ALAMEDA – Wide receiver might’ve been the Raiders’ greatest team strength entering the 2019 campaign.
They had an elite No. 1 in Antonio Brown, a dynamic and steady producer set to be the offensive centerpiece. They had Tyrell Williams as a big-bodied No. 2 who was a faster-than-you-think deep threat. Ryan Grant was established as a quality No. 3, with Hunter Renfrow as a rookie slot receiver looking to make an instant impact. J.J. Nelson had sprinter’s speed and was pushing for a bigger role in training camp
Quarterback Derek Carr was excited to work with that deep and talented group. It fell apart before the season even started. Before long, Carr was throwing to receivers he had just met.
The position group imploded, thanks in massive part to Brown. The volatile, self-centered receiver put the team that traded for him through the wringer, with one problem after another until he was eventually cut without earning a dime of his three-year, $50 million contract extension.
That transaction alone downgraded the Raiders' receiver group from an "A" to a "C." Then Tyrell Williams sustained foot injuries in Week 2 that he battled all season. Then Grant proved ineffective and got cut. Nelson was rarely available and got cut, too.
The Raiders were left to piece the position group together in-season with low-grade trades. Williams never got completely right, with his plantar fasciitis hindering his effectiveness. This group suffered from all that turnover and a key injury, so it’s no surprise the Raiders need a positional overhaul heading into this offseason.
“We still have some young guys that are still somewhat unproven,” coach Jon Gruden said Monday, “but we’ll be looking to strengthen that group, yes.”
Renfrow’s the only carryover locked into the lineup. The fifth-round draft pick developed into an excellent slot receiver impactful on important downs working the middle of the field. He’s a bigger down-field threat than you’d expect for someone of his size, with the potential to be an impactful player for a long time.
“We asked him to do a lot in the last few weeks and he delivered,” Gruden said. “He ran some routes [last week against the Denver Broncos] that were outstanding, but to answer your question, I just think he’s earned that status. When you practice the way he practices and you do the things that he does, you can’t help but try and feature him a little bit more and more.”
The Raiders burned a 2020 sixth-round pick on Trevor Davis who was acquired from the Green Bay Packers and cut before season’s end. They used a 2021 fifth-round pick on Zay Jones, who had zero chemistry with Carr and didn’t do much while playing a lot. He had a year left on his rookie deal, but the jury’s out on whether he’ll make next year’s roster.
Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have a tough decision ahead with Williams. He signed a four-year, $44 million deal last offseason that’s essentially pay-as-you-go, meaning they can break free from it this year without dead money attached.
The Raiders could offer than money to another veteran or stick with Williams believing better’s ahead when he’s healthy. Williams hadn’t missed an NFL game before this season and has been a 1,000-yard receiver when given the chance, with a track record as a good No. 2 throughout his career.
“We have to go back and I watch him in training camp and Week 1 when he was healthy against Denver, and he’s a talented guy,” Gruden said. “But it’s hard to play when your feet are on fire and his feet were hurting bad. It’s a credit to him to play through it, but we need to get him healthy. We got to get his situation resolved, that was a lengthy discussion we had [in a Monday exit interview]. But we think he’s an excellent football player, he’s just got to get right.”
The Raiders need additions even if Williams remains.
It seems likely and logical the Raiders use one of two first-round draft picks on a receiver. This draft class is loaded at the position, with the prospect of landing another good one with one of three third-round picks.
The Raiders could cut Williams and use money earmarked for him on someone else, though the receiver free-agent class looks only so-so. New York Jets receiver Robby Anderson’s an intriguing talent. Gruden has used older receivers to great effect before, with A.J. Green and Emmanuel Sanders set to hit the market.
Is that better than keeping Williams, who will be 28 next year, and surrounding his even temperament and quiet leadership with talented young players from the draft?
There’s no doubt the Raiders will address the position group at several points this offseason as they try to help a productive run game and make this offense deeper and steadily dynamic.
“Yup,” Gruden said. “We are going to have to take a good look at it.”