Raiders

Ranking the Raiders' top five needs heading into free agency, NFL Draft

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AP

Ranking the Raiders' top five needs heading into free agency, NFL Draft

The Raiders season stunk. It was a throw away, in essence, used to acquire the NFL draft picks and salary cap flexibility to remake the roster as Jon Gruden sees fit.

Now is that time. The Raiders have roughly $78 million in cap space and 10 NFL draft picks, including four in the top 35 selections.

The Raiders are armed well to reload in a pivotal offseason where we could and should see significant roster turnover. Let’s rank the Raiders’ top five needs heading toward the 2019 season:

[RELATED: Mayock believes he, Gruden agree on how to build Raiders]

1. Edge rusher

The Raiders didn’t generate much pressure on the quarterback, especially from the flanks. Arden Key and Frostee Rucker were miscast as three-down players, forced into some roles that played away from their strengths.

They were forced into steady snaps after Khalil Mack got traded and a frustrated Bruce Irvin got cut, eliminating established threats off the edge.

The Raiders have to start over atop the depth chart. They could use more than one new impact edge rusher, with Key returning as the situational pass rusher he was expected to be as a rookie.

There’s enough salary cap space to sign someone in a loaded free-agent class that gets away from his team – several, including Jadeveon Clowney and Frank Clark, should re-sign with their current clubs – who can get a raise to lead the defense and provide some heat. Then the Raiders should still use their No. 4 overall pick on another edge rusher.

That could remake the defensive front, with Key in reserve and 2018 draftees Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall helping rush from the inside.

2. Receiver

Jordy Nelson is coming back in 2019. The Raiders should build a whole new position group around him. Nelson is a solid leader and a smart pass catcher who can still produce, but he doesn’t have the wheels to scare opponents anymore.

Seth Roberts is likely gone, Martavis Bryant is suspended again and Brandon LaFell won’t be back after suffering an Achilles tear. Marcell Ateman will remain, but needs more time to develop in a much smaller role.

The free-agent class is thin outside Golden Tate and a few others, but a free agent could still help the group and add experience. The Raiders should use a first-round pick on a receiver, and maybe another selection later in the draft to remake the group. Derek Carr needs dynamic threats, and didn’t have many after Amari Cooper was traded to Dallas near midseason.

3. Middle linebacker

The Raiders started the 2018 season with Marquel Lee in the middle spot, but moved him to the strong side as the year progressed. Jason Cabinda and Nick Morrow platooned at that spot after the Lee switch and were serviceable young players, but a new and dynamic presence is needed on the inside next to returning weakside linebacker Tahir Whitehead.

The Raiders haven’t devoted significant resources to this, but now might be the time to do so. A veteran makes the most sense, which would allow Cabinda and Morrow to continue developing underneath a more established player.

That guy must cover well if playing all three downs is required. Philadelphia’s Jordan Hicks seems like an affordable fit there.

4. Safety

Karl Joseph sure looked like the answer at strong safety and should be expected back next season, but his running mate is up in the air. Marcus Gilchrist was just okay as a one-year rental and Reggie Nelson won’t return, leaving the Raiders lacking at the free safety spot. Erik Harris had some good moments there, but could be a strong No. 3 who can play extensive snaps in a pinch.

There are plenty of good free agents and a few early-to-mid-round draft picks who could be the ballhawk an otherwise strong secondary could use roaming in the back.

5. Running back

Marshawn Lynch proved to be as physical and aggressive as ever early in the 2018 season, before a groin pull ended it after six weeks. Lynch’s contract expired and there’s no telling what he’ll do in 2019, though it sure seems unlikely he would come back unless the Raiders played within the Oakland city limits.

[RELATED: Raiders reportedly discussing San Diego as 2019 home]

Doug Martin finished strong after Lynch got hurt, but he’ll be 30 next season and there could be some questions about whether he could stand up to a full season as a feature back. Jalen Richard is expected back in restricted free agency and Chris Warren III will be ready to go after a rookie year spent on IR.

The Raiders could and probably should look for a young runner in the draft who can compete for or grow into a large role on first and second down. There’s always a possibility Le’Veon Bell could end up with the Raiders, but it seems are more likely they'll add versatile depth to the position group.

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.