Vontaze Burfict

Raiders have tough choices ahead with players headed for NFL free agency

Raiders have tough choices ahead with players headed for NFL free agency

The Raiders will have a busy offseason with significant roster turnover. That’s the Jon Gruden way, after all, especially while reconstructing this roster after a major teardown in 2018.

We’ve discussed the team’s biggest offseason needs, the possibility of some high-profile cuts and some early ideas on free-agent targets.

The Raiders have to make decisions on their own players with expiring contracts.

They’ve already retained one this week, signing interior lineman Denzelle Good to a one-year contract.

Many others, however, won’t be heading to Vegas. The Raiders have 19 players headed for unrestricted free agency in March, and obviously won’t keep them all. Some will be allowed to walk out the front door. Others will sign contracts the Silver and Black weren’t willing to match. A few should remain with the Raiders.

Open-market value obviously weighs heavily on these decisions, but we can still take an early look at soon-to-be free agents with the highest profiles and whether the Raiders should chase hard or simply let them leave:

CB Daryl Worley: Coaches like Worley’s toughness and versatility and appreciated his willingness to move around the secondary in an attempt to shore up weak spots. Worley is a serviceable outside cornerback, but the Silver and Black should look for a better long-term solution. The Raiders could still re-sign him as a bridge cornerback while developing Isaiah Johnson, though Worley might not like that. He’s looking for the biggest financial commitment, which likely will be found somewhere else.
My take: Consider keeping him on a shorter-term deal, but don’t get into a bidding war. Under those circumstances, I bet he bounces. 

S Karl Joseph: The Raiders could’ve locked Joseph up for 2020 but declined his fifth-year option. That will put him on the market this spring in a weird place. Joseph played some of his best football last year, providing a steady, physical presence in the back while working with Erik Harris. He’s also coming off a foot injury that ended his season early and required surgery. That might depress his market value, though he’s expected to make a full recovery. Joseph would pair well with Johnathan Abram in the back and might not be overly expensive. The Raiders also could move Lamarcus Joyner to safety or acquire another one. Erik Harris already is under contract as excellent depth, negating the need to bring Joseph back.
My take: Re-sign him, focus draft assets on other positions. (P.S. I’m not sure the Raiders agree)

LB Vontaze Burfict: The Raiders defended Burfict at every turn after he was suspended for the final 12 games of the 2019 season after an illegal hit against Indianapolis that got him ejected. A major suspension, maybe even an outright ban, is possible if he makes a similar mistake. I still think the Raiders re-sign Burfict despite those facts. Paul Guenther loves him as a friend and field general but obviously will have a quality Plan B in the middle.
My take: I believe Burfict comes back.

RB Jalen Richard: The third-down back saw fewer carries than he is accustomed used to but is a quality receiver and an excellent pass protector. He’s a tougher runner inside than you’d think and is a big play waiting to happen. Josh Jacobs might be the featured back, but Richard’s an important part of that position group.
My take: Re-sign him right away.

KR/PR Dwayne Harris: Jon Gruden loves Harris, but the lightning-quick special teams standout hurt the Raiders more than he helped in 2019. He was unavailable most of the year and will be 33 next season. The Raiders need to find a new return man.
My take: Let him walk.

[RELATED: Five key offseason questions Raiders brass must answer]

DE Benson Mayowa: The veteran was a situational pass rusher who had a bunch of sacks early and faded late. His career-high seven sacks should provide a solid payday, and he’s going to whichever team is the highest bidder. That team won’t be the Raiders.
My take: Mayowa’s on the move.

LB Will Compton: The veteran was pondering retirement before the Raiders came calling during the season but proved he can still play. Compton’s a sure tackler, a smart player, and a great locker-room presence. He could help on special teams and provide a veteran Plan B for Burfict, mentoring a linebacking group that should feature some highly-touted additions.
My take: Bring him back another year.

DL Dion Jordan: Gruden and Guenther called Jordan a Las Vegas Raider several times last season. They found a diamond in the rough, with Jordan on the right path and in great shape following a 10-game suspension to start the season. The Raiders liked his interior pass-rush ability and need it again next year. I believe the Raiders want him back and that Jordan wants to return, but another team might throw a bigger compensation package at him. He takes it if that happens.
My take: Re-sign him before free agency hits. His value might inflate on the open market.

RB DeAndre Washington: Washington was a true feature back during the season’s last two games, with Jacobs nursing a sore shoulder. He knows those opportunities won’t exist with the Raiders unless Jacobs is hurt. That’s why -- while he says he’s open to a return -- he’ll look for a better opportunity somewhere else. That should be fine with the Raiders, who should fill his roster spot with a bigger back.
My take: Washington finds another landing spot.

CB Nevin Lawson: The veteran played better over the last few games and provided quality depth and injury protection all season. He isn’t vital to future plans and could be allowed to walk away so Johnson, Keisean Nixon and maybe another draft pick could be in a better position to play.
My take: Let him go.

LB Kyle Wilber: He doesn’t play much defense but has been a core special teams player who's well-liked by coordinator Rich Bisaccia. The Raiders have developed young players to lead in the kicking game, meaning they don’t need Wilber as bad as they have before.
My take: Let Wilber walk.

QB Mike Glennon: The Raiders will want to get younger at backup quarterback. That spot could go to Nathan Peterman if Derek Carr is around. Or, if the Raiders make a quarterback switch, it could be a draft pick learning under a free-agent pickup.
My take: Mike’s on to another team no matter how it shakes out.

Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock must answer these Raiders offseason questions

Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock must answer these Raiders offseason questions

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.

[RELATED: Raiders see bright future thanks to their 2019 draft class]

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. 

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.