Jon Gruden’s rebuild of the Las Vegas Raiders continued at snail’s pace in 2020. While the franchise relocated to Las Vegas, but still looked the same as in the first two years of Gruden’s comeback tour. The Raiders finished 8-8 and with more questions than answers. There’s still so much missing from the team the head coach ultimately wants. The Raiders have a productive running back in Josh Jacobs. They also have a prolific tight end in Darren Waller, as well as a dominant offensive line.
What the Raiders lack is a quarterback Gruden feels completely comfortable working with. There are still question marks about Derek Carr, who has yet to fully master Gruden’s admittedly complex schemes. It doesn’t help Carr has so few credible wide receivers to throw to. Henry Ruggs III struggled as a rookie, while Tyrell Williams battled injury and has since become a casualty of the salary cap. Wideout is a priority this offseason, just like pass-rusher. More pressure is needed from a defense set to be led by new coordinator Gus Bradley.
Pending Free Agents
The Raiders have 25 players who are eligible for the open market, but Gruden won’t be scrambling to re-sign many of them. Most of the team’s pending free agents played on a defense that was dreadful in both phases last season. Ranking 30th in points allowed and 25th in yards surrendered cost former coordinator Paul Guenther his job. Bradley runs a scheme heavy on zone and low on blitzing, so he needs more talent up front. At least one of the Raiders’ free agents could help.
Maliek Collins, Defensive Tackle
Collins isn’t the only Raiders’ defensive tackle unprotected ahead of the opening of this year’s market, but he’s the most important. The former Dallas Cowboys rotational lineman is quick and active from the interior. Collins didn’t register a sack last season, but Bradley’s scheme would turn him loose more often.
Johnathan Hankins, Defensive Tackle
It’ll be interesting to see how the Raiders decide between Hankins and Collins. The former is a big body who can plug gaps and be a force against the run, making him something of a rarity on this unit. What Hankins doesn’t fit is a system where linemen will likely be expected to play the run only on their way to the quarterback. Collins is better suited to this style of defense. So is his ex-Cowboys teammate David Irving. He was signed during the 2020 season after being reinstated to the NFL following an indefinite suspension for multiple violations of the substance-abuse policy. Irving has already been retained by the Raiders this offseason, meaning one of Collins or Hankins will be deemed surplus to requirements.
Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley, Defensive End
It’s appropriate to lump Beasley and McKinley together since both are former rush ends from the Atlanta Falcons whom the Raiders took a chance on during last season. Neither did enough to justify Las Vegas taking a gamble, but both may still appeal to Bradley. Beasley finished 2020 without a sack after logging 37.5 during five years with the Falcons. He’s still a talented and disruptive playmaker off the edge, provided he’s given license to attack.
Bradley helped make versatile edge-rushers like Chris Clemons, Joey Bosa, and Melvin Ingram stars during stints with the Seattle Seahawks and San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. He can do the same for Beasley, but McKinley may be a lost cause after failing physicals with the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals before landing on injured reserve with the Raiders last year. The Raiders need to keep able-bodied quarterback hunters after recording a pitiful 21 sacks last season.
Nelson Agholor, Wide Receiver
Agholor was the lone bright spot at wide receiver for Gruden’s team in 2020. The one-time Philadelphia Eagles burner tallied 896 yards from just 48 catches. He averaged 18.9 yards per grab and is a perfect fit for a vertical passing game. The Raiders are too short of talent at the position to simply let Agholor walk.
Potential Cap Casualties
Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock need to get creative to boost cap space as they only have $3.3 million currently. Releasing Williams and the plan to do the same to guard Gabe Jackson has helped, but more space is needed.
I'm told #Raiders G Gabe Jackson has been informed he will be released, per source.
— IG: JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 3, 2021
The coffers need to be swelled ahead of free agency so this team can address its glaring holes at wide receiver, along the defensive line, and at linebacker. Fortunately, there are some big-ticket items the Raiders should feel comfortable about cutting loose.
Richie Incognito, G ($5.5 million saved)
Incognito remains a scrappy interior lineman who can move people in the running game. Yet the veteran is getting up there in years and has had trouble staying healthy. Incognito missed 14 games with an ankle injury in 2020, and the Raiders are ready to dump the 37-year-old:
The #Raiders will be releasing Richie Incognito because of their salary cap. He is 100% healthy and looks forward to continuing his career there or elsewhere, source said.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 5, 2021
There’s a possibility Incognito returns on a reduced deal, but it’s more likely the Raiders focus their resources on retaining other linemen. Restructuring the contract of tackle Trent Brown is a more pressing concern.
Nick Kwiatkoski, LB ($4.1 million saved)
The Raiders’ issues at linebacker are best summed up by Kwiatkoski being considered the main man among the starters. He’s a thumper but isn’t outstanding in any one area. Bradley will want a more active athlete in the middle to make his preference for Cover-3 schemes work. Kwiatkoski couldn’t stay healthy for 16 games, while Cory Littleton can give the Raiders a boost at linebacker after an indifferent first season in Las Vegas.
Marcus Mariota, QB ($11.4 million saved)
Ditching Mariota is a move the Raiders can’t miss this offseason. He hasn’t restructured his contract to make a trade possible, making releasing him the only logical alternative for Mayock. It makes sense given the vast saving available and the fact the dual-threat quarterback doesn’t fit Gruden’s offense.
I’m watching how the Raiders will handle Marcus Mariota.
Mariota has the leverage to force the team to release him vs. trade him. Raiders need the cap space. QB’s agent covets the ability to pick his landing spot.
Feels like Mariota gets released, not traded.
— John Canzano (@johncanzanobft) March 5, 2021
Open Market Free Agent Targets
Fix the pass rush and bolster a feeble run defense. Add some legitimate game-breakers among Carr’s receivers. The Raiders have a big to-do list ahead of free agency. Answering these problems and finding value is the balancing act Mayock must get right.
Everson Griffen, DE, Detroit Lions
Griffen wouldn’t break the bank and he would give Bradley a flexible pass-rusher who could be moved all across the line. Things didn’t go to plan for Griffen in 2020 when he bombed out with the Cowboys before showing he still had some tread left on his tires during seven games with the Detroit Lions. Griffen can still generate heat from the edge and is particularly disruptive when he’s shifted inside on obvious passing downs. The productive 33-year-old would form a solid rotation with Beasley and incumbents Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby.
Justin Houston, DE, Indianapolis Colts
If the Raiders can find a little extra cash, they should be all over Houston. He may be 32, but the veteran has proved he can get to the passer from both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts. Houston has played in the latter during the last two seasons with the Colts, logging 19 sacks in the process. He would add some serious oomph to the Raiders’ anemic pass rush.
Avery Williamson, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
This year’s free-agency class isn’t exactly overflowing with elite linebackers. Even so, Williamson is an experienced hitter who would give the Raiders more range in the middle. The 29-year-old was in on 103 tackles for the Steelers last season. He also broke up three passes and intercepted another. Williamson is one of the hidden gems in this year’s market, and he’d fit Bradley’s defense like a glove.
Marvin Jones, WR, Detroit Lions
Gruden likes big-bodied wideouts for his version of the west coast offense. Jones fits the bill at 6’2″, 198 pounds. He’s sure-handed and doesn’t mind going across the middle to make a play. Jones was one of the few players who actually improved his stock during his time in Detroit. He grabbed 76 catches and finished just 22 short of 1,000 yards in 2020. Jones, Agholor, Ruggs, and Hunter Renfrow would give Carr more talent to work with during the new season.
Ricardo Allen, FS, Atlantan Falcons
Bradley’s fondness for Cover-3 demands a free safety who can be trusted to work the deep middle by himself. Allen has plenty of experience in the role thanks to seven seasons in Atlanta. Most of those were spent playing under Dan Quinn, who like Bradley, is another former Seahawks coordinator who calls a single-high safety defense.
Previewing the Draft
If the Raiders play the veteran market right, they will be in a position to take the best player available with the 17th-overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. That would put a number of options on the table for Gruden and Mayock, including beefing up the defensive interior or getting Carr that genuine No. 1 receiver he needs.
Round 1, Pick 17: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Part of the problem with the Las Vegas passing game last season was the lack of scheme fits. There were too many field-stretchers and not enough of the precise route-runners a timing-based passing game needed. That will all change if Smith is still on the board at 17. He’s polished and intelligent out of his breaks, specializes in yards after the catch, and can be moved anywhere across the formation.
The highest-graded pass-catcher at each alignment:
Left WR: DeVonta Smith – 92.8
In the slot: DeVonta Smith – 94.3
Inline: Kyle Pitts – 94.2
Right WR: Tylan Wallace – 84.7 pic.twitter.com/lQ7xOXq4yX
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) March 1, 2021
Mayock’s recent endorsement of Carr’s skills is likely to hold the most sway when the Raiders come to make their first selection. That’s why a receiver makes the most sense here.
"I think Derek Carr had his best year yet, under Jon Gruden. I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and we're happy with him…I think Jon Gruden and I would stand shoulder to shoulder and pound the table for Derek Carr." – #Raiders GM Mike Mayock, on Derek Carr.
— Paul Gutierrez (@PGutierrezESPN) March 3, 2021
Round 2, Pick 49: Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington
Onwuzurike didn’t play in 2020, opting out because of Covid-19. He still went to the Senior Bowl, though, a reflection of the high regard he’d garnered in 2019. The plaudits were justified for an active defensive tackle who can be a playmaker in both phases. He’s the kind of quick and disruptive presence Bradley can build a new-look front around.
Round 3, Pick 80: Cameron Sample, DL, Tulane
There isn’t a better scheme fit for Bradley in this entire draft than Sample. The Tulane product is a lightweight and rapid defensive lineman who can play both end and tackle. A coordinator who relies on a four-man rush as much as Bradley knows the value of players who can move around and still create pressure. Michael Bennett did it with the Seahawks, while Ingram performed a similar role for the Chargers. There isn’t much talent besides Maurice Hurst Jr. at the position, so the Raiders need to come out of this draft with at least one starter-ready defensive tackle.
Early 2021 Expectations
If Carr does have the backing of Gruden and Mayock, they need to show it by surrounding him with more weapons. A better supporting cast can help No. 4 enjoy a breakout season, provided cap concerns don’t further deplete an excellent offensive line too much. Ultimately, the Silver and Black’s chances of earning a playoff spot will hinge on a revamped defense.
Bradley’s scheme is the right one in an AFC West division where the priority is limiting the big-play threat of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. The new coordinator needs the right personnel, though, starting with pass-rushers who can ease the burden on those zone shells in the secondary. Getting these things right would easily push the Raiders past the .500 mark. Another failure to compete for the postseason would surely leave Gruden out of excuses.