Jordy Nelson

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.

Jordy Nelson, Tahir Whitehead headline Raiders virtually locked in for 2019

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USATSI/AP

Jordy Nelson, Tahir Whitehead headline Raiders virtually locked in for 2019

ALAMEDA – The Raiders decided to pay out some bonuses well before they came due. Jordy Nelson, Tahir Whitehead, Lee Smith and Kyle Wilber got big, fat checks this week, more than three months ahead of their due date, ESPN first reported, to help spread cap hits over this year and the next.

Financial dealings like this aren’t of great importance on the surface. What they mean, however, goes beyond dollars and cents.

It virtually locks the aforementioned players onto the 2019 roster, unlike they were before. Each guy could’ve been cut before his roster bonus came due without dead money attached. Their salaries were not guaranteed.

“Normally when you hand out a bonus for next year’s season,” coach Jon Gruden said Friday, “there’s a pretty good chance those guys are coming back.”

[RELATED: Gareon Conley, Maurice Hurst questionable vs. Chiefs in Week 17]

Nelson and Whitehead are the big fish in the group. The former was given a $3.6 million bonus, while the latter was given $3.35 million.

Nelson’s return was somewhat of a question mark given his salary and a marked production drop after midseason, but the veteran wide receiver and quarterback Derek Carr have found great sync in recent weeks. He has 54 catches for 661 yards this season, and has been a great leader on the sideline and in the meeting room.

“If you watched Jordy play carefully the last four weeks when he’s been healthy, you see what he’s capable of doing,” Gruden said. “I think as we continue to improve this football team around some of the core guys that are here, I think you can even see better and better days ahead. So yeah, he’ll be back.”

[RELATED: Why Raiders should add ballhawk safety in offseason]

Nelson will be a constant in a position that will turn over around him this offseason, when a talent influx is expected through free agency and the NFL draft.

Whitehead has been a mentor and great example for a linebacker group where everyone else taking steady defensive snaps has less that two full seasons of NFL experience.

The younger players look up to him and, after a start devoid of big plays, Whitehead has come on strong in recent weeks. He signed a three-year, $18 million deal with nothing guaranteed beyond 2018, but paying the roster bonus early shows commitment to him. Whitehead appreciates that, and the opportunity to see this rebuilding project reach better days.

“It’s great knowing they have faith in me to lead this position group and hold the reins while we take things to the next level,” Whitehead said. “I take pride in leading the group, and I make sure to act in such a manner that I do the right things and that I don’t betray that trust with the coaches and organization. I want to lead by example with everything I do around here.”

Jordy Nelson plans to return in 2019; Raiders should welcome him back

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USATSI

Jordy Nelson plans to return in 2019; Raiders should welcome him back

ALAMEDA -- Jordy Nelson doesn’t plan on playing until he’s 40. The veteran wide receiver won’t be one of those guys who plays until his body cries uncle, finding instead a proper time and place to walk away from the NFL game that has given him so much.

That time isn’t now. Nelson plans to return for a 12th season and his second in silver and black.

He’s under contract to do so, as he's owed $7.2 million in base salary and bonuses, though none of it is guaranteed until March 2019.

So, the Raiders could release Nelson without penalty, but that’s seeming less likely, given his quality production rate and leadership down this season’s stretch.

"I plan to (return),” Nelson said Wednesday. “It’s not always the player’s decision. Yeah, that’s the plan. We’ve enjoyed our time out here so far, enjoyed being with the team and starting the rebuilding process and being a part of that."

Nelson was acquired by the Raiders shortly after being released by the Green Bay Packers, and Michael Crabtree was sent out. The swap has gleaned similar production but a better locker-room presence.

Nelson and quarterback Derek Carr recently have been in great sync, connecting 29 times for 308 yards on 34 targets over the past four games. According to analytics site Pro Football Focus, Nelson has caught every catchable ball during that span, and he hasn’t had a drop since Week 3.

Reliability is a real asset in Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s offense, where receivers must be smart, adjust on the fly and catch most everything throw their way.

“He’s a good player, as good as you’ll ever get the chance to coach,” Gruden said. "He is so instinctive, so smart, so versatile and so team oriented. That’s why he is here. I think he’s got close to 30 catches in the last four games. He’s healthy, he’s learned our offense, and he’s learned how to play anywhere on the line. Third down or any down, he is still a really good quality wide receiver.”

While the Raiders certainly could let Nelson go this offseason (or ask him to take a pay cut), he could provide stability during what’s expected to be a positional overhaul this offseason. He isn’t cheap, but the Raiders easily can afford his freight, which is worthy of a quality possession receiver.

Nelson had a midseason lull, when a bone bruise slowed him down and the ball rarely went his way. He had three catches for 30 yards on nine targets (over four games!), leading some to consider him washed up. While he doesn’t have blazing speed, Nelson can find separation when healthy and is a friendly target when yards are must-have.

[RELATED: Raiders have no chance at No. 1 overall pick in 2019 NFL Draft]

It has taken some time to get rolling, but Carr and Nelson have found a groove likely (though ultimately uncertain) to continue next season.

“Anytime you get new receivers and they’re going to be a focal point, it does take some time,” Carr said. “I would say that, especially when he came off his injury, he was healthy and we had a lot of time on task. Obviously, I trust him. He’s a great receiver.

"It was really that Colts game [on Oct. 28] where I felt like we were ready to hit it rolling. Then he ended up hitting his knee or whatever, and he was out. When he got healthy, just ever since then, he’s a trustworthy guy that does things the right way. Usually guys like that, the ball ends up finding them.”