Las Vegas Raiders: A new hope

Did I write Oakland when I wrote this headline the first time? You’ll never know for sure. Of course, this is the most unique preview of our 2020 coverage, as there is the long-awaited and very interesting added element of their relocation – we’re taking a look at the first offseason of the Las Vegas Raiders.

Going into 2019, with a less than ideal schedule, there weren’t necessarily big expectations for this season, however it was a very important year for two reasons: The final year in Oakland, and the first year of the post-Khalil Mack rebuild.
While this year will be one remembered more by another team in the AFC West, this is an iconic year and one that was much better than expected. It ended in a 7-9 season, which doesn’t sound amazing, but they weren’t far from making a playoff push, and as they came out of Week 10 at 6-4 (could have been 7 but Deshaun Watson is insane) even after a ridiculous run of away games and some tough opponents. If they didn’t lose to the New York Jets in their last game before December, they had a real chance to make the final push, but they did.

This year wasn’t a year where winning was the goal, as everybody has been reminding all Raiders fans since they rid themselves of their best player, they have two year’s worth of drafting to set up their future in Vegas. This is what makes a seven-win season feel much better than it usually might, though – the 2019 offseason efforts seemed to have been very effective and that made the campaign feel like a win in the long run.

As I take a look at the state of the Raiders, we can consider the fact last season to be pretty successful, on the whole, and identify what the organisation needs to do next to continue on the upward trajectory.

What happens in this offseason will not stay in this offseason.

General Manager: Mike Mayock

Head Coach: Jon Gruden

Both Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden are not only safe, but doing a fantastic job of working together to create and achieve a vision for their football team. There is a clear goal for what the Las Vegas Raiders are going to look like, and Mayock has already proven effective in picking the right players.

The highlights in 2019 were Josh Jacobs, Darren Waller and Maxx Crosby, and Johnathan Abram looked great until his season was cut short. This offseason the analyst-turned-GM will be looking to do similar work, and is equipped with the picks to do so, as we will later discuss.

In his first season of Gruden’s second stint with the Raiders they went 4-12, but this year’s improvement to 7-9 puts him at an 11-21 record through the last two years, while on an upward trajectory.

Cap Space: $54.9m

Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders are one of the more financially comfortable teams in the league entering 2020, with just shy of $55 million cap space and multiple very team-friendly contracts on their younger star players, balanced with some veterans, especially on the offensive line.

The top end of the roster consists of 11 players worth more than $5m in cap, with four of the offensive line (all of them but Kolton Miller who is on a rookie contract) occupying this group. Quarterback Derek Carr, second only in base salary to Trent Brown’s front-loaded and fully guaranteed deal, represents a $21.5m cap hit – and has been the subject of many conversations over the last 12 months. People question whether DC4 is the future of the team, to put it politely, but it is safe to say that his contract is that of a QB1, he will either be the starter or he won’t be on the team.

The beauty of the cap situation for the Raiders is that they don’t need to do anything to save money, of course they can cut or trade players, but they won’t have to make any decisions solely to save. They have enough money available to in some serious free agency talent, if they choose to go that route, and if they choose to extend anyone, they have room to expand on current deals.

The Raiders will be building through the draft with good capital and a seemingly great GM identifying the talent they’ll target, but their cap situation also allows for them to get a little bit more creative than that.

Impending Free Agents

Going into 2020 another advantage that the Raiders have with their contract situation is the lack of major impending free agent negotiations. Since extending Waller and Richie Incognito, the Raiders have all of the most important players in their team locked up for at least two years, with many of them contracted through 2022.

The main free agents I would like to see the Raiders re-sign are running back Jalen Richard, and safety Karl Joseph, both of whom have been with the team for a while and who would have a role to play in the lineup on their respective sides of the ball. Richard is an absolutely fantastic complement for Josh Jacobs as a receiving specialist. He signed a $3m one-year deal before this season, and I would love to see that get renewed, possibly through the 2021 season.

Last season the Raiders chose not to activate Joseph’s fifth-year option for a $6.5m salary in 2020, however there is at least still a realistic chance that they could offer him a new contract that is cheaper, if they still feel he could be part of their plans alongside a recovered Abram as the team’s star safety.

Positional Spending / Cap Splits

The Raiders are ranked second in the NFL for offensive salary cap spending %, with 50.5% of the allocated allowance. My favourite stat however is that the O-Line is the #1 highest paid offensive line in the NFL, and that their 28.6% of the cap is actually more money than they spend on their entire defense (21.7#5, 30th in the league). I would like to see this change by the end of this next season, particularly as the lacking spending ties into the team’s needs.

The main free agents I would like to see the Raiders re-sign are running back Jalen Richard, and safety Karl Joseph, both of whom have been with the team for a while and who would have a role to play in the lineup on their respective sides of the ball. Richard is an absolutely fantastic complement for Josh Jacobs as a receiving specialist. He signed a $3m one-year deal before this season, and I would love to see that get renewed, possibly through the 2021 season.

Last season the Raiders chose not to activate Joseph’s fifth-year option for a $6.5m salary in 2020, however there is at least still a realistic chance that they could offer him a new contract that is cheaper, if they still feel he could be part of their plans alongside a recovered Abram as the team’s star safety.

Team Needs

Major Need: Coverage Linebacker

In Paul Guenther’s 4-3 / 4-2-5 defense, there is one thing that is needed to tie everything together, which he doesn’t have, and never had in Oakland, a linebacker who excels against the pass. They need a player who is rangey, athletic and comfortable in zone coverage. Tahir Whitehead is an incredibly reliable player in a run-defense and who does more for the defense on the field than anyone in terms of communication, organisation and leadership.

A coverage linebacker would take some of the pressure off of Whitehead, and improve the pass defense in both the 4-3 and nickel formations. There isn’t an abundance of these players, especially that are readily available, and so I see this as a high draft-day priority. To satisfy this archetype you will need to spend some serious capital, and I see the first round as the only place I’d expect to find an immediate day-one starter who fits the bill.

Major Need: Alpha Wide Receiver

The Raiders have a solid offense, and one which improved this season as time passed, with the likes of Darren Waller (free agent) and Hunter Renfrow (fifth round pick) surprising everybody with how effective they were. Both of these players outproduced expectations, and Tyrell Williams showed flashes too, although inconsistent, but the team still lacks what they should have had the best in the business at – they need a true WR1.

If Antonio Brown had joined the Raiders smoothly and played for Oakland all season, there is a serious chance he would have elevated them to the playoffs. More long-term, he also would make this team need go away. They need a stud receiver who can do things solo, a proper alpha wideout, to dominate alongside Williams and Renfrow.

They need a wide receiver with speed, route running and good hands, someone who doesn’t rely on getting schemed open or getting a favourable defensive matchup. To fill this position, I think another first round draft pick will do the trick nicely.

Major Need: Defensive Backs

While I believe that the positions that the Raiders should target with their two first round picks should be Linebacker and Wide Receiver (only in that order if Simmons drops, otherwise I would take Lamb or Jeudy then target Patrick Queen at 19), another issue is the secondary. It’s all well and good to add a coverage linebacker but the cornerback situation isn’t much better and there isn’t any depth at safety – as was highlighted bright as day throughout the year. Trayvon Mullen had an underrated rookie year and I see glimpses of serious potential, but the depth chart for all DB’s is pretty awful.

There should be at least one new face in the secondary by the end of day two, and I consider cornerback to be the number one position I would prioritise if the two previously mentioned code-red first round needs don’t go according to plan. If, for example, Simmons and both Lamb and Jeudy are off the board by 12 (somewhat unlikely but possible), I would immediately be calling for a trade back and/or an immediate shift to the cornerback position, preferably while still keeping sights set on Queen at 19.

Tyler Arthur

NFL Film and Prospect Analyst

A graduated Journalism student, Tyler also writes for Read American Football and Gridiron Hub. He played Wide Receiver and eventually Quarterback for his university team at DMU, and is now using his knowledge and passion for learning to dive deeper into the analysis of X’s and O’s in the NFL. 

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Image credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports