Ranking Raiders' top five position needs to fill in 2020 NFL offseason

Ranking Raiders' top five position needs to fill in 2020 NFL offseason

The Raiders made it to 7-9 this season despite some significant talent deficiencies. It’s just a fact. Excellent rookie play covered some of that up. Resilience did the rest.

The Raiders were, before they ran out of gas near season’s end, far better than the sum of their parts.

And no, that’s not a backhanded compliment. It’s a sign of progress during a multiyear roster rebuild that’s far from complete.

Closing the season with five losses in six weeks exposed fatal flaws and illustrated how much work lies ahead. 

Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have great tools to upgrade this roster, with $67 million in salary-cap space -- they can easily make more -- and five NFL draft picks in the first three rounds. That includes two in the first.

The Silver and Black can build upon an excellent 2019 NFL draft class and fill several needs that became glaring near this season progress. Here are the top five needs the Raiders must fill this offseason.

And, spoiler alert. You won’t see quarterback listed below.

I’m of the belief the Raiders should keep Derek Carr and upgrade the roster around him. He’s a quality QB working with an excellent supporting cast. Unless Gruden/Mayock identify someone truly special in the draft, stick with Carr.

That will infuriate half this story’s readers. Yeah, Carr’s that polarizing. I just think that, at this time, the Raiders' assets are best used fortifying this roster at these positions.

1. Receiver

I seriously considered having some fun with this ranking by listing receiver twice, maybe even three times. That’s how bad the position group needs upgrades after the Antonio Brown fallout. We won’t rehash all that here, but it decimated the receiver corps. Brown never played a down and the in-season trades couldn’t even offer a quick fix.

In sum, the Raiders need quality receivers in bulk.

The Raiders simply must draft a receiver with one of two first-round NFL draft picks. Then they should draft another in the third round.

They should also add a veteran free agent, no matter what they decide to do with Tyrell Williams’ pay-as-you-go contract. If they part with Williams after one injury-plagued season, they can spend big on veteran help. The free-agent class is as light as the NFL draft class is deep, so they have to choose wisely if they give Williams’ money to someone else.

2. Linebacker

If receiver could’ve occupied three spots on this list, linebacker could’ve held the other two. The Raiders should essentially start over at linebacker after another terrible year at the heart of their defense.

It’s time to cut bait and release Tahir Whitehead, a great guy and good leader who simply doesn’t make enough plays. That would free up $6.25 million in salary cap space.

It’s time to draft a linebacker earlier than the fourth round for the first time since Rolando McClain, and it’s time to use a first-round pick to do it. Or package third-rounders to get a good one in the second. Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons seems ideal, though he might not make it to No. 12.

I think the Raiders have set a stage to bring Vontaze Burfict back after his 12-game suspension, but they can’t bank on someone working with a zero-tolerance policy for illegal hits in a game influenced by adrenaline.

The Raiders need two linebackers at least, a drafted player and a vet. And they should keep Will Compton for good measure. It’s time to set this position up for the future, and use assets required to do it right.

3. Defensive line

The Raiders drafted an edge rusher fourth overall and another in the fourth round. Guess which one seems like a home run?

The draft is funny that way. Maxx Crosby had 10 sacks as a rookie and proved a three-down defensive end. Clelin Ferrell wasn’t quite so spectacular, but he made progress and should benefit from a full offseason getting bigger, faster and stronger.

That shouldn’t stop the Raiders from adding another pass rusher. Benson Mayowa’s headed to the highest bidder (as he should) and the best pass rushers come in waves. Adding a young pass rusher in the early rounds seems smart, especially considering the Raiders desire to build this defense through the draft.

The interior line’s in better shape, though a top three-technique could be attractive to coordinator Paul Guenther. Johnathan Hankins, P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst can man the middle in 2020 if a special player isn’t available at the right value, and Dion Jordan’s possible return would give the interior pass rush some juice.

Getting another edge rusher seems more important, even with Ferrell and Crosby in the fold.

4. Cornerback

The Raiders couldn’t be happier with Trayvon Mullen’s progress. Last year’s second-round pick should be a starting outside cornerback for a long, long time. It’s uncertain what the Raiders will do on his opposite side.

It’s impossible to assume Isaiah Johnson’s ready for a full-time gig after missing half the season on injured reserve and proving unable to see action later in the year.

Daryl Worley’s headed for unrestricted free agency and won’t take discounts. His market will decide his future, even if the Raiders like his versatility and toughness when playing on the outside.

It’s also time to take a look at Lamarcus Joyner’s position. The veteran prefers to play slot cornerback -- he was underwhelming inside at times in 2019 -- but might be the team’s best free safety. He could move back deep, where he played under Wade Phillips with the L.A. Rams.

His position will dictate how bad the Raiders need cornerback help.

The Raiders need a steady presence outside if Worley bolts, even if they like Johnson and Keisean Nixon. If Worley leaves and the team moves Joyner back to safety -- coaches remained steadfast Joyner stay in the slot last season -- the position group might need some shuffling around Mullen.

Also, if Joyner stays in the slot, Johnathan Abram might need a partner at safety with Erik Harris in reserve.

We’ll see how all that shakes out.

5. Running back

Josh Jacobs is a true feature back. He ran a ton in his first professional season, which should be punctuated with an Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Right now, he doesn’t have backups behind him. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington are both set for unrestricted free agency.

[RELATED: Josh Jacobs should win NFL Rookie of Year despite missing time]

The open market and outside opportunity could dictate a possible return for both or either player. But it seems clear the Raiders need a bigger back to accent Jacobs and take some of the workload off his broad shoulders.

A veteran mentor or a young bruiser could bring a different skill set 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.