The Raiders went hard after Bryon Jones in the initial days of NFL free agency. They wanted a true No. 1 cornerback and had no problem paying handsomely for a player believed to be a shut-down cover man and an ideal scheme fit.
Jones declined the offer, choosing to take Miami’s cash instead.
The team’s free-agent class would’ve looked a lot different -- it would’ve been a lot smaller -- in an alternate reality where Jones committed to the Silver and Black.
That’s not how the Raiders week played out, but coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock didn’t sulk over an opportunity missed. They carried on undeterred, moving quickly to new plans to fortify their defense and bring in a veteran backup quarterback.
They did a darn good job of all that.
They agreed on terms with eight free agents through Friday afternoon, including six on the defensive side of the ball. They got two three-down linebackers. They improved the pass rush inside and out. The added a cornerback and a safety who were not "Plan As," but provide some cover should a better option prove elusive.
They also got an experienced veteran backup quarterback and a luxury signing at tight end.
Gruden and Mayock didn’t overreact to bad news, didn’t throw money around for throwing’s sake and remained disciplined through an ongoing process. They also went after players in their prime, with Jason Witten the only addition over 28 years old.
The Raiders are a better, deeper team for this week’s work even if they didn’t secure every target.
We normally would’ve heard from these players after taking physicals and formally signing deals, but that process will be delayed with NFL travel restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gruden and Mayock won’t address this class until it’s formally in the fold, so that insight also will have to wait.
That shouldn’t stop us from grading new additions while diving into how they might fit into the Raiders' scheme.
LB Cory Littleton
Littleton’s the big fish of this current free-agent class. The former LA Ram is an ideal modern linebacker, and was by far the best available on the open market. He's capable of covering tight ends and running backs with great speed and agility.
He’s a true three-down, sideline-to-sideline presence that the Raiders desperately needed and, before this offseason, weren’t willing to pay for. They gave him a three-year deal worth up to $36 million, a decent sum that didn’t ruin the Raiders budget.
They hoped to get him and Jones in free agency. They lost out on one but secured the other. The importance of getting Littleton can’t be underscored enough. This was a huge get and that will significantly improve the Raiders defense.
LB Nick Kwiatkoski
The former Chicago Bear is not a Littleton clone. He is, however, an excellent complement. Kwiatkoski is a sure tackler, a solid run defender and a quality signal-caller who will play middle linebacker in Paul Guenther’s scheme. He and Littleton should both play every down and have turned a glaring weakness into a team strength.
He proved capable of running a defense last season, filling in after captain Danny Trevathan suffered a season-ending injury. His three-year, $21 million deal is appropriate and proved the Raiders were committed to getting better at linebacker.
The position group went from awful to darn good in a flash, allowing the Raiders to focus on other defensive deficiencies in the NFL draft.
DT Maliek Collins
I spent significant time raving about Kwiatkoski and Littleton, but this might be my favorite addition. Collins is just 24 years old and can flat get after the quarterback, with 48 total pressures rushing from the interior. That number would’ve led the Raiders defense last year, even over Maxx Crosby’s 10-sack campaign.
The former Dallas Cowboy obviously got the Rod Marinelli stamp of approval, reuniting with his former position coach on a new team. The ceiling is high for Collins, a quality interior pass rusher with some untapped protentional who will help the line as a whole.
EDGE Carl Nassib
The Raiders needed depth rushing off the edge with Benson Mayowa set to leave in free agency and Arden Key a question mark returning from an IR stint. Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell should still expect to be starters, but Nassib is massive and quick, and will provide some juice off the edge.
He has 12.5 sacks over the last two seasons and is a solid run player, but the $25 million over three years it took to land him seems pretty steep for his role. Adding a veteran of his quality will certainly stabilize a young group and provide an alternative should Ferrell not make the second-year jump the Raiders expect from him.
S Jeff Heath
The Raiders are looking for someone to pair with Johnathan Abram in the defensive backfield, and it’s possible Heath is the guy. Key word: possible.
He has plenty of experience as a starter and could be an every-down player, but don’t be surprised if the Raiders target another safety in the draft. Erik Harris also will fight for a gig he held most of last season, though Karl Joseph is out of the mix after agreeing on terms with the Cleveland Browns.
Heath is a good special teams player, but might be an insurance policy that doesn’t completely fill a need. The Raiders reportedly made a run at Jimmie Ward but didn’t get him. That would’ve been a problem solver. We’re not sure Heath falls in the same category.
CB Eli Apple
Apple was not the Raiders' first choice. He wasn’t their second or third. Jones and Chris Harris Jr. both turned the Raiders down and a Darius Slay trade didn’t work out, forcing Mayock to shift focus to a 24-year old former top-10 draft pick with great talent and some troubling tendencies.
Apple had problems with teammates while the New York Giants employed him, and the New Orleans Saints didn’t exercise his fifth-year option after acquiring him in trade. That’s a pair of red flags right there. Apple is, however, immensely talented with the size and skill set to play cornerback in Guenther’s scheme.
We haven’t seen the contract terms here, and they will be telling. But, if Raiders coaches can develop him and make him more consistent, he could be a starting option opposite Trayvon Mullen.
Still, Apple doesn’t appear to eliminate the cornerback need. The Raiders could draft one high if the right player falls to them as they continue to build the secondary that Guenther wants.
TE Jason Witten
This signing caused many to raise an eyebrow, Chucky style. The Raiders' tight end group seemed solid, but regardless, Gruden didn’t hesitate to add the future Hall-of-Famer.
Despite not being the player he once was, Witten still is a savvy player who can produce, and Gruden will find ways to get him on the field and use his talent. Witten should be a reliable red-zone target and active on third downs in an offense with a lot of weapons and more on the way through the NFL draft.
Witten’s a true pro, and Gruden wanted a positive locker-room presence as the team transitions to Las Vegas. While the signing certainly is odd, I don’t dislike the addition. The Raiders will find ways to use him well in 2020.
QB Marcus Mariota
The Raiders needed a quality backup quarterback and found a perfect (and predictable) fit. Many eyed Mariota as a primary target considering his experience, friendship with Derek Carr and the effusive praise both Gruden and Mayock placed upon him back when they were in broadcasting.
Gruden loves athletic quarterbacks and a reclamation project, and he’ll put significant effort into getting Mariota on track. Carr enters the season as the presumptive starter, but Mariota could be called into action should Carr stumble.