Before beginning the Las Vegas Raiders free agency and draft preview, let’s take a look at how the most recent season concluded. Early on, it seemed the Raiders had turned a corner during year three of the Gruden and Mayock brain trust. They began the season 6-3 with two impressive wins over the Saints and Chiefs. However, they would win just two of their remaining seven games and finish the season an even 8-8.
The Raiders have needs on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Unfortunately, the Raiders don’t have much available cap space and will likely have to be creative in cutting players and restructuring contracts to bring in new faces. This process has already begun as it has been reported the Raiders will soon release receiver, Tyrell Williams, and defensive back, Lamarcus Joyner.
Current Free Agents
Maliek Collins (DT)
- Collins was oft-injured and fairly disappointing when he did play in his first year as a Raider. In all likelihood, the Raiders will let him walk as an unrestricted free agent unless he wants to return for cheap. Decision: Let Go
Johnathan Hankins (DT)
- Jonathan Hankins played quite well in the middle of the Raiders’ defensive line as a run-stuffer. Hankins is 28 and still has a few good years of football left in him. The Raiders should make an effort to bring him back on a two-year deal $10 million.
Nicholas Morrow (LB)
- Morrow just had his best season as a pro in year four. Morrow is a versatile outside linebacker with great speed. He excels in pass coverage against receivers and tight ends. Morrow is young and still continuing to develop. The Raiders should not let him walk in free agency assuming the price is reasonable.
- Agholor had his best season in the NFL with the Raiders last year. The sixth-year pro had 896 receiving yards as well as eight touchdowns. This year’s free-agent wide receiver class is headed by the likes of Allen Robinson, T.Y. Hilton, and Sammy Watkins. Agholor’s impressive season certainly made him some money heading into free agency. If the Raiders can retain him for the right price, he is well worth it. Decision: Monitor the Situation
The most glaring hole on Vegas’ roster is at defensive end. This past season the Raiders notched 1.3 sacks per game. That ranked them 30th in the league. New defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, will be looking to improve this unit from day one. As of right now, Maxx Crosby is the only edge rusher the Raiders have that gets any consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Clelin Ferrell experiment has been often frustrating and the Raiders’ selection of him at fourth overall in 2019 continues to be a head-scratcher. That being said, Mayock and Gruden have a few different options in terms of how they can acquire some talent to improve Vegas’ pass rush.
Free Agent Options
Melvin Ingram III
Chargers’ standout defensive end, Melvin Ingram III, is currently an unrestricted free agent. Ingram is now 31 and he suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss about half of this past season. When Ingram is healthy he does an awesome job of speed rushing and angling his smaller frame to gain leverage against larger offensive linemen. In 2017, he recorded 10.5 sacks, but since then his sack totals have dipped. Ingram’s veteran presence combined with his ability to rush the quarterback is something that the Raiders defense desperately needs right now. Ingram could be a nice addition if Vegas can secure his services on a reasonably priced one- to two-year contract.
Yannick Ngakoue is another defensive end the Raiders could pursue in free agency. Ngakoue started 2020 with his demand to be traded out of Jacksonville. That landed him in Minnesota for a few weeks before being traded again to Baltimore. Ngakoue is 25 and his best season came in 2017 when he totaled an impressive 12 sacks on the year. He wins against offensive tackles with his speed, agility, and strong hands. Ngakoue is not just a pass rusher either. He fairs quite well in the run game. In 2019, his last season with Jacksonville, he had 13 tackles for loss which tied him for sixth at his position. Due to his young age and his productivity, the Raiders could be inclined to offer him a multi-year contract. Similar to Ingram, Ngakoue is an edge rusher the Raiders should be keeping tabs on once free agency begins on March 17th.
The Raiders own the 17th pick in the first round of this year’s draft. If they choose to bolster the defensive line with an edge rusher in the first round, they should target Gregory Rousseau or Kwity Paye.
Rousseau is out of the University of Miami and is a player that can rush inside as well as on the edges. Standing at 6’5″ and 260 pounds, he has the ideal frame to be an impact pass rusher in the NFL. His pass rushing skills can use some polishing, but size and speed are two things you can’t teach.
Kwity Paye is a defensive end/tackle from the University of Michigan. Paye has shown that he can get upfield and put pressure on the quarterback from both inside and on the edge of offensive lines. He is solid in run defense and hardly ever misses tackles. He has strong hands, quick linear movement, and a huge motor. Paye is still developing his skills as a pass rusher and needs improvement in his lateral movement. However, his physical tools provide many reasons for NFL teams to be excited about him. He is definitely in play at number 17 when the Raiders are on the clock.
Vegas’ secondary was again a disaster this past season allowing 263.2 passing yards a game to opponents. Only seven teams in the league fared worse than that number. The starting corners to begin the season were Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette. Mullen’s season had its ups and downs and he dealt with a variety of different injuries throughout it.
The same goes for Arnette who battled a hand injury and also dealt with multiple concussions over the course of the year. According to PFF, Arnette was ranked the 118th best cornerback out of 126 qualifying players. Not exactly what you want to see from a guy you selected in the first round.
The Raiders’ safeties had their difficulties as well. Jonathan Abram returned in year two after missing his whole rookie campaign. Abram’s biggest problems this past season came in coverage where he frequently lacked awareness, abandoned assignments, and tended to rack up a lot of penalties. The Raiders need help everywhere in the secondary.
Free Agent Options
William Jackson III
Jackson was a first-round pick by the Bengals back in 2016 and thus far he’s had an inconsistent pro career. It’s worth mentioning that Cincinnati’s defense has largely struggled as a whole since Jackson has been in the league. In addition, every year he’s been a Bengal they have had a different defensive coordinator. A change of scenery could be exactly what he needs to find consistent play again. Jackson would be a solid insurance policy if Damon Arnette still can’t figure things out in year two. The Raiders could offer Jackson a three-year contract somewhere in the range of $35-40 million ($12m per year).
Mike Hilton is a slot cornerback that was signed as a rookie free agent by the Steelers back in 2017. Hilton is a versatile defensive back that holds up well in coverage, is active against the run, and is also quite adept at blitzing the quarterback. This past season was Hilton’s best in the NFL. He had five takeaways, three sacks, and eight tackles for loss. It has been reported that Joyner will likely not be returning to play for the Raiders next season, which would save Vegas $8.7 million in cap space. If the Raiders were to sign Hilton he could take over many of the coverage responsibilities that Joyner had. Using Hilton as a roaming blitzer will also help a defense that has struggled getting to the quarterback since trading Khalil Mack. The biggest concerns about Hilton are his slight frame and the 26 missed tackles that he’s had in the last two years. Hilton would also be a far cheaper option than Jackson. A three-year contract at $11-15 million is likely what Hilton will receive in free agency.
Vegas owns the 48th pick in round two and the 80th pick in round three of this year’s draft. It is fair to assume that one of these picks will be used in an effort to improve their secondary.
Elijah Molden played four years of football at the University of Washington. During his time in college, he lined up in the nickel, as an outside corner, and also at safety. He is an incredibly instinctual player that tackles well especially in run defense. Molden diagnoses plays quickly and does a great job of reading the quarterback’s eyes in the pocket. He is also a leader and team-first type of player and that was very evident in watching him control the defensive huddles at Washington. Because of his size at 5’10, it is likely that Molden will predominantly play nickel corner in the NFL. That won’t limit his impact on defense though. Whichever team selects Molden will have a day one starter and defensive building block for years to come.
In round three, the Raiders should take a long look at Ar’Darius Washington, the safety from TCU. Washington stands just 5’8 and 180 pounds, but he’s a physical player that’s not afraid to tackle in the run game or in pass coverage. At TCU he showed great instincts and had a knack for making timely plays. He is best suited to play free safety in the NFL and his ball skills at the point of catch are very developed for someone coming out of college. As you might have guessed, one of Washington’s struggles is fighting off blocks from larger players. The Raiders could have interest in Washington during round three because of his versatility, instincts, and competitiveness as a player.
The Raiders find themselves in an interesting position when it comes to evaluating the current receivers they have on their roster. In a perfect world, Henry Ruggs III is Vegas’ number one receiver, but his rookie campaign was less than stellar. The Raiders struggled getting Ruggs the ball in open space where he could make plays and use his elite speed. He will need to develop and become more comfortable with his role in the offense in year two, and the Raiders’ offensive play calling must improve as well. Beyond Ruggs, the Raiders have Hunter Renfrow, Bryan Edwards, and unrestricted free agent Nelson Agholor.
Renfrow is a reliable slot guy that often finds ways to fit himself into small spaces between zone defenses. Bryan Edwards missed most of his rookie season due to injury, but his potential as a possession receiver is intriguing. How the Raiders feel about him heading into year two will be indicative of whatever decisions they make in free agency or in the draft on the receiver front.
The real question is whether to re-up on a contract extension with Nelson Agholor. Agholor is 27 and he’s the same age as other free agent receiver, Allen Robinson. The next best free-agent receiver is T.Y. Hilton who is now 31. Robinson and Hilton have had far better careers than Agholor statistically.
Free Agent Options
Robinson is a seven year pro that spent his last three seasons in Chicago. Despite having poor quarterback play this past year, Robinson still managed to rack up 1,250 receiving yards. He has a good frame at 6’2 and 205 pounds, he runs solid routes, has good balance, and reliable hands. He does lack elite speed and the ability to make explosive plays running with the ball after the catch. He would be a nice pairing with Henry Ruggs III to have a mixture of speed and a guy that can work over the middle. The question is how much does he cost?
T.Y. Hilton has very quietly had a great career as an NFL wideout. His best year was back in 2016 when he amassed a ridiculous 1,448 yards receiving. His last two season’s have been a bit quieter. That is in large part because of injuries and the poor quarterback play in Indy. In 2020, he caught 56 balls for 762 receiving yards. Hilton wins at the line of scrimmage with quick feet and gets separation from defensive backs by using foot, arm, and head jab motions. Hilton has always had reliable hands, especially on deep routes. Barring injury, Hilton should have a few more productive years in the NFL. However, the question is whether Hilton can recapture his previous production. Additionally, the pairing of Ruggs and Hilton might be an interesting one. Whether it nets positive results is another story.
The offensive line is still led by center Rodney Hudson, who is arguably the best at his position in the NFL. At the beginning of this past season, the unit put together some great games where they opened up massive holes for Josh Jacobs and kept Derek Carr clean. As the season went on, many starters went down with injuries. During the last eight weeks of the season, the offensive line struggled with run blocking and that limited Carr and the Raiders’ offense quite a bit.
Trent Brown, the high priced right tackle the Raiders signed during free agency back in 2019, has played sparingly in two seasons due to injuries. Coaches and players have gone as far as questioning Brown’s commitment to the team and football in general. There is a scenario where the Raiders try and trade Brown before the season if they are still disappointed with his effort and level of engagement. They could also potentially cut him, but that would likely come at some point after this next season.
Richie Incognito was the Raiders’ starting left guard before he injured his Achilles in week three. The injury caused him to miss the remainder of the season despite the team originally thinking he would come back at some point. Incognito is now 37 years old and it’s time the Raiders start developing a young, versatile offensive lineman that can provide depth at multiple positions and eventually replace Incognito. Vegas can address their needs on the offensive line in the middle or late rounds of this year’s draft or they can do it in free agency. As this past season made it clear, the unit needs more depth.
The Raiders’ free agency and draft preview would not be complete without some cold hard truth. The biggest problems the Raiders have are on the defensive side of the ball and it’s been that way for many years now. To become a more complete team, they must shore up the secondary and find a formidable pass rusher that can win outside. They can accomplish both of these things either through the draft or in free agency.
Things are a little less complicated for the Raiders on offense. They need more depth on the offensive line to prepare for the uncertainties that a now 17 game season brings. Most importantly on offense, they need to continue getting the ball into Darren Waller‘s hands. A lot of things go right when that occurs.
Next season will be year four of Gruden and Mayock behind the controls of the Raiders organization. In the two most recent seasons, the Raiders have started off well but collapsed down the stretch. Gruden and Mayock aren’t on the hot seat officially as of yet, but another .500 season or below might accomplish that.