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Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden talks to quarterback Derek Carr (4) before a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 15, 2019, in Oakland, California. (Jason O. Watson/Getty Images/TNS)

On the verge of another NFL season the Raiders are once again not the best team in the AFC West, but in a change for a franchise that has one winning season to show for the past 17 years, the Raiders are the division’s most interesting team.

While their move to Las Vegas commands much attention, it’s what the Raiders might do on the field that will keep TV viewers from nodding off. (That is, if the coronavirus pandemic allows for an NFL season).

Two big questions drive the overarching plot: 1) Is coach Jon Gruden’s rebuilding program ready to take flight in its third season? 2) Will quarterback Derek Carr, 29, make good on his much-improved circumstances?

With both questions, there’s a case to be made either way.

Start with Carr, who came to the Raiders in 2014 as the fifth quarterback drafted that year. Since earning the job as a rookie, the Fresno State alum has started 94 of the team’s 96 games plus the only playoff contest. His 90.7 career passer rating is average. For the support they’ve provided Carr, give franchise leaders, on balance, a D-plus or C-minus.

In Carr’s starts, the Raiders are 39-55.

Who gets the blame for the five losing records and .414 win rate in the six years? Always start with ownership. The late Al Davis, a Hall of Famer who built Raiders teams that won three Super Bowls between 1976 and 1984, didn’t age well on the job, which he held until his death in October 2011. Son Mark Davis, the successor, went through predictable growing pains, and his first general manager, Reggie McKenzie, may have peaked in his third of six drafts when he took Khalil Mack and Carr with the fifth and 36th picks.

From the start Carr was an upgrade on several of the quarterbacks who’d ridden the Raiders carousel the previous decade-plus. He is above average in several key aspects: Avoiding interceptions, throwing accurate passes soon after the snap, making the reads in a West Coast offense and staying in the lineup. Physically, he shows good arm strength and quarterback sprint speed. He has a compact, quick delivery.

Below-average traits of Carr’s include two big ones: his improvisational ability and willingness to absorb hits for the team’s greater good on a frame that, at 6-foot-2 1/2 and 214 pounds in the predraft exam, is a tad thin.

Also he can appear overly averse to throwing downfield, even when factors outside his control are taken into account.

Boiled down, a timidity to Carr’s game has surfaced often enough to make it hard to embrace him as someone who will join Daryle Lamonica, Kenny Stabler, Jim Plunkett and Rich Gannon as the quarterbacks to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl.

Yet this year, because of improved overall circumstances, it’s not unfair to expect Carr to have one of his better seasons. Along those lines, there’s an urgency the Raiders don’t seem to mind drumming up.

“Now it’s time – it’s time for Derek to do what he needs to,” said former Raider right tackle Lincoln Kennedy, a team broadcaster for the past seven years.

Kennedy made headlines earlier this month with a tough-love rejoinder to a Carr comment.

The quarterback had told reporters Aug. 4 he “felt disrespected” entering this season without explaining why, a remark that came off as passive-aggressive.

Kennedy wasn’t having it, saying it was time for Carr to put up or shut up.

“My answer to that when I was asked that question is, you’ve got to play better,” Kennedy said by phone last month on the first days the Raiders practiced in pads.

The former quarterback-protector added: “You can’t be thin-skinned in this league. Especially at quarterback.”

Lauding Carr by invoking the 2016 season in which he led the Raiders to a 12-4 record via an offense that finished seventh in scoring, Kennedy said he’s convinced the QB can have a strong 2020 season. But he also suggested Carr needs to address erosion in his mental game caused by hits he’s absorbed in the pocket.

Kennedy noted the leg fracture a Colts pass rusher caused Carr in the 2016 finale and the 51 sacks he took a year later, to say nothing of the broken back sustained early in 2017 when a Broncos defender landed on him after the play.

“There were times when he became a little complacent in the NFL because he didn’t want to get hit – and rightfully so,” said Kennedy, an All-Pro for the 2002 club that reached the Super Bowl in San Diego. “That’s to be expected. Nobody likes to be in that position.

“But,” he added, “there are times you have to trust people around you, and I thought a lot of the throws that were left on the field last year were because Derek didn’t have that overall trust.”

Kennedy, who was an NFL lineman for 11 seasons, said it’s essential Carr heighten his trust with his blockers and develop trust also with an improved cast of pass-catchers. The result, he said would be the offense making a jump from last year when it finished 24th in scoring. “It would be exciting,” he said.

A former NFL quarterback sounded the same theme that Carr needs to become more bold in his play – not the same as reckless – and that it’s fair to expect better from him.

“Derek’s got to get his stinger back,” said ESPN NFL analyst Dan Orlovsky in a call with reporters. “He’s got to be willing to push the football down the field more, put the football in harm’s way.” He added: “Sometimes you’ve got to put the football in harm’s way to become really good to great at the position, to generate stuff for your offense.”

The former quarterback included Gruden and play caller Greg Olson in his critique, saying they need to design better, timelier pass plays that encourage Carr to go downfield.

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It borders on folly to expect most any rookie to lift an NFL team, but top Raiders draftee Henry Ruggs III showed the play speed, hands and toughness against SEC opponents to make such a scenario plausible. Not only was the big-handed Ruggs the fastest receiver in this year’s NFL draft, the 188-pounder had a low drop rate with Alabama.

“Ruggs,” said Orlovsky of the No. 12 selection, “has got to be what so many thought he was going to be coming out of the draft. He’s got to be the vertical threat that puts the fear into the defense: Every single play, this ball could go over our head.”

Another SEC alum and rookie receiver, South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards, represents a second potential upgrade. “He may make some noise by season’s end,” said former NFL defensive tackle Marcus Spears, “and make people really respect him.”

Raiders architects seemingly have supplied Carr the final piece to the offense’s supporting puzzle – exceptional speed in the persons of Ruggs and tight end Darren Waller. Even so, the wide-receiving corps qualifies as mid-tier, at best, especially with Tyrell Williams, an undrafted speedster who began his NFL career in San Diego seven years ago, lost for the season.

Elsewhere, the tools are there to run the ball behind second-year back Josh Jacobs and a line that is the team’s best positional unit.

Carr should be able to once again hit the “extended handoff” passes, to the likes of slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, Ruggs and situational back Jalen Richard, that Gruden’s designs tend to generate.

Along with the speedy Waller, second-year player Foster Moreau and veteran newcomer Jason Witten should give the Raiders their best group of tight ends they’ve had in several years.

Defensively, the top addition may be line coach Rod Marinelli, one of the NFL’s better assistants.

He didn’t inherit an established, top-tier pass rusher but has shown a knack for developing linemen and fielding lines that are relentless and well-synced.

Spears said second-year safety Johnathan Abram, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, has some of the enforcer and play-making qualities that former Jets star Jamal Adams, now with the Seahawks, has displayed.

Veteran newcomer Cory Littleton, who has far exceeded his status as an undrafted player, earned a three-year contract with $22 million guaranteed by excelling in pass coverage and special teams in his Rams tenure.

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The jury is still out on Mark Davis’ decision to hire Gruden.

The Raiders were 38-26 with a 2-2 postseason record between 1998 and 2001 under Gruden but this time around have gone 4-12 and 7-9.

It’s a coach’s third season that often tells the story, Andy Reid has said. “If it’s not rolling by then,” said the longtime NFL coach, “it hits you in the head like a baseball bat.”

In the Raiders’ new home city, many oddsmakers have pegged the home team’s over-under victory total at seven.

Should these Raiders finish 7-9, Gruden’s huge contract – reportedly 10 years in length and worth up to $100 million – seemingly would ensure Gruden would survive a third consecutive losing season.

Carr, though, may not be as protected.

Though it’s still Carr’s team, Gruden in March signed a potential replacement to him in former Titans starter Marcus Mariota, 26.

Getting out of the final two years of Carr’s contract would be easily done. Said Carr: “I have a lot to prove to myself. I have a lot to prove to my organization.”

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