While the rest of the sports world is on hold, the NFL’s new year begins on Wednesday unabated and teams can talk to free agents beginning this morning. The Las Vegas Raiders look to be big shoppers in free agency and we look at who they will target.
The Las Vegas Raiders will have a projected $56.5 million in cap space to make a few free-agent splashes before their 2020 season gets under way. General manager Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden don’t have to “win” free agency, but they need to address some roster issues, specifically on defense, before the draft. But what might the Raiders free agency activity look like?
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Mayock acknowledged the Raiders need help at multiple positions on the defense.
“We’re not very good at all. So I kind of go into the defensive side of it with who a mindset of who makes us better at every position,” Mayock said. “We have so many needs over there, it’s just who’s a dynamic football player that makes us better.”
Most rookies aren’t ready to become Day 1 contributors, so it’s important for the Raiders free agency plans to enable them to land impact free agents to shore up the defense. In the coming days, team brass can snag a pass-rusher, revamp the linebacker group and add another defensive back or two to improve the 25th-ranked pass defense.
Of course, we all hope for the best possible outcome—stars clamoring to play for the Silver and Black. Nonetheless, we’ll go with realistic predictions for the Raiders free agency play. Let’s connect the dots between the Raiders and some notable names on the open market.
QB Marcus Mariota
NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo tossed Marcus Mariota‘s name out there as someone on Raiders’ radar:
As we noted last week in this space, the connection makes sense for both sides.
The Raiders need a solid primary backup who could actually give Derek Carr a competitive push with pocket mobility and extensive starting experience (61 games). Among the veteran signal-callers set to hit the market, Mariota would come at a manageable price after losing his job to Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee last season.
Acquiring Mariota, the Raiders would upgrade the quarterback room with another viable starter. Deshone Kizer slides back to No. 3 on the depth chart as the young developmental signal-caller.
If you’re quick to point to constant change as a hindrance to Carr’s progress, then Mariota fits into a similar category. He’s had four play-callers in five seasons. Don’t underestimate him. The 26-year-old is a cerebral-type signal-caller with a 62.9 completion rate and a comeback road playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
LB Nick Vigil
Of course, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther plucks another linebacker from his Cincinnati Bengals roots. He’s familiar with Nick Vigil from the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Adam Caplan of SiriusXM NFL Radio thinks the Raiders will approach him with the same energy as Vontaze Burfict last offseason.
Every year, the Raiders have signed a linebacker who knows Guenther’s system. Before Burfict, they signed Emmanuel Lamur in 2018. If you’re a bettor, place your wagers on another scheme-fit acquisition based on knowledge of the system.
Vigil isn’t a flashy name like Cory Littleton or Joe Schobert, but he flashed in coverage during the second half of the 2019 campaign:
When targeted, Vigil allowed 38 completions out of 56 targets (67.9 percent) for 292 yards and zero touchdowns; he also picked off a pass and broke up five.
The Raiders desperately need a linebacker who can cover zones, why not bring in someone who’s decent in that aspect and knows Guenther’s system? The unit needs a complete overhaul, but this would be a solid start.
LB Nick Kwiatkoski
This projection doesn’t include a close connection between the player and coaching staff, but the Raiders must take an aggressive approach to turn over the linebacker unit. Nick Kwiatkoski’s stats don’t jump off the screen because he’s served in a reserve role for four seasons.
The Chicago Bears signed Danny Trevathan to a three-year extension, which means Kwiatkoski will likely hit the open market.
At West Virginia, Kwiatkoski played one term at safety before he transitioned to linebacker for the following three campaigns. The 6’2″, 243-pounder has ball skills, logging six interceptions and 10 pass breakups on the collegiate level. Last year, he picked off one throw and broke up four passes while playing just 48 percent of the defensive snaps.
In 2019, when targeted, Kwiatkoski allowed a 59.5 completion percentage. He could excel in coverage because of his safety experience.
It’s not appealing to fans looking for big names, but Vigil and Kwiatkoski are low-cost pickups that vibe with the Raiders’ history of acquiring under-the-radar names to fill the linebacker spots. From this year’s draft class, Kenneth Murray or Patrick Queen could join this group as the third new face at the position.
DE Robert Quinn or DT Maliek Collins
This stands as an either-or-scenario. New defensive line coach Rod Marinelli will likely lure Robert Quinn or Maliek Collins to Las Vegas. Both can bring a strong presence near the pocket — the former off the edge and the latter on the interior.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wants Quinn back, but the team has yet to extend him. If the 29-year-old hits the market, he can consider a reunion with Marinelli.
Under Marinelli, who served as a defensive coordinator and line coach, though Kris Richard called the plays, Quinn had a strong campaign. He logged 11.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, which led the team in both categories.
The Raiders may not want to stunt the growth of their young defensive ends Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell with a starting-caliber talent taking significant snaps on the end. They can also bolster the pass rush with Collins, adding him to the interior tackle rotation.
Through two seasons, P.J. Hall has underwhelmed as a second-round pick. Johnathan Hankins will go into a contract year. Collins and Maurice Hurst could be a solid duo in the middle going forward.
In Dallas, Collins recorded 14.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss through four seasons. At 6’2″, 308 pounds, he’s also a big body who can clog the middle on run downs.
Quinn would be a more impactful acquisition, but Collins seems more likely because his workload doesn’t come at the expense of last year’s team sack leader or the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 draft.
CB Byron Jones
According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, Byron Jones could command $16-18 million on the open market. That’s a lot of scratch so it’s Jones worth it?
Top-dollar investments are a huge risk, but those acquisitions could change the complexion of a position group. Last offseason, the Raiders free agency period started with a splash when they made Trent Brown the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league. As a massive wall on the right side for 11 games, he earned his first Pro Bowl invite in 2019.
Skeptics are concerned with Jones’ low interception number, which is a legitimate eyebrow-raiser if the Raiders have to reset the cornerback market with his contract.
Ideally, you’d want to see your top cornerback flip the field with more impact plays, but Jones hasn’t surrendered much real estate in coverage. He’s allowed completion percentages of 52.5 and 53.1 percent in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Even if you remove favorable matchups against the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, the 27-year’s numbers still look impressive:
While some defensive backs have a nose for the football, others have a knack for blanketing pass-catchers, which is something the Raiders need after allowing the most yards per pass attempt (7.8) last season, per Team Rankings.
Jones would be a quality addition opposite Trayvon Mullen to limit chunk plays on the perimeter.
S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
This acquisition doesn’t scream home-run hit, but the Raiders free agency priorities need to include another veteran safety on the back end with Johnathan Abram, who’s played one game, and Erik Harris.
Last offseason, team brass had an interest in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, per Michael Gehlken formerly of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“It would be a surprise if the Raiders are serious contenders for [Landon] Collins, presuming he commands the sort of money he is projected to attract on the open market,” Gehlken wrote. “An option in the tier of Washington Redskins safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is more likely. The team is expected to show interest in Clinton-Dix, 26, when the legal tampering period opens March 11.”
Collins signed a massive six-year, $84 million contract with the Redskins, which likely went outside the Raiders’ comfortable pay range. Clinton-Dix inked a one-year, $3 million prove-it deal with the Chicago Bears.
Clinton-Dix isn’t the strongest tackler, but he can cover the deep end of the secondary, logging 16 interceptions and 33 pass breakups in 96 contests. He’s yet to miss a game as a pro. At 6’1″, 211 pounds, the six-year veteran is capable of lining up against tight ends, which is something the Raiders couldn’t do with Karl Joseph.
Impact on the Draft
With the exception of the quarterback position, teams usually address the same needs in free agency and the draft unless a star player is set to play most of the snaps at that position.
Teams gain some roster flexibility with the addition of proven commodities in shallow spots on the depth chart. If the Raiders free agency priority is to sign a linebacker in the coming days, that doesn’t mean they’ll pass on one in the first round of the draft.
In fact, it’s risky to leave a deep hole at a specific roster spot going into April given the unpredictable nature of the draft. There are no guarantees on who’s going to be available at any spot unless you’re the Bengals this year. Secondly, it’s easier to predict a club’s options when they have glaring voids.
Mayock and Gruden should address as many needs as possible and then circle back to those spots in about five weeks.