Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock must answer these Raiders offseason questions

Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock must answer these Raiders offseason questions

The Raiders have a big offseason ahead with plenty of needs to fill. Choices made during this process will create a domino effect that impacts others during this important time of year.

The players cut before the league year starts will create more salary-cap space, but more roster vacancies to fill later in the year. The veterans signed will occupy spots and fill needs that will, in turn, narrow focus for the NFL draft. The Raiders will form a roster to develop in Alameda and take to Napa for training camp before formally debuting in Las Vegas.

That group and its coaches must prove worthy of more than seven wins and a real shot at a playoff berth. Expectations have been raised after 2019’s progress, especially with tremendous returns from the last draft class.

“We’re building our team, and we’re building it with football character,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “This young class is a big part of our process here, and we’re going to stack another class next year just like it.”

That’s the goal, with the draft haul possibility the last major piece of an offseason full of tough decisions. Here are five big questions Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock must answer before this offseason’s out:

1. What to do with Derek Carr?

The Raiders should keep Derek Carr and use all available assets to improve the defense and offensive depth chart around him. I went on record with that in Wednesday morning’s story and stand by it. There was, if you recall, a caveat. Keep Carr unless … Gruden and Mayock identify a quarterback truly special.

You don’t swap out very, very, very good for just okay. You don’t cut or trade a top talent growing within the system for a developmental roll of the dice.

That’s my take. Some will be with me. Others will rail against. I’m fine with either.

Gruden and Mayock (and maybe owner Mark Davis) have the only opinions that matter. Gruden ultimately will make the final call on a quarterback he never once has ripped in public. He never has suggested the Raiders would move on from Carr, though he left himself some wiggle room last week when pressed on the matter.

"Derek played well," Gruden said. "I'm not going to get into all the next-year scenarios. I'm just going to say that 7-9 is a step forward. We took a step forward. Statistically, I think we took a step forward. We've got to get a lot of guys healthy and we've got a lot of things to look at and evaluate before we start making any assumptions."

Let’s take assumptions and opinions out of it for a second. You’ll hear plenty of them this offseason, in addition to rumors that the Raiders are in love with this draft-eligible quarterback or that free agent or simply fed up with Carr. Take them all with a speck of sand.

Let’s focus instead on the ramifications of moving on from Carr. The Raiders can cut him this offseason and save $16.5 million against the cap, with $5 million in dead money. That penalty decreases the following year. Dead money shouldn’t impact the decision. The Raiders are in great shape with the cap and can make their quarterback decision based upon merits.

This free-agent class of quarterback has more established passers than usual, so the Raiders also have options there should they need a shorter-term solution.

No matter what they do, the Raiders should be decisive and bold. There’s no point in keeping Carr and drafting a passer to develop. That won’t quiet the noise. Either stick with Carr or move on. No in-betweens.

2. Will the Raiders sign big fish in free agency?

The Raiders have $67 million in salary-cap space entering this offseason with opportunities to create more. There are some high-priced casualties possible to create even more flexibility. You’ve heard me demand a top-flight receiver -- we’ll address that prospect next -- and the Raiders could go get Robby Anderson out of New York.

Gruden has a history of getting returns from aging receivers, and A.J. Green’s on the market coming off injury. He might pair well with a young phenom.

That’s not the position I want to discuss. In fact, it wasn’t even ranked high on Wednesday’s biggest needs. Let's talk game-changing interior defensive linemen.

Stealing Chris Jones from Kansas City is an intriguing possibility. He can be the pass-rushing three technique Paul Guenther loves, with the added bonus of taking talent from an AFC West rival. He held out to start the 2019 preseason, so he means business. Jones won’t be cheap but could be a real asset inside two young pass rushers and maybe another acquired in the draft.

If the Raiders are thinking edge rusher -- they shied away from that market last year -- Yannick Ngakoue’s an intriguing option to pair with Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell. Jacksonville could well let him walk, and the Raiders could pounce by backing up the Brinks truck.

Whether they get Anderson or Green or Jones or Ngakoue or not, here’s the bottom line: The Raiders have money to spend smart. They weren’t great in free agency last year, hitting on Trent Brown but missing on Lamcarus Joyner and Tyrell Williams. Free agency should be a smart bomb launched at a defensive lineman like Jones or a receiver or maybe an established defensive back at some level.

I’d bet Gruden takes on one massive contract and several smaller ones to add an establish player to a roster largely built through the draft.

3. Should Tyrell Williams stick around?

The Raiders signed Tyrell Williams to a four-year, $44 million contract that’s essentially pay-as-you-go. He wasn’t worth the $11 million he got paid during a frustrating 2019 season plagued by a season-long bout of plantar fasciitis.

Jon Gruden said the Raiders believe Williams can be better than he was in 2019. If that’s the case, Williams could be an excellent accent to a top NFL draft pick. He could be a solid second option at receiver, especially with Hunter Renfrow next to him in the slot.

The Raiders will have to weigh the free-agent market, their financial commitments and decide whether to give Williams’ money to someone else. That decision isn’t automatic, and surely will involve a pros and cons list.

4. How will Raiders use two first-round picks?

Receiver at No. 12 overall, then linebacker or best damn defensive player available at No. 19. Or vice versa. Whatever works.

The Raiders need help so bad in both areas that they seem essential at this point. Sure, the receiver class is super deep and talent can be found in later rounds, but go get a good one early.

Let’s not forget about Gruden’s willingness to deal and Mayock’s NFL contacts that could help swapping picks. Having two first-round picks -- one is theirs, the other comes from Chicago as part of the Khalil Mack package -- allows the Raiders to make serious moves, including a massive trade up to get an elite prospect.

There’s no telling at this point what they’ll do, but the Raiders surely will be an intriguing team on the draft's opening day.

5. Will Vontaze Burfict come back?

The Raiders were mad as holy heck when middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict was suspended the rest of 2019 following a Week 4 ejection from an illegal hit. They have criticized the league’s position on the matter, despite Burfict’s track record for dirty play. Gruden and Carr spoke at Burfict’s appeal, which fell on deaf ears.

[RELATED: Raiders see bright future thanks to their 2019 draft class]

Guenther has supported his friend and field general time and again, leaving the solid possibility of a return to the Raiders. How would that impact the linebacker corps? The Raiders need more than one this offseason no matte what, but it’s hard to count on Burfict when the next big hit could be his last?

Is it worth the risk of relying on Burfict with the chance of losing him again? If the Raiders do bring Burfict back, they’d better have a Plan B and plenty of depth behind that. 

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

For 14 seasons, the Raiders and Philip Rivers have been rivals. Rivers' first NFL start fittingly came against the Raiders in 2006, his third professional season. 

That rivalry might be done, though. The Athletic's Jay Glazer said Monday on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" that the Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on" from Rivers. 

Rivers, 38, will become a free agent this upcoming offseason. The 16-year veteran has spent his entire career for the Chargers, but it's unknown if he will continue playing in 2020. He already has moved his large family to Florida this offseason. 

The gunslinger was the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He has an 18-9 career record against the Raiders with 47 touchdown passes -- his most against any opponent -- and 22 interceptions.

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

If the Chargers do move on from Rivers, they could try to grab a QB early in the 2020 draft. The Bolts own the No. 6 pick, and our own Josh Schrock has them taking Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round. 

As the Raiders move to Las Vegas, it could be the end of an era with their Philip Rivers rivalry.