Raiders' five biggest needs heading into the offseason


Raiders' five biggest needs heading into the offseason

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and staff have huddled in dark rooms or around conference tables these past few weeks, dissecting every aspect of this roster. They’re deciding how each guy fits into new playbooks being simultaneously assembled. It’s a vital undertaking that will set the course for next season’s quest to rebound from a 6-10 disaster.

As Raiders fans well know, decisions made in winter can impact fall results. Coaching choices have been made. Roster decisions are key moving forward.

Additions require subtractions, and cornerback David Amerson was the offseason’s first recognizable discard. That number will grow in time as Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie try to upgrade a talented, yet flawed roster.

Gruden adds an unknown element to this winter and spring. While there’s plenty to study from Gruden’s previous coaching stint, he’ll approach this career chapter in a different way. Identifying his personnel preferences might be inexact until he starts making moves, but Raiders roster needs are glaring. Let’s take a look at the top five.

1. Cornerback

Last year’s first-rounder Gareon Conley is slated for a starting spot. The Raiders have a series of question marks after that.

The Raiders added $6 million in salary cap space by releasing David Amerson. They could remove another chunk waving goodbye to Sean Smith, who is due an $8.25 million base salary and is facing felony assault and battery charges. Smith finished the season strong when used shadowing favorable matchups, and has talent to thrive in specific schemes and responsibilities.

TJ Carrie is headed for unrestricted free agency. While Conley has great ability, he’ll have to remain healthy after missing 14 games with a shin injury that required surgery.

An addition will be required even if the Raiders keep Smith, which is uncertain and seems unlikely. The Raiders could draft another cornerback early, or go for a veteran who fits Paul Guenther’s scheme on the outside. There’s no natural heir to the slot, so the Raiders might add a few to this group if Carrie takes another team’s offer.

2. Defensive line

Khalil Mack might be the NFL’s best edge rusher. He’s among the position’s elite at the very least, and Guenther said finding him one-on-one matchups might be better than a blitz. He’ll need more talent along the front to divert blockers. That’s especially true at defensive tackle. McKenzie’s 2015 second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr. hasn’t been healthy or consistent enough as a pass rusher to be a real threat. McKenzie’s 2016 second-round pick, Jihad Ward, was inactive or ineffective last season. Denico Autry was solid, but heads toward unrestricted free agency for the first time.

Eddie Vanderdoes flashed early, disappeared after that and suffered an ACL tear in the 2017 finale. Treyvon Hester is a quality prospect who can fill a role.

The Raiders need a dynamic playmaker inside, as Guenther had with Geno Atkins in Cincinnati. Those talents are expensive or hard to find, but the Raiders should look in this draft.

They might need a traditional 4-3 end as well. Bruce Irvin has been solid rushing opposite Mack, and seems worth his $8 million base salary next year. He could play strongside linebacker on base downs – his role in Guenther’s scheme remains uncertain – but depth or a starting end seems vital no matter where Irvin plays.

3. Receiver

The Raiders need help catching passes. That’s true whether or not they keep Michael Crabtree. The veteran was disgruntled at season’s end and is no guarantee to make next year’s roster. His $7 million base salary is not guaranteed, and can be cut if Gruden decides to disassociate with a clutch receiver entering his 31st year coming off a down season.

Seth Roberts was largely a non-factor from the slot, and in effective on the outside. He carries a $2 million cap hit, no obstacle should the Raiders choose a different direction. McKenzie loves Roberts, but Gruden may have a say there. We’ll see.

Amari Cooper wasn’t great in 2017, but had 1,000-yard seasons his first two years and remains a top talent with the work ethic required to get right.

One option: The Raiders could tack extra funds on to money saved by releasing Crabtree and get a higher-profile receiver like Jarvis Landry or Allen Robinson or someone that excites Gruden. They could add a middle-round developmental talent to the mix, preferably one with steady hands, even if Roberts remains in the mix.

4. Linebacker

Guenther expressed an interest in re-signing soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent NaVorro Bowman. The veteran middle linebacker said he’d like to be part of a Gruden regime. That could stabilize yet another unsettled issue during the McKenzie era. The GM has struggled upgrading several positions on this list, but middle linebacker might be chief among them. He has proven adverse to using high draft picks or substantial dollars on the position, leaving the Raiders without a steady man in the middle.

Bowman could fill that need, or they could finally use a first-rounder to anchor the defense.

Marquel Lee could help on rushing downs or provide depth.

Irvin could play on the strong side, with Cory James on the other. Guenther could find a role for undrafted linebacker Nicholas Morrow as well, but he’ll have tremendous say in how this position group fills out.

5. Safety

There are several positions that could fit here, from right tackle and running back (even with Marshawn Lynch on the roster). We’re going with the safety spot, even with two young players in the mix. It’s likely Reggie Nelson will be allowed to leave in unrestricted free agency.

Karl Joseph will return and should start. Obi Melifonwu has starter’s size, speed and raw talent, but he remains an unknown after having knee and hip surgeries last season. He wasn’t able to play or practice much due to injury, and making it difficult to assume he can be an every-down player.

A veteran free agent would offer security to this important position group, even a second-tier player on a shorter-term contract. The Raiders secondary has been a liability for too long. It’s time to shore it up.

Does Gruden see Lynch, Crabtree on Raiders in 2018?


Does Gruden see Lynch, Crabtree on Raiders in 2018?

Jon Gruden doesn’t love offseason restrictions on player-coach interaction. They weren’t so strict when Gruden last coached nine years ago, but the new collective bargaining agreement prevents the new Raiders head coach from extended contact with his players at this stage in the NFL’s downtime.

He has, however, run into several Raiders stopping by the team’s Alameda complex.

Count running back Marshawn Lynch and receiver Michael Crabtree among them. Conversations with those talented, yet mercurial players will be key as Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie decide how best to use the salary cap.

Both guys have a long history of NFL production. Both guys are getting up there in age, and have some drawbacks. Both guys can be cut without a salary cap hit.

Gruden had nice things to say about both guys in a Wednesday interview with the Bay Area News Group.

He was asked directly if Lynch will be on the 2018 roster.

“I don’t know,” Gruden said. “I bumped into him. Some of these players that live locally do come to the facility to get a workout, see the trainer. I’ve been downstairs and met several guys. I have talked to Marshawn briefly. We’ll see. We’ll keep everybody posted. Right now, he’s our leading ball carrier. He’s our back, and we’re counting on him. Hopefully we get an opportunity to work together. That’s a man that has a lot of respect in this league as a player and I certainly have respect for him also.”

Lynch started slow but finished strong, and was the team’s best skill player in the season’s second half. He’s contracted to make up to $6 million in 2018.

Crabtree came up later in a discussion of what he likes on the roster.

“I got to bump into Crabtree,” Gruden said. “Hopefully we can get the best out of Crabtree and his career.”

Crabtree is coming off a down year following two stellar seasons in Oakland. He had just 58 catches for 618 yards – he still had eight touchdowns – but his targets and snaps decreased the last two weeks. He seemed at odds with the previous coaching staff, a group that was dismissed at season’s end.

Crabtree is set to make $7 million next season, though none of it is guaranteed.

Gruden meeting reinforces T.J. Carrie's desire to remain with Raiders


Gruden meeting reinforces T.J. Carrie's desire to remain with Raiders

PALO ALTO – Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie became a father on Super Bowl Sunday. Newborn son Elijah Carrie has been the sole focus these last few weeks, as T.J. learns on the job how to be a dad.

Pardon him if he hasn’t thought much about impending free agency. The 2014 seventh-round pick turned full-time starter has a rookie deal expiring soon, with a raise on the horizon following his best season as a pro.

That’ll come in March. Early February, however, has kept him otherwise engaged.

“I’ve been so busy with my little one, and I haven’t been getting any sleep,” Carrie said Thursday. “Learning how to be a dad has been so engulfing that I haven’t delved into the details of what free agency will mean to me.”

Soul searching wasn’t required to realize his dream scenario. The East Bay native wants to stay in Oakland, with a Raiders team he loved as a kid.

“My intention is to be here,” Carrie said. “I’m a Bay Area guy, a hometown kid. I couldn’t see myself being anywhere else. This is a passion for me. I dreamed about playing for the Raiders for such a long time. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to play there for four years, I want to finish (with the Raiders).”

Carrie wants to work with a new Raiders regime. He visited the team’s Alameda complex on Wednesday and met with new head coach Jon Gruden and defensive assistants. The interaction left Carrie wanting more, furthering his belief that be belongs in Silver and Black.

“Coach Gruden is very energetic,” Carrie said. “He’s a coach that likes to have fun but it a very business oriented guy. There are a lot of things, I imagine, that are going to change, just from the way he has done things. It’s going to be different, but I embrace it. It’ll be very challenging entering into a new regime, but there are a lot of positive factors involved with it.”

The Raiders don’t have many cornerbacks under contract come mid-March. They released David Amerson, and could do the same with Sean Smith later this offseason. Gareon Conley should start at one spot, but everything else is wide-open entering free agency and the draft.

Carrie could find value on the open market after recording 70 tackles and nine passes defensed in 16 starts. He’ll explore his options further next month, before free agency begins in earnest March 14.

“I know March is really when it starts to go down,” Carrie said. “My son will be a little older then, so I can focus more on free agency and make some more decisions.”