Tahir Whitehead

NFL rumors: Christian Kirksey visits with Raiders after cut by Browns

NFL rumors: Christian Kirksey visits with Raiders after cut by Browns

Two days after the Raiders released linebacker Tahir Whitehead, they reportedly are taking a close look at his potential replacement.

NFL Media's Mike Garafolo reported that linebacker Christian Kirksey was visiting with Las Vegas on Wednesday, citing sources. Kirksey was released by the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday.

Kirksey, 27, has spent his entire career with Cleveland after the Browns selected him with the No. 71 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Over six seasons, he totaled 484 tackles, 11.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions across 73 games, including 54 starts. He served as a team captain from 2017-2019, but was limited to just two games last season after sustaining a chest injury in Week 2.

[RELATED: These five NFL free agents could be steals this offseason]

By cutting Whitehead, the Raiders saved $6.25 million against the salary cap. Whether through free agency, the draft, or both, the Raiders are expected to rebuild its linebacker group this offseason.

Raiders release linebacker Tahir Whitehead week before NFL free agency

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Raiders release linebacker Tahir Whitehead week before NFL free agency

The Las Vegas Raiders will have a different look at linebacker next season. 

The Raiders released Tahir Whitehead just over a week before the official start of free agency, the team announced Monday. ESPN's Field Yates first reported the news. 

Whitehead started all 16 games for the Raiders in his second season with the Silver and Black. He posted 108 tackles, but NBC Sports Bay Area's Scott Bair wrote in January that the Raiders needed to cut Whitehead in order to revamp their linebacking corps.

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Cutting Whitehead will save the Raiders $6.25 million against the salary cap, giving them the flexibility to address the position when NFL free agency officially begins next Wednesday. 

That's just one option in front of coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock, as the Raiders will have plenty of talented linebackers to pick from in the 2020 NFL Draft in April.

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.