NFL offseason power rankings: No. 26 Las Vegas Raiders and Antonio Pierce start with a big QB question

Preview focus: Can Las Vegas and its new coach carry over a strong finish to 2023?

Antonio Pierce did everything an interim head coach should do to earn the full-time job.

The Las Vegas Raiders played harder and better when he took over. He got the players to buy in, and they lobbied for him to get the job. He knew that playing up the mystique of "The Raider Way" would play well with the fan base. Pierce was hired and everyone seemed happy.

It's also worth wondering if Pierce looked good because he was taking over for one of the worst head coaches in modern NFL history.

Josh McDaniels was as big of a debacle with the Raiders as he was with the Denver Broncos more than a decade earlier, repeating many of the same mistakes. The Raiders were bad in every way, and seemed like a team that had checked out for a leader they didn't like playing for. When McDaniels made the inexplicable decision to start 38-year-old Brian Hoyer in a game against the Chicago Bears and the Raiders lost 30-12 with Hoyer playing as poorly as everyone but McDaniels expected, that summed up the state of the team. You can't win with a bad head coach. Given how low the bar was, it was almost impossible for Pierce to not look like an upgrade after McDaniels was fired during the season.

And Pierce wasn't bad on his own merits. He went 5-4 and that included a win at the Kansas City Chiefs and a stunning 63-21 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. His energy made a noticeable difference. The win over the Chiefs was startling and gave the Raiders and Pierce some bravado heading into the offseason. If Pierce ends up being a good coach for Las Vegas, we'll point back to that 20-14 win at Arrowhead Stadium on Christmas as a huge moment for the franchise. The Raiders made the right call to hire Pierce and see if they stumbled upon a big answer at head coach.

It's still a big challenge for Pierce to keep that momentum going, especially with the franchise still dealing with a quarterback issue.

One needy team was bound to be left out of the first-round quarterback draft market, especially when the Atlanta Falcons surprised everyone with the Michael Penix Jr. pick. The Raiders got boxed out. They couldn't have imagined when the draft started that they'd see six quarterbacks selected before they were up with the 13th overall pick. The Raiders had no choice but to switch course, and took elite tight end prospect Brock Bowers. They'll get by with Gardner Minshew II or Aidan O'Connell at quarterback this season and figure out the future later.

The best the Raiders can do this season is make sure whoever emerges as the long-term quarterback is put in a good situation when he arrives. Bowers should be a foundational piece. Davante Adams is still in his prime and in Las Vegas, though the Raiders could trade their superstar receiver at some point. The defensive line should be very good with $110 million free-agent addition Christian Wilkins from the Miami Dolphins. And Pierce could be a great fit for years. We'll have to see what the first full season of the Pierce era looks like.

The Raiders are in a weird place. They're transitioning to a new era with momentum, but a massive part of the rebuilding effort is still unsettled. They spent on Wilkins like they're a contender but that might not happen for a while. If nothing else, at least Raiders fans aren't suffering through the McDaniels era anymore.

Maxx Crosby will anchor a Raiders defensive line that figures to be one of the best in the NFL this season. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
Maxx Crosby will anchor a Raiders defensive line that figures to be one of the best in the NFL this season. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

Other than Kirk Cousins, no free agent who switched teams this offseason got a bigger contract than defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. There's sticker shock with his four-year, $110 million deal, but he's a high-character player with a first-round draft pedigree who is proven against the run and the pass. The price was really high, but the Raiders got a good player. The other additions were much lower cost. Gardner Minshew II was a good insurance policy at quarterback if the Raiders struck out in the draft, which happened. The Raiders lost running back Josh Jacobs to the Packers, but he was coming off a disappointing season and Zamir White had 397 yards in four starts late last season when Jacobs was injured. Las Vegas didn't have any other huge losses in free agency. The failure to land a quarterback in the NFL Draft has to be accounted for in the grade, but the Raiders got a good player with tight end Brock Bowers at No. 13 overall. The arrival of Bowers is bad news for 2023 second-round draft pick Michael Mayer, but Mayer was the pick from the previous regime and the new front office wasn't going to let that guide its decision. Guard Jackson Powers-Johnson was considered a first-round talent and he fell to the Raiders in the second. The Raiders got a few good players this offseason, but they also aren't any closer to a long-term answer at quarterback.

Grade: C

Is there a chance the Raiders could have a quarterback answer already on the roster? Gardner Minshew II hasn't been bad as a starting quarterback and he's still just 28 years old. He seems to be destined to be a bridge QB or one of the league's best backups for a long time, but never a preferred starter. He has a chance to change that perception this season. First, he'll have to win the job over Aidan O'Connell. Although Minshew is considered the favorite to start Week 1, O'Connell got the first snaps in the offseason practices because he's the incumbent. O'Connell wasn't great as a rookie but he was better than most fourth-round picks and had some promising moments, especially in the preseason. O'Connell had a 12-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a reasonable (for a fourth-round rookie) 83.9 passer rating. He has a shot to win the job in August and show the Raiders they don't need to draft or sign a quarterback next offseason. It's a long shot Minshew or O'Connell is the Raiders' quarterback in 2025 and beyond, but they have this season to prove otherwise.

The Raiders might feel good about beating the Chiefs late last season, but they're still +900 to win the AFC West at BetMGM. They have a modest win total of 6.5 after winning eight games last season. The one positive in the Raiders' odds is that Maxx Crosby has the fifth-best odds to win Defensive Player of the Year, at +700.

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Zamir White will probably be a sixth-round pick in most Yahoo leagues, based on early ADP, and that looks like a potential value. Head coach Antonio Pierce wants his team to have a physical running identity, and White has already shown a glimpse of what he can do.

"You'll recall White was handed the team's rushing workload down the stretch, when Josh Jacobs wasn't available. Over the final four weeks of the year, White ranked first in rushing attempts (tied with Najee Harris), third in rushing yards and eighth in half-point PPR scoring among running backs. That fantasy rank would have been higher if White hadn't been a little unlucky with touchdowns, scoring just once. White had a modest nine catches over that stretch, though he collected five in the game against Indianapolis. He's not dynamic in the passing game, but he won't be a zero there, either.

"White has the build to make power inside runs, and he's also capable of hitting the second level. He had four 20-plus runs in the sample we discussed above; only Breece Hall and James Conner collected more in that period. The Raiders added Alexander Mattison but he didn't justify a starting job in Minnesota last year; he's clearly a secondary option. White has an excellent chance to beat his draft-day cost."

The Raiders are paying a combined $204 million to Maxx Crosby and Christian Wilkins in a pair of four-year deals. They also invested the seventh overall pick of the 2023 draft in defensive lineman Tyree Wilson and also got eight sacks out of 2021 third-round pick Malcolm Koonce last season. The Raiders better have a good defensive line, because they've invested as much in it as almost any team in the NFL.

And the good news is the line should be among the NFL's best. Crosby is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, even on a team that's not expected to make the playoffs. Koonce has developed well and Wilkins is a good all-around interior defender. If Wilson, who disappointed with just 3.5 sacks last season, plays up to his draft pedigree then the Raiders' line should be fantastic. There are questions about linebacker depth and what the Raiders have in the secondary, but having an elite defensive line is a good place to start.

Adams wanted out of Green Bay and got his wish. He has had two good seasons since his trade to the Raiders, but the Packers are much closer to being a contender than the Raiders due to Jordan Love's emergence last season. Adams said he didn't regret the trade to Las Vegas, but there's really no other way to answer that in a public forum.

"Obviously, we saw what [Love] did at the end of the year. I don't regret what I did, but, at the same time, it's definitely, you look back on it like, 'Damn, that boy kind of balling right now,'" Adams said on Maxx Crosby's "The Rush" podcast, via NFL.com.

Here's the Raiders' conundrum: They're probably not contenders and Adams will turn 32 in December, but Adams is one of the Raiders' two marketable superstars along with Crosby and he's still an upper-echelon receiver. Las Vegas probably should have traded Adams this offseason, but it's understandable why they held on. The Raiders could entertain trade offers during the season if they're out of contention by the deadline, but they don't profile as a team that will be hopelessly out of it by early November. Adams also has a ridiculous $44.1 million salary-cap hit in 2025 if he's not traded, and the Raiders will have to fix that if Adams isn't moved. It's a situation worth keeping an eye on.

The Raiders' record was above .500 after Antonio Pierce took over as interim head coach. That was with an even worse quarterback situation than this season. The Raiders weren't great last season, but it's not like they got to eight wins with a lot of lucky breaks. They played at about the level of an 8-9 team over the course of the year. Perhaps Gardner Minshew II is an upgrade over the 2023 Raiders quarterbacks, Davante Adams has another huge season, Brock Bowers has a Sam LaPorta-type rookie season, the defensive line takes off with Christian Wilkins playing next to Maxx Crosby and all that momentum Antonio Pierce was building carries over to this season. If those things happen, it can't be that outrageous to believe that the Raiders could be in playoff contention. It's not as big of a leap from last season as you might think.

It would be disappointing if the Raiders took a step back with Antonio Pierce in the full-time role, but it's hard to envision a truly disastrous scenario for Las Vegas this season. If Pierce has a horrendous season, the Raiders can fire him and move on easily. If the Raiders can't find a quarterback, that's expected and then they know they need to acquire one next offseason. It would be disappointing to waste another season of Davante Adams and Maxx Crosby, but nobody is expecting the Raiders to win much this season. It's an unusual spot, with the Raiders hoping that they make some strides with an eye on what things will look like when the quarterback plan presents itself.

The Raiders are strangely nondescript this season. They shouldn't be bad because they weren't bad last season with Antonio Pierce coaching them. But it's also hard to see them being good. A team deciding between Gardner Minshew II and Aidan O'Connell at quarterback and a lot of questions in the back seven on defense is unlikely to be a playoff team. It seems like we're in the waiting room with the Raiders, with more interest in what happens in 2025 (you're going to hear Dak Prescott's name attached to Raiders rumors until Prescott's contract situation is settled in Dallas) than what happens this season. The Raiders will win some games, maybe enough to keep them out of a top-10 draft pick again, but won't be a true playoff contender. Then we'll see what next offseason brings.