Raiders rookies envision building dynasty after strong start to 2019


OAKLAND -- When Jon Gruden arrived back in Oakland, it was clear he didn't like what he saw.

Most of the players didn't fit what he wanted to do -- either from a culture or scheme perspective -- and so Year 1 of Gruden's second reign in silver and black turned into a Year 0 teardown. The losses piled up. Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper were traded away as Gruden angled for draft capital in order to craft the team in his image.

To build the next great era of Raiders football, Gruden believed, the building blocks must be acquired and put in place.

Many of those building blocks were acquired in April when the Raiders selected nine players in the 2019 NFL Draft.

There were first-round picks Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs and Johnathan Abram, yes. But there also was second-round pick Trayvon Mullen, fourth-round picks Maxx Crosby and Foster Moreau, fifth-round pick Hunter Renfrow and undrafted rookies Keelan Doss and Alec Ingold, who the Raiders later brought on board. 

Ferrell, the No. 4 overall pick, hasn't popped yet, but the confidence still is there that he can be a difference-maker on the defensive line. Abram injured his shoulder in Week 1 and will miss the entire season. Mullen didn't see a lot of snaps early on, but was given the starting spot after the Raiders traded Gareon Conley to the Houston Texans, and Mullen has been as-advertised. 

The defensive rookies are talented, but it's what's happened on offense that has to have Gruden beaming from ear-to-ear.

Jacobs has been a revelation at running back, breaking Marcus Allen's record for rushing yards by a Raiders rookie Sunday in a Week 9 win over the Lions. He has shown great vision, power, elusiveness and still has yet to showcase his ability as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

Moreau, who was thought of as a project tight end coming out of LSU, was thrust into a bigger role once the Raiders were forced to alter their offensive philosophy in the wake of Antonio Brown's unexpected departure. Moreau wasn't used a ton in the passing game in Baton Rouge, but it's clear that was due to a run-heavy offensive scheme and not his ability to be a weapon, as he has become a reliable target for quarterback Derek Carr.

Renfrow's college credentials are well-documented. A College Football Playoff National Championship Game hero for Clemson, Renfrow racked up clutch catch after clutch catch during his career in Death Valley. He won the slot receiver job in training camp, beating out veteran Ryan Grant. After a slow start to his NFL career, Renfrow has come on over the last two games, catching 10 balls for 142 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning, 9-yard touchdown in the Raiders' win over the Lions on Sunday. 

All told, Jacobs, Moreau and Renfrow accounted for all four of the Raiders' scores in the win over the Lions. This group of rookies came in with a clear goal, knowing they were going to be the ground floor of a Raiders rebuild, and they've worked hard to get the Silver and Black back on track right away.

"That's something that we've been priding ourselves on since we came in," Jacobs said of the rookie class. "We wanted to change the culture, start a dynasty here. We all came in and we made that agreement together. Seeing that we are all doing so good right now, it's working."

The Raiders became the first team since the Seahawks in 2015 to have rookies score all four touchdowns in a victory. Jacobs racked up 128 yards and two touchdowns. Renfrow caught six passes for 54 yards and a touchdown and Moreau's lone catch was a 3-yard scoring strike.

The offensive rookies have been grinding since Day 1, and they are starting to bear the fruits of their labor.

"Our rookie class takes a lot of pride, with Alec and Keelan, on the offensive side," Renfrow said. "All of us just trying to be our best and try to get this thing turned around. We feel like we are a good class and we have the chance to do that."

Gruden was heavily criticized for trading away two of his best players in Mack and Cooper. The Raiders still are looking for a way to replace the hole Mack left on the defensive line, one they hope Ferrell can help fill in time. Many questioned Gruden's ability to evaluate talent after spending so many years away from the game, but his rookie class has delivered so far and have the Raiders 4-4 and in the playoff hunt.

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Carr now has been a Raider for six seasons. He has had four head coaches and has seen different blueprints drawn up to get the Raiders going in the right direction. Each plan has been torn up. stuck in a shredder and discarded in favor of a different vision. But these rookies give Carr hope the Raiders now are on the right path.

"I talk about it all the time, you have to lay a foundation," Carr said Sunday. "We've laid one and jackhammered it out about 14 times since I've been here, right? This one I hope stays, that's for sure. But this foundation is pretty good, man.

"I've watched our rookies be able to play big roles. Not just packages of plays. They can play everything. Coach Gruden demands it of them and they pick it up. These guys don't make mental mistakes that many times. I can think of Josh Jacobs, just a few on one hand throughout this whole season. As a running back in the NFL that's crazy, that doesn't happen. Usually, every time it's a pass play they take those rookie running backs out because they don't know what they are doing. You see a guy like Foster Moreau run his route precisely, be where I need him to be and in the timing I need him to be there for a touchdown.

"You see Hunter Renfrow on the scramble drill do what coaches tell him to do. If you get a group of guys that will listen to their coaches and bust their tails at practice, which they do, this is the fruits of what can happen."

The foundation is being laid, with Jacobs, Moreau and Renfrow being key building blocks for an offensive future that should excite those in silver and black.

As Sunday's performance showed, these rookies have a goal in mind. Greatness for themselves and the Raiders. A plan that might just be ahead of schedule.

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