Raiders' rookies set foundation for new era in Las Vegas

The second of the Raiders' three first-round picks, Josh Jacobs immediately turned into a feature back, rushing for 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games played. Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- When it comes to ranking the Oakland Raiders' all-time draft classes, few compare to their class of 1968, which included Ken Stabler, Art Shell, George Atkinson and Marv Hubbard.

Or guys who came in 1977, such as Mike Davis, Mickey Marvin, Lester Hayes and Rod Martin. Or even in 2014, when Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson and Justin Ellis landed in Oakland.

You're talking about Hall of Famers, All-Pros and Pro Bowlers.

But when talking about making an immediate impact, perhaps no class of rookies was as impactful as quickly as the Class of 2019.

"I think they're doing a great job with the Raiders," said Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid about coach Jon Gruden and first-year GM Mike Mayock. "They're building that thing back. That's great for the National Football League. It's also great for the AFC West, with the competition.”

So, for rookies to make such an impact means the roster must not have been too strong to begin with, right?

Well ...

Another way to look at it: The rookies have created a strong foundation for the franchise as it prepares for this summer's move to Las Vegas. Because, as defensive end Clelin Ferrell said, the Raiders are going to be a "presence in this league for many years to come.

"I feel like we showed, just through the draft and through the players that we brought in, our core is becoming very, very strong and we've got something special brewing here."

Consider: The Raiders' class led all NFL rookie classes in touchdowns (17), yards from scrimmage (2,289), rushing yards (1,167) and sacks (14.5).

"We had a big part, we had big roles, just like coaches wanted us to have," said cornerback Trayvon Mullen, whose first career interception came against Cincinnati Bengals rookie QB Ryan Finley. "So that was a big deal for us.

"My confidence is high. And [if] I practice and prepare well, then I'll be good, no matter what."

Yeah, a 1-5 flameout to close the season after a 6-4 start left a sour taste. But deft drafting by Mayock and Gruden and the contributions of those draftees and some undrafted rookies helped the Raiders improve from 4-12 in 2018 to 7-9 in 2019, and they remained alive for a postseason berth until Week 17.

"Yes, we made some strides from last year," Ferrell said, "but it still wasn't good enough for what we can do."

Injuries striking the Raiders' rookies especially hard had a little something to do with it.

"I don't know if they hit the wall, they just got hurt," Gruden said. "They were playing great. We’re proud of our rookies. It's a tough, tough task to walk in here and get this much playtime in your first year, but there might be something to that."

Indeed, every member of the of the Raiders' draft class who made the 53-man roster suffered some malady ...

  • Ferrell, the No. 4 pick of the draft who finished with 4.5 sacks, missed the Chicago game in London with an illness.

  • Josh Jacobs, a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns, missed three of Oakland's last four games with what the No. 24 overall pick said was a fractured right shoulder, suffered in Week 7.

  • Safety Johnathan Abram, drafted at No. 27 overall, was lost for the season with a torn rotator cuff suffered in the season opener.

  • Mullen, the second-rounder called the "brightest light of the whole thing" by Gruden, was carried off the field on a stretcher at the Chargers in Week 16.

  • Defensive end Maxx Crosby, a fourth-rounder who had 10 sacks -- a half-sack short of Greg Townsend's franchise rookie record -- broke his left hand in the preseason opener.

  • Cornerback Isaiah Johnson, also selected in the fourth round, began the season on injured reserve after suffering a facial fracture in the preseason opener.

  • Tight end Foster Moreau, the Raiders' third fourth-round selection, had five TD catches but was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in Week 14.

  • And fifth-round receiver Hunter Renfrow, who had 13 catches for 209 yards and two TDs in the final two games, missed three games with a broken rib.

Hey, at least undrafted rookies AJ Cole (46.0-yard punt average), Keelan Doss (11 catches for 133 yards), Alec Ingold (seven rushing first downs), Keisean Nixon (12 tackles, three kick returns for 63 yards) and offensive linemen Andre James and Lester Cotton Sr. stayed relatively healthy.

"The rookies, we really, we love the game," said Crosby, whose 10 sacks were more than probable NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa (9.0) and some guy named Khalil Mack (8.5). "We're continuing to get better and it's awesome to see the guys do well."

And, as Ferrell noted, his position group with youngsters and veterans in new roles as mentors helped Oakland improve from last in the league in sacks last year with 13 to 32 this season. The run defense improved from 30th to No. 8.

A highlight? Crosby and Ferrell began calling themselves Salt-N-Pepa, and the Oakland Coliseum D.J. played the influential rap group's "Push It" whenever one of them made a play.

"If I'm having a bad day, he keeps my spirits high," Ferrell said of Crosby. "If he's having a bad day, I keep his spirits high. Because we all know, at the end of the day we're in this thing together. And me and him, we're the future. So ..."

Ferrell's voice trailed off, but his message was clear. And it was echoed by an old Clemson teammate across the locker room.

"I think we have a great foundation, a great group of young guys, great group of old guys," Renfrow said. "But I think the rookie class, we really have bonded well together.

"As we go to Las Vegas next year, I think we, hopefully, we do something special."