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State of the Franchise: Raiders rising as rebuild comes together

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

How the Raiders got here

Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:

The high:

-- Dwayne Harris catching Denver napping with a 99-yard punt return. It was the first score in a win over the Broncos that was never really close -- and it came on "Monday Night Football," a time slot that the Raiders used to dominate. At the time, it wasn't known if the Raiders were playing their last home game in Oakland. Their return for one more campaign in 2019 before moving to Las Vegas has since been secured, but Harris' score and the win over Denver would have served as cool final moments in the Coliseum.

The lows:

-- Trading Khalil Mack right before the season started. That was hard for Raiders fans to watch. Especially after he made his Sunday night debut for the Bears and almost single-handedly beat the Packers.

-- Trading WR Amari Cooper. It wasn't really that bad of a deal, when you consider the Raiders received a first-round pick back from Dallas and then only had to surrender a third and a fifth for Antonio Brown. Still, it had to sting a little bit that Cooper nearly doubled his per-game output in Dallas, jumping from 46.7 receiving yards per game in six games with the Raiders to 80.6 in nine games with the Cowboys, serving as a dynamic playmaker for a postseason-bound team.

-- Getting blown out by the 49ers in Week 9 on "Thursday Night Football." In the play that might have defined the Raiders' entire 2018 season, the Niners' Raheem Mostert ran 52 yards for a touchdown. Untouched. I haven't seen a group of Raiders that lifeless since the animatronic pirates stopped working on "Pirates of the Caribbean." BTW, I started Derek Carr (171 passing yards, 0 TDs) and49ers running back Matt Breida (12 carries, 44 yards, 0 TDs) in fantasy that week. So that is where this is really coming from.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Jon Gruden. He signed a 10-year deal in January of 2018 to return to the Raiders, with whom he began his head coaching career in 1998. And the rebuild might take the entire length of his contract. Or perhaps it just seems that way to Raiders fans. But sometimes, when you get started on a rebuild, you realize that you are going to have to take everything down to the studs (or, in the Raiders' case, trade those studs away).

Since last season ended, Gruden has added his general manager, Mike Mayock. The roster, which was riddled with holes last year, is comparatively stacked. This will be the first season where we can fairly judge what Gruden is going to be able to offer in this phase of his coaching career. (And whoever thinks Gruden is in the hot seat should remember he signed a 10-year deal. He's locked in.)

Quarterback: Derek Carr. I'm a big Carr fan. I've advocated for him in the past, telling the Raiders to stick with Carr in a column I wrote in April.

Projected 2019 MVP: Antonio Brown, receiver. There is obviously some drama surrounding Brown, who has continued to engage in public spats with former teammates Ben Roethlisbergerand JuJu Smith-Schuster after leaving Pittsburgh. It's a lot like listening to one of your friends go on and on about his ex and the person the ex left him for. At some point, Antonio Brown, you need to get on with your life and realize that you are now in a great relationship with Derek Carr, one that could end up working out. Because the honest truth here is Brown is still one of the best at his position. Carr has never had a receiver who has scored double-digit touchdowns. This is the year for that to happen.

Free-agent addition: Vontaze Burfict, LB. And I'm going to add this right under AB, because the two have a storied history that includes a brutal hit Burfict (then with the Bengals) inflicted on Brown (then with the Steelers) during an AFC playoff game. The two say there is no bad blood between them. And it just kind of seems like one of those things you see in wrestling, where two guys hate each other until one of them turns heel/face and joins the other's side. Remember when Macho Man and Hollywood Hogan hated each other? Then, at some point, they were both wearing black "nWo" shirts. It's kind of like that.

2019 breakout star: Gareon Conley, cornerback. The 2017 first-round pick looked like he could have been a bust after his rookie season, but he underwent some nice development last year. Quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 72.8 against him, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking ninth at his position among players with 400-plus snaps. That number could improve if the Raiders develop a pass rush.

The 2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. The Chiefs and Chargers are two of the top teams in the AFC, so there shouldn't be an expectation to compete for the division title this year. The heat will turn up in Las Vegas next year. Literally.

Will the Raiders be able to ...

Generate a pass rush? Mack had 12.5 sacks for the Bears last season and was the toast of the NFL. The Raiders ended the season with 13 sacks. Thirteen. And no, this isn't one of those jokes where I'm trying to exaggerate for effect. The Raiders managed 13 sacks in 16 games -- a half sack more than Mack recorded in 14 games. They have to get to the quarterback this season to be successful.

Run the ball? The Raiders bucked a recent NFL trend and drafted a running back in the first round, opting for Alabama's Josh Jacobs with one of their three first-round choices. He rushed for 640 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. But maybe more importantly, he had 20 receptions for 247 yards. The Raiders see him as a younger Beast Mode who can catch. The only running back in Gruden's career to top 250 rushing attempts was Cadillac Williams in 2005. Jacobs could approach that as a three-down back.

Protect the quarterback? There weren't a lot of high points for the Raiders in 2018, but Rodney Hudson was an anchor on the offensive line. He's one of the best pass-blockers in the NFL and maybe one of the most underrated, as well, as he somehow was not in the Pro Bowl. Still, the Raiders allowed a lot of sacks (52). That number needs to drop this year. Free-agent signee Trent Brown should help.

Three key dates:

-- Week 1 vs. the Broncos. The traditional late-night Monday opener for the Raiders. (Or at least it seems like a tradition.) The Broncos and Raiders could be surprise contenders in the AFC West. Obviously, one of these teams will likely get a leg up with a win. I mean, I know I shouldn't discount a tie, but I think it's pretty safe to say one of these teams win.

-- Week 5 vs. the Bears.Khalil Mack's Oakland return! Or the UK. Whatever. Maybe it was better they sent this game overseas. But the Raiders can't let Mack touch Derek Carr in this game. I'm a Bears fan, and even I'm going to feel bad if Mack has like six sacks or something. Well, I won't completely. But there will be a pause where I'll be all, "Oh no, that's too bad," and then go back to rooting for the Bears. Or maybe Leonard Floyd will have six sacks. I'm not greedy.

-- Week 15 vs. the Jaguars. The likely final home game in Oakland. It's going to be sad. Raiders fans have been maligned through the years, but you can't question their dedication. Year in and year out, the Black Hole is filled with passionate fans who often have not had a lot to cheer for. This is kind of a bummer, even if Las Vegas looks like it's going to be amazing.

One storyline people are overlooking:Tyrell Williams was a great signing for the Raiders. Obviously, AB is going to grab the headlines, and rightfully so. But snagging Williams from the rival Chargers was also a key move. Carr's best work has been near the line of scrimmage. And there is no doubt AB is going to excel there. But Williams has the kind of blazing speed to keep opponents honest.

One storyline people are overthinking:Drafting Clelin Ferrell at No. 4 overall. This was a good pick. The Raiders have a huge need at pass rush (as mentioned earlier). Ferrell won the Ted Hendricks Award and finished with 27 career sacks for the defending national champion Clemson Tigers. And he's a huge character guy, which is often overlooked. But people acted like the Raiders reached for him. Why? Mayock was one of the top draft evaluators in the business. If he was still working for NFL Network (and not the Raiders), he would have had Ferrell as his top pass rusher (or maybe No. 2, behind Joey Bosa's brother), and the Raiders would have been lauded for this pick. This is a great pick.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Raiders MUST ...

--Win eight games.

-- Beat the Chiefs and Chargers at least once. I've written this before, but fans can be pretty forgiving, as long as there is some sort of hope. I mean, nobody is going to be upset if the Raiders win a Super Bowl. (It's like if somebody walked up to me and just gave me the keys to a brand new Tesla; I would certainly take it. I'm just not counting on it.) So here, if the Raiders can get to .500 and have some fun wins over your rivals that you can crow about during the offseason, that will be cool.

-- See Carr prove himself to be the quarterback of the future. I'm pretty sure this is going to happen.

In closing

I really do believe the Raiders are heading in the right direction. If this was a Hollywood movie, the Raiders would win the Super Bowl during their final season in Oakland, with Marshawn Lynch scoring the winning touchdown over the Seahawks, naturally. But it doesn't always work that way. The Raiders have had eight or more wins just once in the last seven seasons (the weird 12-win campaign of 2016). So believe in what Gruden and Mayock are installing here. And Viva Las Raiders.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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