Year one for the Jon Gruden led Oakland Raiders was an unmitigated disaster outside of the high profile coaching staff that was put together. Between trading Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, giving up 50 sacks, and not being able to produce any pressure, the Raiders have officially hit the reset button in a big way.
According to Overthecap.com, the Raiders after advancing the 2019 bonuses of several players on contract through 2019, the team has approximately 83 million dollars in cap space. This amount ranks fifth in the NFL for total cap space behind only the Colts, Jets, Bills, and Browns. To accompany that cap space is four draft picks in the first 36 picks in the 2019 NFL Draft. For new general manager Mike Mayock, this is a great deal of resources to get the Raiders back on track quickly.
The addition of the former NFL Network draft analyst adds some serious legitimacy to the Raider draft war room. His lack of NFL front office experience raises some questions regarding how the team will handle free agency, but that will likely be an approach formed by the vision of Gruden. Mayock will provide his greatest value in the player evaluations he provides and determining how those players fit the specific needs of this coaching staff. The lack of this approach is what ultimately doomed former eneral manager Reggie McKenzie.
One of the many questions for fans as the 2019 NFL off-season approaches is, “What positions do we fix, and how do we fix them?” Gruden is the man who ultimately calls the shots, but he laid out a narrative of efficient spending and a focus on depth as opposed to stars as he traded away talents such as Mack and Cooper. This concerted effort to push a specific narrative regarding how a team should spend its money should inform fans about how the front office will utilize the resources it has.
Depending on how you feel about the future for Derek Carr and Jon Gruden will highly influence how one views this position long term. Mayock is a passionate believer in Carr and expressed that it would be impossible to give him a fair evaluation for the 2018 season. Regardless, this position has some competent talent in free agency if the Raiders receive a significant offer from a quarterback needy team. The draft will likely see no or possibly one quarterback with a round one grade, even though several will be drafted in round one. Even if the Raiders were to trade Carr, they would take a dead cap hit of 7.5 million dollars.
Add to that the potential cost for a free agent quarterback would be in the 15 million dollar range, the Raiders would save no money moving Carr. With the 2020 class looking like it will have several talented options at quarterback, no matter what happens with Carr punting on quarterback is the most likely option. In the end, the Raiders are better off if Carr pans out and to that end seeing a second season under Gruden is the best approach. At least if he does not pan out, there is no dead cap when he is traded in 2020.
Best Approach: Punt
Generally speaking, teams should not pay running backs any significant amount of money. However, the Raiders are uniquely similar to the Pittsburgh Steelers in their approach and usage. Being able to grab Bell in free agency would be immensely helpful. There are other options such as TJ Yeldon and Tevin Coleman both of whom could show a similar skill set. Realistically the Raiders need two backs and grabbing one in free agency and one in the middle rounds of the draft would be most efficient. Adding Chris Warren would give the Raiders considerable depth.
Best Approach: Both
A theme on offense will be finding multiple skill position players at the same position group. The free agent market has some interesting names that can provide a decent player at a solid price point for the Raiders. Depending on what skill set Gruden wants, Tyrell Williams, Adam Humphries, John Brown, Golden Tate, Devin Funchess, and Randall Cobb round out a deep group. Equally as deep if not more is the draft class. The Raiders should be targeting a receiver at some point in this draft, as early as the end of the first round.
Best Approach: Both
Here is a position that will be driven very specifically by whether or not the Raiders try to retain one of their current players. If Jared Cook is retained the Raiders should punt on tight end even though the draft is very deep at the position. If the Raiders let Jared Cook go in free agency which is most likely because he will garner heavy interest and a nice payday, the Raiders should turn to the draft and address this position within the first three rounds. Selecting a player such as Iowa’s Noah Fant at the end of round one is very feasible.
Gruden has been very impressed by the addition of Darren Waller and the Raiders have Paul Butler on the practice squad. Add to that Derek Carrier and Lee Smith who are already on the roster, the Raiders would have a considerably high investment at the position if they resigned Cook.
Best Approach: Draft
Similarly to tight end and quarterback, there is some potential for change depending on how a certain player is handled. There is some talk about Keleche Osemele being let go or traded when the new season starts. If this is done it is entirely because for whatever reason, he is not acclimating to what the Raiders are doing schematically. On the whole there is no financial reason of any kind to move Osemele. The free agent class is also a complete dumpster fire. There are four players who do offer some value. Ju’Waun James, Donovan Smith, Bobby Hart, and John Miller are the best options.
Mayock mentioned the inability for the Raiders to protect Derek Carr as a key issue to solve to 2019. If the Raiders are not sold on Brandon Parker, they can invest in one of the three tackles previously listed. Of the four players only James at tackle and Miller at guard seem to fit the mold that Tom Cable is looking for. With the general dearth of quality at the position which will likely only increase with tags being used, investing in a free agent has little efficiency unless the move is to sign Miller and trade either guard.
In reality, the best move for the Raiders is to stick with the front five that worked together most of this season. Constantly changing your front five in the modern NFL is not healthy. Having a full offseason together and knowing who the starters are should allow this group to make significant progress. Cutting aging veteran Donald Penn would add an additional 5.6 million in cap space and could help in resigning backup Denzelle Good. Adding veterans to be quality backups should be the focus and adding those players after the initial free agency rush.
Best Approach: Free Agency
When analyzing the free agency class through the lens of what the Raiders need to be successful in 2019, the front office should be very targeted and deliberate. There is significant talent in value positions including running back and wide receiver. Even if the Raiders lose out on a player of the caliber of Le’Veon Bell, they can get a similar skill set with TJ Yeldon or Tevin Coleman. The Raiders need interchangeable backs with similar skill sets that can do everything including receiving and pass protection. Warren can be an ideal fit for the classic Zack Crockett role while Keith Smith can be the primary full back. That leaves Richard as the wild card running back.
Receiver also provides a ton of potential value in free agency. For a team like the Raiders who never seemed interested in making a single player the focal point of their passing attack, grabbing a solid vet with a specific skill set makes the most sense. The draft is full of size-speed guys who can be matchup problems. In the end, the needs the Raiders have on offense fit very well into the available player pools for free agency and the draft.