Raiders

Raiders must use 2019 NFL draft, free agency to overhaul wide receiver corps

jordyusatsi.jpg
USATSI

Raiders must use 2019 NFL draft, free agency to overhaul wide receiver corps

CINCINNATI -- The Raiders started 2018 with an excellent receiver corps. On paper, anyway.

Amari Cooper was the No. 1 guy. Jordy Nelson added experience, leadership and just maybe more speed than people thought. Martavis Bryant was going to stretch the field. Ryan Switzer would be an ideal slot man. Seth Roberts was available in reserve.

Then the season began, and the whole thing fell apart.

Raiders coach Jon Gruden quickly grew tired of Switzer and shipped him to Pittsburgh. Bryant was cut before the regular season and then brought back, but he never got into the flow of Gruden’s offense.

Cooper controversially was traded to Dallas. Nelson’s knee got bruised.

The Raiders scrambled to fill spots, with weapons constantly rotating in and out around quarterback Derek Carr.

Gruden isn’t attached to any receiver still on the roster, meaning a complete reconstruction could be in store. They certainly need a new No. 1 receiver, and some help at most positions as the Raiders try to improve Carr’s supporting cast.

This offense can be dynamic with Gruden and Carr working well together, especially with weapons on the outside and in the slot.

Players likely to stay in 2019

Marcell Ateman: The seventh-round draft pick has had some big moments since being forced into action after the Amari Cooper trade. He hasn’t been great, and has a ton to learn about how to function in Gruden’s system, but there’s potential there. The Oklahoma State alum could be a productive red-zone target and someone who can make plays without blazing speed.

Dwayne Harris: He's an unrestricted free agent, but he could come back reasonably priced next year. He’s a solid return man. That’s valuable, even with so many kickoffs becoming touchbacks.

Keon Hatcher: He could stick around -- for training camp, at least -- and fight for a place on the 2019 53-man roster.

Players likely to go

Jordy Nelson: The veteran receiver is set to make $7.2 million in base salary and roster bonuses next season, though it isn’t guaranteed and there’s no dead money attached if he were to be cut.

Carr and Gruden have lauded Nelson’s locker-room presence, but they could get a younger, more dynamic receiver for that freight. They also have money to spare, so the Raiders could keep him around as a mentor and reliable presence in the clutch. It’s not a mortal lock, but it’s certainly possible Nelson will spend just one year in Silver and Black. Time will tell on this one.

Martavis Bryant: The talented receiver has ideal size and speed, but he never fit with Gruden or his offense. Gruden often criticized him in public and dubbed Bryant the “white tiger” for rarely being available on the practice field.

None of that matters more than Friday’s development, in which Bryant was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement from a one-year ban as a repeat offender of the league’s substance abuse policy.

Gruden gave up a third-round pick for Bryant, a high price for a failed experiment.

Seth Roberts: He might not be here now, if not for having a guaranteed salary in 2018. Roberts was down on the depth chart until attrition brought him back. He still isn’t a heavily targeted option despite all these injuries, which is something to note. Roberts is set to make $4.45 million next year, but he could be cut free and clear. That contract might be too pricey for him to stick around, though Carr could use some continuity in the receiver room.

Brandon LaFell: The Raiders loved having LaFell around. He’s a consummate pro, someone with reliable hands who does all the little things right. I believe they would’ve brought him back, if not for him suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 11. It generally takes 11 calendar months to recover from such an injury, meaning he wouldn’t be ready until midseason 2019 at the earliest.

That puts him out of the running for an offseason deal.

Raiders potential offseason plan

Free agency: The Raiders have money to burn on this position, and should import at least one veteran presence to the group. A slot receiver couldn’t hurt, either.

One problem: The 2019 free agent receiver class stinks. There’s no truly dominant options available because teams don’t let dominant No. 1's walk. They don’t trade them either (cough, cough).

There should be some veteran options with high production potential, though. Golden Tate might be the biggest fish, even at age 30. He has several 1,000-yard seasons to his credit, is durable as heck and would step off the plane as the Raiders’ No. 1 receiver. His price will be high, but the contract length might not be that long.

Larry Fitzgerald seems like a player Gruden would simply love -- think of a post-49ers Jerry Rice in Silver and Black -- but Fitzgerald said this summer he’ll only play for the Cardinals.

The Raiders could use some funds on Donte Moncrief or Qunicy Enunwa, guys who could thrive with an accurate quarterback. Geronimo Allison is an intriguing young player, but he'll be a restricted free agent. It might not be worth overpaying to get him.

Draft: Unlike the free agent crop, the 2019 NFL draft class is loaded with quality receivers. There are so many good ones, value could be had outside the first round, where the Raiders could find a future No. 1 or a speed demon to stretch the field.

There’s some discrepancy among draft analysts about positional rankings, but Mississippi’s A.J. Brown often is considered the top talent.

The Raiders might be interested in N.C. State’s Kelvin Harmon, a tough receiver with quality hands and solid route running ability.

Stanford’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside sounds like a Gruden-type receiver, a big-bodied player drawing Mike Evans comparisons.

Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown isn’t very big, but is a speed demon who can stretch the field and make dynamic plays. Opinions vary on N’Keal Harry, but he’s a big, reliable target who could be worth a high pick.

Bottom line: If the Raiders let most of their current receivers go as expected, they’ll need to retool the group with diverse skill sets to help Derek Carr move the chains and the ball downfield. They should sign a veteran, even if they keep Nelson, and draft one or two to improve a group that has fallen on hard times.

Raiders roster analysis: Offense few additions away from being dynamic

Raiders roster analysis: Offense few additions away from being dynamic

The Raiders offense is a few pieces away from being truly dynamic. They’re well-stocked at several spots, with immediate help needed in others.

We’re taking a close look at the team’s offense and defense this week on all platforms, with a podcast, stories and player rankings devoted to the offensive and defensive units.

We’ll focus first on an attack coordinated by Jon Gruden and executed by longtime Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, entering his seventh season as the starter.

Let’s take a look at the current state of each offensive position group and whether they need help in the short or long term:

Quarterback

Starter: Derek Carr

Top reserves: Marcus Mariota, Nathan Peterman

State of the position: The Raiders are incredibly deep at the position, will all three signal-callers armed with starting experience. Carr’s the clear-cut starter and Mariota ranks high among the league’s best backups. That pecking order should remain most of the year, with Carr assisted by a talented supporting cast. He’s in a great position to thrive in 2020, with Mariota offering competition and collaboration in the quarterback meeting room.

Help wanted?: This is a big year for Carr and Mariota. Quarterbacks are well-positioned for success, and struggles in 2020 could lead the Raiders to look in a different direction next offseason. If Carr thrives, he could cement himself as the starter through the remainder of his contract. Mariota can’t overtake Carr, he may want to go elsewhere next year. The Raiders could draft a young quarterback to develop, but they don’t need one.

Receivers

Starters: Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Nelson Agholor

Key reserves: Zay Jones, Marcell Ateman, Keelan Doss

State of the position: This group is missing a true No. 1. Williams is an excellent secondary option and should be better than he was in 2019, when he was dealing with foot issues. Renfrow’s a quality slot receiver who showed great chemistry with Carr down the stretch. Jones didn’t do much after an in-season trade. Agholor’s only listed as a starter until the NFL draft.

Help wanted?: The Raiders need a frontline starter they’re expected to find in the NFL draft’s first round. They could add another pass catcher in the later rounds to add depth and top talent to a position group that desperately needs more of both.

Running backs

Starters: RB Josh Jacobs, FB Alec Ingold

Key reserves: Jalen Richard, Rod Smith

State of the position: The Raiders are in great shape in the backfield, with Jacobs an elite feature back who does most everything well. Richard’s as good a third-down option as you’ll find, and Ingold a versatile fullback who works extremely well with Jacobs.

Help wanted?: The Raiders could use a young, bruising back to spell Jacobs and bring a different size and skill set to the running back room. Jacobs can be physical between the tackles, but a larger runner could help supplement an already strong ground game.

Tight ends

Starter: Darren Waller

Key reserves: Foster Moreau, Jason Witten, Darren Waller, Nick O’Leary

State of the position: There’s plenty of depth and talent in this group, so much the Raiders could keep a fourth tight end on the 53-man roster. Waller’s an elite receiving talent, Witten’s aging but still has something left and Moreau’s a solid run blocker and red zone threat. Carrier’s a glue guy who provides quality depth

Help wanted?: The Raiders are well stocked for 2020, with Waller and Moreau anchoring the position group for a long time.

Offensive line

Starters: LT Kolton Miller, LG Richie Incognito, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Trent Brown

[RELATED: NFL plans for normal 2020 season despite pandemic]

Reserves: OG Denzelle Good, OG Eric Kush, OT David Sharpe, OT Brandon Parker, G/C Andre James

State of the position: The Raiders have spent heavily on the offensive line, which should be one of the NFL’s best when healthy. They used roughly 28 percent of their salary cap on the starters alone, so they’d better be. Brown and Hudson are at the top of their field, with strong guard play expected if Jackson regains old form. They have depth on the interior, with Good more than capable in a starting role.

Help wanted?: The Raiders could use some depth at offensive tackle, maybe coming from the NFL draft’s middle rounds. Parker has struggled in pass protection and Sharpe is improving but has to continue his development.

Jon Gruden, Raiders could return to glory with expanded NFL playoffs

Jon Gruden, Raiders could return to glory with expanded NFL playoffs

The Raiders were a two-point conversion away from ending their 2019 campaign on a high note. Derek Carr and Hunter Renfrow connected in the end zone with 11 seconds left in the regular-season finale at Denver but couldn’t replicate success on the game’s decisive play.

Carr’s pass fell to the turf, essentially securing the Raiders’ 16-15 loss to the Broncos. The result didn’t matter much. The Raiders would’ve finished the season 8-8 with a win. Their NFL draft picks improved with a loss.

If the Raiders would have won that game and NFL operated under a new and expanded playoff format approved Tuesday in a conference call with league owners, the Raiders would’ve made the postseason.

The Silver and Black would have claimed the AFC’s No. 7 seed and the final playoff spot in a format that includes an extra team and an extra game in each conference. A total of 14 teams now make the playoffs, with only the No. 1 seed granted a first-round bye and three games per conference in the wild-card round.

They would’ve advanced on a strength of victory tiebreaker over the Steelers. Creating that alternate reality entailed a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda, enough to make your head spin.

Plain and simple: The Raiders didn’t deserve to make the playoffs after fading down the stretch, with ample opportunity to right the ship and get in. They ran out of gas due to poor depth and a rash of injuries to vital players, and couldn’t get the job done. 

But the Silver and Black should be contenders for a 2020 postseason berth if things go right with their improved defense and an offense that could be dynamic if the Raiders pick the right receiver(s) in next month’s NFL draft.

The extra playoff spot will certainly help the Raiders and similar teams trying to get from the middle of the pack to the AFC’s top tier.

[RELATED: Vegas could host 2022 draft]

It’ll be beneficial for the Raiders playing in the AFC West. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs should be good for a long time, especially with Patrick Mahomes behind center. Adding an extra wild-card spot should help the Raiders make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and just the second time since the 2002 season.

The Raiders were 6-4 and in great standing before falling on hard times and finishing 2019 with a whimper despite receiving tons of help in their playoff quest. They were formally eliminated from playoff contention entering that 2019 finale in Denver but would’ve been alive if there were a seventh spot.

They could be in a similar situation next season and should be better suited to perform well down the stretch while fighting for the playoffs.