NFL News & Analysis

Las Vegas Raiders 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) with head coach Jon Gruden against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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For the second time in as many years, the Las Vegas Raiders started the season relatively strongly but faltered down the stretch. The squad was flying high following three straight victories over Cleveland, Los Angeles and Denver, but they ended the year on a 2-5 skid that included a near loss to the then-winless New York Jets.  

Las Vegas will have to do some maneuvering to deal with the lowered 2021 salary cap, potentially forcing them to part ways with some of the larger contracts on the roster. The defense will be the real focus of the Raiders' offseason, though. Jon Gruden will hope that Gus Bradley’s scheme will bring the best out of several defenders who haven’t lived up to their draft pedigree. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): – $18,675,669 (8th lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 17, 48, 81, 112, 146, 179, 212

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Derek Carr 9 / 32 $22.1 million
RB Josh Jacobs 21 / 70 $3.3 million
WR Henry Ruggs 123 / 127 $3.8 million
WR Hunter Renfrow 42 / 127 $0.9 million
WR ?
TE Darren Waller 3 / 71 $6.4 million
LT Kolton Miller 20 / 38 $4.3 million
LG Richie Incognito N/A $5.6 million
C Rodney Hudson 7 / 37 $13.6 million
RG Gabe Jackson 21 / 40 $9.6 million
RT Trent Brown N/A $14 million

The Raiders' offense is mostly set heading into next season. The only spot left open above is at wide receiver. Nelson Agholor filled that role following another injury to Tyrell Williams — who has since been released by Las Vegas to free up cap space — but the Raiders won’t be able to bring Agholor back as an unrestricted free agent on a similar contract to the one he played on in 2020. Last year’s third-round pick Bryan Edwards could factor into that conversation, but he is coming off a rookie year where he dealt with injuries and caught just 11 passes. 

The offensive line has five starters listed, but there is a decent chance that the lineup changes before Week 1. Incognito will be 38 years old and coming off an Achilles injury if he is to return in 2021. Players such as Jackson and Brown could become cap casualties for a team projected to be over the salary cap.

Is Derek Carr good enough to win a Super Bowl with?

There has been a buzz this offseason about potential trades involving Carr, but recent reports point to the idea that Las Vegas is ready to commit to Carr and build around him. The seven-year veteran is coming off one of the better seasons of his career in 2020. Carr’s 84.7 PFF grade was a top-10 mark at the quarterback position, and it was his highest individual grade since his breakout 2016 season. 

Accuracy remains one of the more important traits a quarterback can have, and few have been as accurate as Carr has over the last several seasons. The 63.4% of his passes that have been charted as accurate over the last three seasons ranks tied for fourth-highest with Tom Brady among 32 qualifying quarterbacks.

With the right pieces around him, Carr does profile as a quarterback who can make a postseason run. He isn’t in the tier of passers who can carry a team on his back, but there aren’t many of those players out there. He appears to be toward the upper end of quarterbacks who can succeed with the right pieces around him. 

The problem is that the pieces around Carr these past few years — particularly on the defensive side of the ball — have been far from Super Bowl-caliber. Unless Deshaun Watson was on the table in a potential Carr trade, it’s hard to fault the Raiders for holding onto Carr and attempting to surround him with more talent.

Do the Raiders try to cut some costs along the offensive line?

Using the 2021 cap hits from the offensive linemen in the table above, the Raiders are on the hook for roughly $47 million for those five starters alone. They’re not locked into all of those expensive cap hits, though. Las Vegas isn’t on the hook for any of Trent Brown’s $14 million salary if he is released. The same can be said for Gabe Jackson’s $9.6 million owed and Richie Incognito’s $5.6 million cap hit. 

Incognito’s combination of age and injury, Brown’s injury history and Jackson’s good-not-great play in recent years could mean that they are the first players the Raiders look to for salary cap relief. 

Denzelle Good is a candidate to fill one of those potential vacancies if re-signed. Good played both right tackle and left guard for Las Vegas in 2020 across 958 offensive snaps. He recorded just a 56.7 PFF grade on the season, but the Raiders appear to be high on the former Colt.  

What level of concern should we take away from Henry Ruggs III’s struggles as a rookie?

Ruggs is one of the players I profiled in a piece on disappointing rookie years following the 2020 season. As the first wide receiver off the board in an extremely talented 2020 wide receiver draft class, expectations were high in a Raiders offense that didn’t have much competition at wide receiver to push Ruggs down the depth chart. That makes his 26-reception, two-touchdown season all the more disappointing.  

Even in the deep-threat role, where Ruggs was supposed to shine with his speed, the rookie was significantly outperformed by Nelson Agholor. Agholor caught over twice as many passes targeted 20 or more yards downfield as Ruggs, and he tripled his touchdown output at that depth six to two. 

Coming out of Alabama, there was reason to believe that Ruggs wasn’t merely a deep threat. He didn’t showcase much beyond that field-stretching ability as a rookie, though. His 17.4-yard average depth of target was one of the highest marks in the NFL, and Ruggs had just one reception targeted within nine yards of the line of scrimmage that went for at least 15 yards. 

The hope will be that Ruggs comes out stronger in 2021 with another year in the system and more confidence, but there has to be some concern with how things unraveled for him in his first year. 

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Kendrick Bourne, Amon-Ra St. Brown

The Raiders spent two draft picks on wide receivers in the first two days of the 2020 NFL Draft. It’s hard to see them being that aggressive at the position once again when the focus will likely be on the Raiders' defense in the coming months. For that reason, I singled out several cheaper options for the team at wide receiver. 

Bourne comes from Kyle Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco, where he has improved his PFF grade in each of his four seasons with the team. As PFF’s free agent profile for Bourne speculates, his best football may be ahead of him in more of a traditional passing offense. He will be 26 years old next season and could be a nice secondary option in the Raiders' passing game.

St. Brown is the type of route-runner who should fit in as a nice complementary piece in the passing game. He played over twice as many snaps in the slot as he did out wide over his three years at USC, but St. Brown actually earned a higher receiving grade and averaged over 0.5 yards more per route run when lined up outside. The Raiders could target the former five-star recruit after the first wave of receivers come off the board.   

Offensive line: Denzelle Good, Trey Smith, Brady Christensen

As I mentioned above, Good is a player Las Vegas could look to bring back not just as a depth option but as a potential starter after he stepped up to play significant snaps in 2020 with injuries along the offensive line. 

If the Raiders do look to add a position in the 2021 NFL Draft, guard is the one that makes the most sense. Smith has the pedigree as a former five-star recruit out of Tennessee, but a medical history that includes blood clots in his lungs will likely push him down draft boards. There’s a chance he could take big steps in his development as he starts to get a few more healthy offseasons under his belt. 

There are concerns about Christensen’s athleticism transitioning from the college ranks to the NFL. Still, few offensive linemen offer a better track record of production than he does after his last two years at BYU. Christensen is coming off PFF grades of 87.8 in 2019 and 96.0 this past season as the Cougars' starting left tackle. Technically, there are a lot of things to like about his game. Part of what could hold appeal to a team like Las Vegas is that Christensen could provide some guard/tackle versatility.

Projected 2021 defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE Clelin Ferrell 16 / 109 $8.6 million
DI Maurice Hurst 19 / 126 $2.3 million
DI ?
EDGE Maxx Crosby 83 / 109 $1.0 million
LB Nick Kwiatkoski 18 / 83 $7.5 million
LB Cory Littleton 67 / 83 $13.7 million
LB ?
CB Trayvon Mullen 82 / 121 $2.0 million
CB Damon Arnette 116 / 121 $3.0 million
CB ?
S Johnathan Abram 94 / 94  $3.1 million
S ?

The Raiders defense is set to undergo an identity shift with Gus Bradley stepping in as the defensive coordinator. He oversaw the beginning stages of the Legion of Boom in Seattle before taking a head coaching job in Jacksonville and later serving as the Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator for four seasons. With Bradley, the Raiders know what they’re getting — a heavy dose of Cover 3 and a reliance on the front four to generate pressure with minimal blitzing. 

Las Vegas’ defensive line could use some reinforcements in that effort to generate pressure consistently. Ferrell and Crosby can lay a claim to starting jobs on the edge for now, but neither is irreplaceable. They can use all the pass-rushing help they can get both on the edge and between the tackles. 

The Raiders should be set to run things back at linebacker with 2020 free-agent acquisitions Littleton and Kwiatkoski. But they’ll need to address the depth at the position with Raekwon McMillan and Nicholas Morrow both entering free agency.

Lastly, Las Vegas will need better play from young players in the secondary such as Arnette, Mullen and Abram. With those three penciled in as projected starters, the two positions that are still up for grabs are in the slot and at free safety. Lamarcus Joyner has struggled in the slot since taking over the role in 2019 and could be released for cap savings. The Raiders don’t really have anyone that fits the “Earl Thomas mold” at free safety as things stand right now, either. You could see Las Vegas try to find that fit this offseason.  

How does the Raiders defense change with Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator?

Bradley’s defenses in Los Angeles could be relied on for two things: a heavy dose of Cover 3 and very little blitzing. The Chargers played Cover 3 on 55.2% of their coverage snaps over the last two seasons, nearly 10 percentage points higher than the next closest defense. Their 14.8% blitz rate over that same period was over four percentage points lower than any other defense, as well. 

There’s no reason to expect much to change in Las Vegas. You can expect the Raiders to drop back into zone coverage and rely on their front four to generate pressure. The Raiders haven’t been a heavy blitzing team in recent years anyway, but there is now even more pressure on younger players such as Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Maurice Hurst to develop into reliable pass-rushers.  

The bigger shift will be how often the team is expected to sit in Cover 3 coverage shells. Since 2019, the Raiders' 13.5% of coverage snaps in Cover 3 ranked dead last in the NFL. Las Vegas should be moving to the other extreme under Bradley. That makes locking down their single-high, playmaking free safety a priority this offseason.  

Which players look like core pieces to build around defensively for Las Vegas?

This is a tricky question to answer. The Raiders have made a concerted effort to spend early draft resources on defensive players in recent years, but those draft picks haven’t necessarily shown that they’re capable of being core pieces worth building around. Across the last three drafts, these are the defensive players Las Vegas have drafted in the first three rounds: P.J. Hall, Arden Key, Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram, Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette and Tanner Muse

Hall has already been traded, and the career grades for the other six players are 54.7 (Key), 69.8 (Ferrell), 33.9 (Abram), 58.2 (Mullen), 41.7 (Arnette) and N/A (Muse). Ferrell has been the best of the bunch after showing signs of improvement in his second season, but even his start has been disappointing after the Raiders reached for him at fourth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. 

There are players on this roster who show varying levels of promise, but it’s too early to call any of them future building blocks for the defense. It’s a tough spot to be in as a unit. 

Can Cory Littleton turn things around in his second year with the team?

Littleton wasn’t expected to come in and be a dominant force against the run when the Raiders signed him to a lucrative free-agent contract last offseason, but he was supposed to give them top-notch coverage ability and sure tackling at the linebacker position. The fifth-year veteran wasn’t able to provide that in 2020, recording both tackling and coverage grades below 50.0. Littleton recorded tackling and coverage grades of 80.0 or higher in both 2018 and 2019 in his final two years with the Rams.

Littleton did start to pick things up a bit over the back half of the year after returning from the COVID-19 list and started to gain more familiarity with the defense. His 66.2 overall grade over the final six weeks of the year marked a definite improvement over the 36.7 grade he produced in his first eight games with the team. 

Of course, Las Vegas will be changing schemes again this offseason, but there is still reason to expect Littleton will look more like the player the Raiders paid for in Year 2. 

Potential targets at open spots

Interior Defender: Christian Barmore, DaQuan Jones 

PFF has Barmore listed as comfortably the best defensive tackle option in this draft class. He comes in at 14th overall on PFF’s Big Board, while the next-closest interior defender is N.C. State’s Alim McNeill at 47th overall. That positional scarcity means that Las Vegas will need to target him in the first round if they want to secure his services. There is reason to believe that with his bend, size, and hand usage, he can be an early contributor to the Raiders' pass rush on the interior. 

Meanwhile, DaQuan Jones would give the Titans more of a versatile veteran presence inside. He has graded between 63.3 and 72.8 on at least 400 defensive snaps in each of the past six seasons, with snaps across just about every alignment between the tackles. It’s unlikely Jones steps in and provides great play in any one area, but he could be relied on to do a lot of things well in an every-down role for Las Vegas.  

Linebacker: Jabril Cox, Alex Anzalone

Given that Gus Bradley rarely blitzes his linebackers, the team should prioritize coverage ability at the position. Cox’s coverage traits and track record of performance in coverage coming out of LSU should hold some appeal to Las Vegas in the 2021 NFL Draft despite spending big on the linebacker position last offseason in free agency.

Anzalone is a potential buy-low candidate after dealing with multiple injuries over his first four years in the NFL as a member of the New Orleans Saints. He recorded coverage grades of at least 64.0 in both of his seasons with at least 200 snaps played and could provide cheap depth at the position for the Raiders in free agency this offseason. 

Cornerback: Richard Sherman, Tay Gowan

The Sherman fit has already garnered some discussion after Jon Gruden courted the free-agent-to-be on the Cris Collinsworth podcast several weeks ago. “Richard Sherman, if you are a free agent, which there is a rumor you are, we are looking for an alpha presence in our secondary. Somebody that could play this Hawk 3 press technique with the read step. If you're available and interested, maybe you and I can get together at some point off-air,” Gruden told Sherman on the podcast.

The familiarity in Bradley’s defense is there, and Sherman has shown he can still play at 33 years old. He earned a 90.3 PFF grade in 2019 before playing in just five games this past season while dealing with injuries. 

Gowan brings a unique combination of size and athleticism to the table if the Raiders opt to attack cornerback in the draft. With just one season in the FBS against AAC competition, there’s some projection work that has to be done with Gowan, but there’s no reason he can’t develop into a quality starting option with his physical profile and the 80.1 coverage grade the last time we saw him in 2019.

Safety: Malik Hooker, Andre Cisco

The type of safety that the Raiders will be looking for is a playmaking free safety who has the kind of range necessary to play in plenty of single-high coverage shells. Hooker and Cisco both fit that bill. 

Hooker is a potential discount option after playing just 70 snaps in 2020 before going down for the year with an injury. He produced PFF grades of 65.3, 79.2 and 69.5 in his first three years in the NFL, but Hooker may be better suited as a single-high free safety than many of the split-field safety roles he played with the Colts.  

Cisco’s strengths in the 2021 PFF Draft Guide include “unparalleled range in this class” and “uber-playmaker mentality.” That profile matches up well with what Las Vegas should be searching for at the safety position this offseason. The Raiders would just have to live with the negatives and plays where Cisco finds himself out of position to go along with those highs should they draft him.

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