Chris Harris

NFL free agency: How Raiders stack up with Chiefs, AFC West rivals

NFL free agency: How Raiders stack up with Chiefs, AFC West rivals

NFL free agency hit like a tidal wave last week, as some of the league's best players headed for news homes with better paychecks.

The AFC West was at the forefront of the dealing as the Raiders, Los Angles Chargers and Denver Broncos do whatever they can to close the gap between themselves and the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

So, as NBC Sports Bay Area Raiders insider Scott Bair and I discussed on the latest edition of The Raiders Talk Podcast, let's grade how each AFC West team did and see where the Silver and Black now stack up against their rivals.

Raiders

Additions: Marcus Mariota, Jason Witten, Cory Littleton, Eli Apple, Nick Kwiatkoski, Jeff Heath, Carl Nassib, Nelson Agholor, Maliek Collins, Daniel Ross and Nick O'Leary.
Subtractions: Tahir Whitehead, Karl Joseph, Daryl Worley

The Raiders' defense got a lot better with the addition of Littleton and Kwiatkoski, two three-down, play-making linebackers who can cover tight ends. Littleton, 26, is a great athlete, a sure tackler and adept at rushing the passer. Those additions were made to help combat Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce who has been a nightmare in the pattern. The addition of Apple, should he become consistent, gives the Raiders a physical corner to put on the likes of Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins to try and slow down the track team in KC.

Grade: A-minus. The Raiders got loads better on defense. While they whiffed on Byron Jones and Chris Harris, they still made wholesale improvements and the additions at linebacker should allow them to better defend the Chiefs -- in theory.

Denver Broncos

Additions: A.J. Bouye, Jurrell Casey, Graham Glasgow, Melvin Gordon, Nick Vannett, Sam Martin Jeff Driskel
Subtractions: Chris Harris, Joe Flacco, Conor McGovern, Will Parks

I really like what the Broncos did on defense. They traded for Bouye, giving them a No. 1 corner and a healthy Bryce Callahan should help them lessen the blow of losing Harris in the slot. They then somehow got the Titans to trade them Casey, who still is a productive player.

Adding Glasgow is a good addition to what was a suspect offensive line last year. There's still no reason why they should have given Melvin Gordon $8 million a year, when they have Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Gordon looked slow, unathletic and couldn't hold onto the ball last season. Maybe I should try out for the Broncos?

Grade: B. I love the defensive additions and if Bradley Chubb returns healthy this will be one of the better defenses in the NFL. They didn't get another receiver opposite Courtland Sutton and appear to be convinced Drew Lock is the guy. Best of luck.

Kansas City Chiefs

Additions: Mike Remmer, Antonio Hamilton
Subtractions: Kendall Fuller, Emmanuel Ogbah, Stefen Wisniewski

The Chiefs' roster is stacked and they know the bill for Mahomes is coming due soon. They lost one corner in Fuller and the other starting corner Bashaud Breeland currently is a free agent. That's a big issue for a defense that started to come on toward the end of the season. 

But they franchise-tagged Chris Jones and were able to retain Mike Penne and Anthony Sherman. They'll have a decision to make with Sammy Watkins, who currently is the highest-paid player on the roster, but the champs did well to keep most of the group together.

Grade: B-minus. Losing both starting cornerbacks hurts. But they still have Mahomes and the most dynamic offense in the league.

[RELATED: Five bold predictions for 2020 NFL Draft]

Los Angeles Chargers

Additions: Chris Harris, Trai Turner, Bryan Bulaga, Linval Joseph and Nick Vigil
Subtractions: Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Thomas Davis, Russell Okung, Derek Watt, Travis Benjamin and Adrian Phillips

The Bolts were wheeling and dealing. They waved goodbye to franchise quarterback Philip Rivers and took a swing at Tom Brady. They missed. So they currently are planning to go into the season with Tyrod Taylor as the starter. It's not great. They should give Cam Newton a call whenever they can get him in for a physical, but that could take some time due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Adding Harris and Joseph to a defensive unit that already includes Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Casey Hayward means this could be one of the best units in football if healthy.

They also franchise-tagged Hunter Henry and kept Austin Ekeler around. It's a complete roster except for the most important position in sports.

Grade: B-plus. This has room to go up if they sign Newton or give the keys to Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa in the draft. Taylor is a solid NFL backup quarterback. But this roster is loaded and that defense has the parts to at least combat the best weapons the Chiefs have. Just have to find a quarterback.

The AFC West is one of the deepest divisions in the NFL.

The three teams chasing the Chiefs each made moves to try and stake claim to the No. 2 spot in the division and a shot at the wild-card spot.

The Raiders did well to bulk up their defense and surely will add more important pieces come draft time. Their offensive line when healthy can hold up against the best rushers in the division. With improved quarterback play from Derek Carr or a relief appearance from a reborn Marcus Mariota, the Raiders have the pieces to be the second-best team in the AFC West. They still are a couple of leagues behind the Chiefs, but that will happen when you are chasing a generational talent who has yet to enter his prime.

I expect the Raiders, Chargers and Broncos to beat up on each other in what looks like a relatively even AFC West after the Chiefs.

The Silver and Black are on the rise. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have a clear plan and are executing it, choosing to play the long game in a multi-year rebuild. They've checked some boxes and have more holes to fill -- most notably wide receiver and cornerback -- but I expect them to compete for eight or nine wins and a wild-card spot if things go right.

Chris Harris rejected Raiders' three-year contract to join Chargers

Chris Harris rejected Raiders' three-year contract to join Chargers

The Raiders have spent the start of the new year league year restocking their defense. 

Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock addressed all three levels of the defense during the opening week of free agency, including landing linebacker Cory Littleton to help bolster a linebacking corps that has been a problem area for years. 

Littleton was the Raiders' big fish, but they wanted to nab a second one. The Silver and Black made a three-year offer to cornerback Chris Harris, but the former Denver Bronco turned them down to sign with the Los Angeles Chargers. 

Harris told 9News' Mike Klis that he elected to sign with the Bolts because he "didn't feel comfortable" with the Raiders and liked the Chargers' defense led by Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Derwin James and Casey Hayward. 

The veteran cornerback ended up signing for two years and $17 million, according to Klis. 

Harris had been a star in the slot for Denver but struggled playing mostly outside in 2019. Of course, struggled is relative to the All-Pro level he played at before. Harris still was one of the top 30 cornerbacks, per PFF WAR, and would have been a good mentor for blossoming star Trayvon Mullen. 

The Raiders instead signed Eli Apple, who is expected to compete for the starting job opposite Mullen. With the Raiders whiffing on Harris, though, they could look to draft a cornerback at No. 19 with the linebacker hole now filled. LSU's Kristian Fulton, Clemson's A.J. Terrell and Florida's C.J. Henderson are expected to be available later in the first round.

[RELATED: Five still-available free agents who can help Raiders]

Harris rebuffing the Raiders shows the Silver and Black still have a ways to go to build up what veterans believe is a championship-worthy defense. But the work Mayock and Gruden did by signing Littleton, Apple, edge rusher Carl Nassib, safety Jeff Heath, defensive tackle Maliek Collins and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski will go along way to improving what was a sieve of a unit last season. 

Raiders still hunting top talent in NFL free agency, within reason

Raiders still hunting top talent in NFL free agency, within reason

The Raiders are not necessarily looking to make a splash in NFL free agency. This isn’t, after all, about optics.

They are interested in making immediate and dramatic upgrades to a lackluster defense especially, with the salary cap space and gumption to pull a big deal off for a coveted player.

They weren’t particularly successful doing so last year, with Trent Brown being the only big-money signing to come up smelling like roses. The Tyrell Williams and Lamarcus Joyner deals smell a smidge different, though there’s hope for better in 2020.

That didn’t prevent the Raiders from trolling for big fish again this year, especially at cornerback and linebacker. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock went hard after former Dallas cornerback Byron Jones, only to get bested by Miami’s massive last-minute offer.

They’re still in on Cory Littleton, a source said, a former Los Angeles Ram and an ideal modern linebacker with excellent coverage ability and would pair well with reported Monday addition Nick Kwiatkoski on the interior. He could end up costing eight figures in average annual salary, maybe as much as $15 million per year. That would be a hefty sum for a team previously loathe to pay big for interior linebackers. At 26 and with his skill set, Littleton might be worth it.

They remain undeterred in their aim to sign a shutdown cornerback to play opposite Trayvon Mullen, with Chris Harris Jr. now in their sights. They fully understand veteran cover men are expensive and are willing to pay the price for a premium position.

They have limits, something that was clear in the Jones pursuit and in several instances since Mayock came aboard last year. The Raiders GM has patience and discipline in these proceedings despite Gruden’s power of final say, executing the draft extremely well, with several trade-downs that still netted coveted prospects.

Harris will be cheaper than Jones at age 31 and prefers playing outside despite owning significant experience in the slot. Joyner seems poised to stay there despite his abilities at free safety. The Raiders also reportedly went after Jimmie Ward, who ended up re-signing with the 49ers.

There’s a possibility a receiver comes aboard at some point in this process, and those guys don’t come cheap either.

That doesn’t mean they’re splash signings designed to sell tickets upon entering the Las Vegas market in 2020. The Raiders are willing to pay top dollar for their guy, but they won’t overpay for the P.R. bump. That’s important to remember as we proceed through this crazy week. The Raiders want top-tier impact players but won’t go above a set ceiling to get them.

[RELATED: Why Mariota-Raiders marriage makes sense for both sides]

We’d be remiss if we didn’t continue to address one guy the Raiders have set a high ceiling to get.

That’s Tom Brady.

While the Raiders reportedly aren't among the frontrunners, they would make a hard sell to get him in silver and black and pay top dollar to make that happen. The NFL world waits for Brady’s decision and, if the Raiders have an off chance to push for him, they’ll try to make it happen. That said, it seems likely the Silver and Black go into 2020 with Derek Carr as the starting quarterback and Marcus Mariota pushing him from the No. 2 slot.