The Raiders have a big offseason ahead with plenty of needs to fill. Choices made during this process will create a domino effect that impacts others during this important time of year.
The players cut before the league year starts will create more salary-cap space, but more roster vacancies to fill later in the year. The veterans signed will occupy spots and fill needs that will, in turn, narrow focus for the NFL draft. The Raiders will form a roster to develop in Alameda and take to Napa for training camp before formally debuting in Las Vegas.
That group and its coaches must prove worthy of more than seven wins and a real shot at a playoff berth. Expectations have been raised after 2019’s progress, especially with tremendous returns from the last draft class.
“We’re building our team, and we’re building it with football character,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “This young class is a big part of our process here, and we’re going to stack another class next year just like it.”
That’s the goal, with the draft haul possibility the last major piece of an offseason full of tough decisions. Here are five big questions Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock must answer before this offseason’s out:
1. What to do with Derek Carr?
The Raiders should keep Derek Carr and use all available assets to improve the defense and offensive depth chart around him. I went on record with that in Wednesday morning’s story and stand by it. There was, if you recall, a caveat. Keep Carr unless … Gruden and Mayock identify a quarterback truly special.
You don’t swap out very, very, very good for just okay. You don’t cut or trade a top talent growing within the system for a developmental roll of the dice.
That’s my take. Some will be with me. Others will rail against. I’m fine with either.
Gruden and Mayock (and maybe owner Mark Davis) have the only opinions that matter. Gruden ultimately will make the final call on a quarterback he never once has ripped in public. He never has suggested the Raiders would move on from Carr, though he left himself some wiggle room last week when pressed on the matter.
"Derek played well," Gruden said. "I'm not going to get into all the next-year scenarios. I'm just going to say that 7-9 is a step forward. We took a step forward. Statistically, I think we took a step forward. We've got to get a lot of guys healthy and we've got a lot of things to look at and evaluate before we start making any assumptions."
Let’s take assumptions and opinions out of it for a second. You’ll hear plenty of them this offseason, in addition to rumors that the Raiders are in love with this draft-eligible quarterback or that free agent or simply fed up with Carr. Take them all with a speck of sand.
Let’s focus instead on the ramifications of moving on from Carr. The Raiders can cut him this offseason and save $16.5 million against the cap, with $5 million in dead money. That penalty decreases the following year. Dead money shouldn’t impact the decision. The Raiders are in great shape with the cap and can make their quarterback decision based upon merits.
This free-agent class of quarterback has more established passers than usual, so the Raiders also have options there should they need a shorter-term solution.
No matter what they do, the Raiders should be decisive and bold. There’s no point in keeping Carr and drafting a passer to develop. That won’t quiet the noise. Either stick with Carr or move on. No in-betweens.
2. Will the Raiders sign big fish in free agency?
The Raiders have $67 million in salary-cap space entering this offseason with opportunities to create more. There are some high-priced casualties possible to create even more flexibility. You’ve heard me demand a top-flight receiver -- we’ll address that prospect next -- and the Raiders could go get Robby Anderson out of New York.
Gruden has a history of getting returns from aging receivers, and A.J. Green’s on the market coming off injury. He might pair well with a young phenom.
That’s not the position I want to discuss. In fact, it wasn’t even ranked high on Wednesday’s biggest needs. Let's talk game-changing interior defensive linemen.
Stealing Chris Jones from Kansas City is an intriguing possibility. He can be the pass-rushing three technique Paul Guenther loves, with the added bonus of taking talent from an AFC West rival. He held out to start the 2019 preseason, so he means business. Jones won’t be cheap but could be a real asset inside two young pass rushers and maybe another acquired in the draft.
If the Raiders are thinking edge rusher -- they shied away from that market last year -- Yannick Ngakoue’s an intriguing option to pair with Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell. Jacksonville could well let him walk, and the Raiders could pounce by backing up the Brinks truck.
Whether they get Anderson or Green or Jones or Ngakoue or not, here’s the bottom line: The Raiders have money to spend smart. They weren’t great in free agency last year, hitting on Trent Brown but missing on Lamcarus Joyner and Tyrell Williams. Free agency should be a smart bomb launched at a defensive lineman like Jones or a receiver or maybe an established defensive back at some level.
I’d bet Gruden takes on one massive contract and several smaller ones to add an establish player to a roster largely built through the draft.
3. Should Tyrell Williams stick around?
The Raiders signed Tyrell Williams to a four-year, $44 million contract that’s essentially pay-as-you-go. He wasn’t worth the $11 million he got paid during a frustrating 2019 season plagued by a season-long bout of plantar fasciitis.
Jon Gruden said the Raiders believe Williams can be better than he was in 2019. If that’s the case, Williams could be an excellent accent to a top NFL draft pick. He could be a solid second option at receiver, especially with Hunter Renfrow next to him in the slot.
The Raiders will have to weigh the free-agent market, their financial commitments and decide whether to give Williams’ money to someone else. That decision isn’t automatic, and surely will involve a pros and cons list.
4. How will Raiders use two first-round picks?
Receiver at No. 12 overall, then linebacker or best damn defensive player available at No. 19. Or vice versa. Whatever works.
The Raiders need help so bad in both areas that they seem essential at this point. Sure, the receiver class is super deep and talent can be found in later rounds, but go get a good one early.
Let’s not forget about Gruden’s willingness to deal and Mayock’s NFL contacts that could help swapping picks. Having two first-round picks -- one is theirs, the other comes from Chicago as part of the Khalil Mack package -- allows the Raiders to make serious moves, including a massive trade up to get an elite prospect.
There’s no telling at this point what they’ll do, but the Raiders surely will be an intriguing team on the draft's opening day.
5. Will Vontaze Burfict come back?
The Raiders were mad as holy heck when middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict was suspended the rest of 2019 following a Week 4 ejection from an illegal hit. They have criticized the league’s position on the matter, despite Burfict’s track record for dirty play. Gruden and Carr spoke at Burfict’s appeal, which fell on deaf ears.
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Guenther has supported his friend and field general time and again, leaving the solid possibility of a return to the Raiders. How would that impact the linebacker corps? The Raiders need more than one this offseason no matte what, but it’s hard to count on Burfict when the next big hit could be his last?
Is it worth the risk of relying on Burfict with the chance of losing him again? If the Raiders do bring Burfict back, they’d better have a Plan B and plenty of depth behind that.