As the first wave free agency concluded, it’s clear the Raiders have holes to fill. That seems to be the tone taken regarding the 2021 roster from media both mainstream and social.
Of course they’ve got holes, and the only certainty heading in to the rest of free agency and the NFL draft is quarterback Marcus Mariota will have a lot do with filling them.
The rest of free agency, such as it is, still remains. And you never know. The Raiders signed Nelson Agholor long after the first wave and all he did was build himself into the second-highest paid free agent receiver on a per-year basis a year later.
Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock can’t count on that. Beyond sifting through more free agents, the draft is ahead on April 29, so there remain opportunities to add players who in theory would improve an 8-8 record and put the Raiders in the playoffs for the second time in 20 years.
When free agency slows to a trickle, the draft becomes the primary focus. Until then, the Raiders must sort out their salary cap situation and the ability to add additional players while keeping enough money for their draft picks. The latter part is easy enough — draftees are slotted and it’s no problem to calculate what is necessary to bring them aboard.
The key to that is Mariota, who has the last stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb contract on the roster and can provide plenty of cap space for a couple of more maneuvers to address positions such as safety, cornerback and offensive tackle heading in to the draft.
Rewind to a year ago when Mariota was signed to a two-year deal that paid him $7.5 million in 2020 and then additional $10.625 million plus incentives in 2021. The first year was a generous amount in case he could mount a challenge to starting quarterback Derek Carr. The second year was never intended to be paid unless Mariota was the presumptive starter.
Carr solidified his hold on the position with a good year. Mariota got time to heal up and had one very good game in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. His cap number of of $15,350,04 is second only to Carr on the Raiders, who have zero intention of assuming that number.
The latest figures from overthecap.com have the Raiders with under $1 million worth of room, although the Athletic reported a restructure from defensive end Carl Nassib and there are always ways to whittle off a million or three through contract extensions and the like.
But the bottom line is either Mariota can reduce his salary to a more palatable backup number — say $3 million or less — or the Raiders can release or trade him and assume his entire cap number as a reduction.
The longer the Raiders wait, the more likely it is that the game of NFL quarterback musical chairs leaves Mariota fewer options and he agrees to return for another year at the reduced rate.
But waiting means it is more difficult to add players. It’s a standoff until one side or the other blinks.
As the Mariota drama plays out and the Raiders look for ways to add to the roster, some areas of concern before kicking fully in to draft mode:
Anthony Harris (Vikings) was purported to be the top free safety on the market, but agreed to terms with the Eagles for a reported one year and $5 million — far below what most figured. Which means a lot of teams had doubts.
Malik Hooker (Colts) is another center-fielder type — defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s defense utlilizes safeties in the traditional strong/free setup — but has an extensive injury history. Kareem Jackson (Broncos) remains available as does Tre Boston (Panthers).
Ha Ha Clinton Dix (Bears) has already visited the facility, left without a contract and remains in play.
The Raiders would love to put a capable veteran in the room with projected starters Treyvon Mullen and Damon Arnette. Nobody would be better than Richard Sherman (49ers) as an influence, but it remains to be seen if he’s got enough left and whether Gruden’s so-called “tampering” dalliance on Sherman’s podcast with Cris Collinsworth was simply show biz.
Casey Hayward (Chargers) has experience with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. More recent releases such as Will Fuller (Bears) and Adoree Jackson (Titans) and Xavier Rhodes (Titans) are possibilities but but could be too expensive if they consider themselves starters.
A.J. Bouye (Texans) visited before free agency signed but wasn’t signed.
With Kolton Miller established at left tackle, anyone the Raiders bring in with designed to start has to play on the right side. Dennis Kelly (Titans) started 16 games last season on a line that paved the way for power running Derrick Henry on the right side.
Mitchell Schwartz (Chiefs) wants to play but is coming off back surgery. Alejandro Villanueva (Steelers) has been a left tackle.
Defense has been considered the top priority for the Raiders, but the hole at right tackle may too big to ignore on April 29, the day of the first round of the NFL Draft.
FEELING THE DRAFT
The Raiders had a sixth-round draft pick originally stripped because of COVID-19 protocol violations restored upon appeal, as reported by the Associated Press and confirmed by the NFL.
When the NFL draft commences on April 29 through May 1, the Raiders have eight selections after deals involving offensive linemen Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson.
The picks are as follows: Round 1 (17), Round 2 (48), Round 3 (79), Round 3 (80), Round 4 (121), Round 5 (162), Round 5 (167), Round 6 (200).
The pick restored upon appeal was No. 200.