of their early success is that the Raiders have achieved this success despite themselves. The Gruden Administration (When you get a ten-year 100 million dollar fully guaranteed contract, you are referred to as an administration) has made ill-advised trades and misjudged talent.
What follows is a look at the competent product on the field despite the inept front office and an analysis of how stable the Raiders’ early success is from a betting perspective.
The Front Office
The Raiders front office and ownership is a dumpster fire. The Gruden contract is horrendous, ten years 100 million guaranteed. Gruden immediately began making a series of highly questionable trades, and then, to compound the problem, wasting the assets they received from those trades. Mayock has not been involved in all of the horrific decisions, but his track presence has not improved the Raiders’ decision-making.
Let’s start with the trade of Amari Cooper. The Cowboys gave the Raiders their 2019 first-round pick for Cooper. That pick landed at 27, and the Raiders drafted Johnathon Abram. Abram is a hybrid linebacker/safety. Cooper is perhaps the most underrated receiver in the league. Widely regarded as one of the best route runners, he is a quarterback’s dream. He is an All-Pro. Here are his career stats:
Johnathon Abram, whom the Raiders drafted with the pick from Dallas, is a player in the NFL. Here are his stats:
This trade is an unmitigated disaster for the Raiders. But it gets even worse.
The Raiders traded All-Pro Linebacker Kahlil Mack to the Chicago Bears. At its core, the trade was Mack and a second-round pick to the Bears, in exchange for two firsts and a third from the Bears. Both sides threw in some spare change picks. The Bears acquired Mack and drafted Cole Kmet. The Raiders drafted Josh Jacobs and Bryan Edwards.
Mack has been every bit as dominant in Chicago as he was with the Raiders. Cole Kmet has been a productive tight end for the Bears, which PFF ranks as the 32 best tight end. With their first pick from the Bears, the Raiders drafted running back Josh Jacobs.
Forget for a second that it is a horrible idea to draft running backs in the first round. Forget that despite being the first running back selected in the 2019 draft, Jacobs rates out as the seventh-best back from that class. Trailing, among five others, far behind fourth-round pick Tony Pollard.
Sitting on the board at that moment was a wide receiver, Marquise Brown. A position of need and a player ranked in the top ten this season. This Marquise Brown:
Defensive end Montez Sweat was also sitting on the board at that time. A player at a position of need that currently ranks in the top ten this season.
The Raiders have traded away marquee talent, then squandered the assets they received in return. The Gruden Administration is not a good judge of talent.
The Field Office
While Gruden may be a disaster in the front office, he can coach. We have always known this to be true. When he left Oakland for Tampa Bay, he took over a stacked Dungy roster and promptly beat his former roster (Oakland) in the Super Bowl. With Brad Johnson at quarterback. Gruden can coach.
Although the Raiders have been roundly and properly mocked for their terrible personnel decisions since Gruden took over, the team has been underrated on the field. Last season they graded out as a league-average team with both the offense and defense ranking just above and below the league median. With such ratings, you expect the team to be .500.
This year they are experiencing a positive bump in expectations because Derek Carr is not simply playing well. He is playing at an MVP level through two games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. My model grades Carr as the 12th best quarterback. Pro Football Focus ranks Carr as the ninth-best quarterback.
Carr has an adjusted completion percentage of 80%, on a crazy volume of 101 attempts through two games. He has an ADOT of 9.5 and a touchdown to interception ratio of 4 to 1. His receivers have dropped 9% of his passes. He has only one legitimate target in the passing game, Waller. Still, his team is 2-0. And he is the reason why.
If you remain skeptical, go through the shortlist of MVP candidates in your head. Brady has a lock on the top spot right now. Numbers two through five on your list will undoubtedly include some ordered combination of Murray, Stafford, Wilson, and Carr. If not, then perhaps you mean something else when you say MVP.
Imagine, and I am sure Raider fans have, how prolific the Raiders’ offense would be if the team kept Amari Cooper to pair with Waller. Imagine if the team had drafted Marquise Brown to play the slot or Montez Sweat at the end. In the first instance, the Raiders would have Carr, Cooper, Waller, and Brown. The three receiving threats fit perfectly together and can attack all three levels of a defense simultaneously.
Backing the Raiders
With Carr at quarterback, Gruden as the coach, and Waller at tight end, the Raiders have more than enough to exceed expectations in the market. The model saw a weak valuation and pounced on the Raiders +6 and on the moneyline against Pittsburgh last week. This week the Dolphins come to Vegas. The Dolphins have produced 17 points of offense through eight quarters. Jacoby Brissett will be starting for the Dolphins.
The line movement has been unusual. Driving the move was the Dolphins’ poor performance, the Raiders upset in Pittsburgh, Tua’s injury, and speculation around Carr’s injury. Carr is a go this weekend.
The Dolphins received a ton of the early action in this game, especially from smart money. Those bettors moved in at +5.5. They pressed the line down across 4 to -3.5. Then they bought the Raiders back at -3.5. They are sitting with a middle of 4.
This line is too mature for the model to suggest action this week. If anything, it would consider a position on the over. Nevertheless, the Raiders are going to be live dogs many times moving forward this season.