By Alex Bartlett

As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Las Vegas Raiders:

2020 Recap

Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: New York Post

2020 marked a new era for the Silver and Black as they packed their bags and moved out of Oakland for the second time in franchise history. But as Las Vegas finally welcomed its first NFL team, it was very much a case of new city, same Raiders.

After promising early-season signs and several marquee wins (more on those later) John Gruden’s men stuttered their way to another post-thanksgiving slump and missed the playoffs finishing 8-8.

But, it was not all doom and gloom for the Raider Nation as the offense sparked to life and showed signs of significant improvement ranking in the top 10 in yards and points per game. Quarterback Derek Carr produced his best statistical season since breaking his leg in 2016 and the team managed three victories against teams that won at least one game in January. 

A spirited performance at the opening of Allegiant Stadium against the New Orleans Saints will have its place in Raider folklore, but the eye-opening beatdown of the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium was the standout achievement. The win – Patrick Mahomes’ only regular season loss of the year – showed just how far the team had progressed. 

However, just as they did in 2019, defensive frailties cost the three-time Super Bowl champions any chance of a first postseason appearance in four seasons. An inexperienced secondary was exposed and with little help from the 29th ranked pass rush the Raiders became easy pickings for the leagues better offenses. This came to a head with an embarrassing 43-6 loss to the four-win Atlanta Falcons and another 40 burger conceded to the Indianapolis Colts which inevitably cost defensive coordinator Paul Guenther his job. 

Staff Changes

Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: Sam Greenwood (Getty Images)

With Guenther gone the Raiders wasted no time moving for former Jacksonville Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley following his release from duties with the division-rival Chargers. While his four seasons in the same role in Los Angeles were a mixed bag, the fact Bradley was out of a job for less than a week speaks volumes for his reputation. The mastermind of the Legion of Boom Seahawks defense of the early 2010s reunites with Gruden who gave him his first pro job as linebackers coach of the Buccaneers 15 years ago. 

Aside from Bradley, Rod Marinelli – who replaced Guenther for the final six weeks of the season – returns to his original role coaching the defensive line. 

State Of The Roster

Since Gruden returned to the organisation, each offseason the spotlight has been on his relationship with Derek Carr. However, team sources have made it clear that the former Fresno State general is their guy moving forward off the back of a promising year. With Carr, Darren Waller and first-round picks Josh Jacobs and Henry Ruggs behind a top-10 offensive line the Raiders offense is one of the more talented groups in the league. However, a large number of questions remain unanswered on the other side of the ball at all three levels. 

2020 exposed a young secondary led by veteran corner – and cut candidate – Lamarcus Joyner. Some young starters have shown flashes of promise including defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby and defensive back Trayvon Mullen, but to compete with Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs and Justin Herbert’s Chargers a talent upgrade is needed. 

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

Credit: Eric Risberg (Associated Press)

Only two franchises without a winning record have less cap space than the Raiders. Gruden and GM Mike Mayock will look to cut a number of veteran players to make space to strengthen the roster. That will almost certainly start with Wide Reciever Tyrell Williams who missed the entire 2020 season with a torn labrum. Releasing the 29-year-old is a no brainer following the success of rookie Henry Ruggs and free agent Nelson Agholor and it would save the team $11.6 million in cap space.

Another offensive player who could be in a new uniform come September is Richie Incognito. There is no doubt that the controversial guard had a positive impact when he signed for the team in 2019, but with the offensive line managing without him for much of last season and his 38th birthday looming large, it is unlikely he is back in Vegas. 

On defense the team isn’t getting enough returns from the four-year $42 million contract they gave the aforementioned Joyner in 2019. Cutting ties with the former Florida State Seminole would free up $11.2 million in cap space. 

Other potential casualties are guard Gabe Jackson and running back Jalen Richard, but by releasing the three players mentioned above the Raiders can clear nearly $30 million with no dead cap hits. 

Free Agents

Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

With limited cap space, there will certainly be casualties among the Raiders 21 unrestricted free-agents. High priority for the silver and black will be re-signing last years standout acquisition Agholor. The former Eagle looked a lot like his 2017 self in his first year on the West Coast, producing 896 yards and 8 touchdowns. 

Elsewhere, offensive linemen Denzelle Good will be another man that Mayock and Gruden want back in the building after showing his versatility by starting at both right tackle and left guard in 2020. On the defensive side of the ball, Tak McKinley – who was claimed of waivers in late November – will almost certainly return and bring some much need juice to a torrid pass rush. 

One man who may not be returning is run-stuffer Jonathan Hankins. Despite his ability to wreak havoc in the run game, Hankins’ inability to generate a consistent pass rush may mean he is looking for a new home. 

A player to keep an eye on is linebacker Nicholas Morrow, who outshone last years key additions at the position, Corey Littleton and Nick Kwitaskoi. With depth at the position, Morrow may be considered surplus to requirements but a strong 2020 has cast doubt in the minds of those in the front office.

Team Needs

Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: Jack Thomas (Getty Images)

Defense, Defense and more Defense. If the Raiders are to continue the steady improvement made in the first three years of Gruden’s second tenure with the organisation, they simply have to get more talent on that side of the ball.

As previously touched upon the secondary is in desperate need of an overhaul. Free-agent corners Troy Hill and Mike Hilton would be welcome additions to the young group which was torched for 4,212 yards and 28 TD’s in 2020. But, the player who might make the most sense is Saints safety Marcus Williams. With New Orleans in salary cap hell, it is unlikely the ball-hawking 24-year-old will be returning to Louisiana. The former Utah Utes standout graded 79.3 per PFF last year and has the potential to make the step to all-pro level. 

In a QB heavy draft class, the Raiders aren’t terribly positioned to get a day one difference-maker on defense with the 17th pick. If Hankins leaves in free agency then Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore could bring juice to the interior line. Barmore, a staple of the Crimson Tide’s National Championship winning defense, would be an excellent fit in the 4-3 scheme having displayed an ability to get after quarterbacks and disrupt plays in the backfield against the run in college. 

On the offensive side of the ball, recently released Eagles wide-out DeSean Jackson feels like a prototypical Gruden receiver and would be a match made in heaven for the silver and black if he can stay fit.