Is this Derek Carr's final chance with the Raiders?
As the Raiders prepare for their first season in Las Vegas - the third of this Jon Gruden era - they are faced with two vexing questions: Who is the real Derek Carr, and is this his last opportunity to prove himself? This might be the year they finally get the answers.
Carr's career once seemed full of promise. He had a rough year as a rookie in 2014 but led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives the next season. He then went 12-3 as a starter in 2016 - leading the Raiders to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 - before a broken leg ended his season and kept him from playing in a wild-card game loss to the Texans. That offseason, the Raiders rewarded him with a contract extension worth $25 million in average annual value - the richest in league history at the time.
The Raiders failed to post a winning record in three subsequent seasons and revamped pretty much everything around Carr. Gruden replaced Jack del Rio as head coach, Mike Mayock was brought on as general manager, and the roster has been completely overhauled. Stars like Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper were traded away for draft capital, and Antonio Brown proved to be too incorrigible to even play a down before being released. Carr is one of just four Raiders from 2016 still with the team.
Last season ended with five losses in six games after a 6-4 start, and Carr looked like a potential roster casualty. The Raiders were said to be hot and heavy for Tom Brady, who ultimately signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then, after the first wave of free agency, the Raiders threw $7.5 million in full guarantees at backup Marcus Mariota, who was last seen losing his job to Ryan Tannehill six games into the 2019 campaign.
Of course, it's important to have a capable backup in today's NFL. It's also hard not to notice that Carr has two years remaining on his contract after 2020, but he's not guaranteed another dime. If the Raiders were to release him after this season, only $2.5 million in dead money would apply to next year's cap.
So where does this leave Carr? That depends. While he's one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks, he's also among its least aggressive.
"There's a statistical case to be made that Carr is the most underrated quarterback," wrote The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia, with a nod toward the positive side of the ledger.
Carr ranked sixth last year in DYAR and eighth in QB DVOA, per Football Outsiders. He also ranked ninth in wins above replacement, according to PFF's Anthony Treash, who also noted Carr has the league's third-lowest incompletion rate due to a QB's error (overthrow, underthrow, missing a target, etc.) since 2016. Carr's completion percentage above expectation last year ranked seventh while working with a young and unheralded receiving crew. His primary targets last year were tight end Darren Waller - who caught 90 passes after having just 18 receptions during his previous three NFL seasons combined - along with wideouts Hunter Renfrow, Tyrell Williams, and Zay Jones.
"I'm going to be honest with you," Carr told reporters at the start of training camp, "I'm tired of being disrespected." But there's plenty of data on the negative side of Carr's balance sheet, too.
Carr averaged just 4.9 air yards per completion in 2019, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, ahead of only Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Teddy Bridgewater, and Drew Lock - none of whom were full-time starters. Carr's 6.9 average intended air yards also ranked dead last among full-time starters, and he ranked second-lowest in aggressiveness, an NFL Next Gen Stats metric that tracks how frequently quarterbacks throw into tight coverage. He also had the highest check-down rate (11.1%) of any QB in the league, per PFF's Sam Monson.
At the end of last season, Gruden indicated he wanted Carr to take more chances.
"I’m getting old now. I wanna let it fly," Gruden told reporters last December. "I want big plays. I want excitement. These bubble screens and check-downs only go so far with me. I want to be aggressive and I want to try to make some big plays. Especially if you’ve got the offensive line and supporting cast to back it up."
This offseason, however, the Raiders made an effort to provide Carr with a better supporting cast. They took Alabama wideout Henry Ruggs III with the 12th overall pick; Ruggs ran the 40-yard dash at the combine in a blazing 4.27 seconds - the kind of field-stretching speed that ought to help Carr do something other than check it down. They then used back-to-back third-round selections on wideouts Lynn Bowden Jr., and Bryan Edwards. They also added tight end Jason Witten and receiver Nelson Agholor in free agency.
The Raiders return the entirety of their offensive line from 2019 - a group that ranked fifth in ESPN's pass-block win rate and sixth in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards, which measures run blocking. Fantasy Points' Graham Barfield ranks Vegas' O-line as the NFL's fourth-best unit.
The early returns seem great, with Carr telling The Associated Press' Josh Dubow last week that the offense's "opportunities are limitless." The proof will only come once there's an opponent to face in a meaningful game, of course. "When things are going well, you can see the ability Carr has," a defensive coordinator told The Athletic's Mike Sando, "but he is a dude who when he gets hit, his whole game changes." What does that mean for Carr and his future? The Raiders will know soon enough.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.
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