What if Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock push all their chips into the defense this offseason? That’s it. That’s the premise of the article. “What’s the body of the article?” you say. Let us gather and read the following words for the answer to that.
(Intro grafs 101, baby.)
I think spending wildly in free agency is not a way to consistently build championship contenders. Looking back on the 2016 New York Giants, we have an obvious case of how that plan can backfire on you. Mayock is also of the ilk that improving through the draft is the smartest course of action and we can bet on the assumption that the Raiders hired him for that reason. It doesn’t mean you should make no big outside expenditures.
The New England Patriots once signed Stephon Gilmore. The Kansas City Chiefs added Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark. The San Francisco 49ers added Richard Sherman one year, Dee Ford the next. The LA Rams went to the Super Bowl with Ndamukong Suh. The Denver Broncos built a championship defense with Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and DeMarcus Ware. Last year, the Oakland Raiders signed Lamarcus Joyner and it didn’t work out well in year one. That doesn’t mean that the Las Vegas Raiders should shy from another couple of moves on Paul Guenther’s side of the ball.
The draft produces more pieces on your team for obvious reasons, but I’ll start with two free agent signings of note because March is before April.
(Premise supported with recent historical evidence? Woo, this premise is on a roll, baby!)
On Tuesday, I praised safety Anthony Harris as an underrated free agent target and at least a few people in the comments seemed to agree with me there. So let’s do that. We* did it! We* signed** Harris!
*folks on the internet with no power
**played make believe
There are only two outside cornerbacks of note on the free agent market and that could make Byron Jones and James Bradberry too expensive or popular to realistically lock in without a compelling offer that may hinder Vegas’s chances to focus on some other things, so for now let me turn to inside linebacker.
If Cory Littleton ends up pushing for an $18 million annual average value like Bobby Wagner or C.J. Mosley, maybe Joe Schobert would slide in behind him at $14-$15 million AAV. I have no idea if Littleton will be that much more expensive than Schobert or more expensive at all, I’m going a bit off of reputation or popularity. However, all the main stats we are accustomed to say that the players are roughly the same and then you’ve got PFF, where they love Littleton and kind of hate Schobert. But their grades on Schobert, as they often are, are inconsistent. And he’s not playing on a defense with many stars other than the eventually-suspended Myles Garrett.
The Cleveland Browns inside linebacker made 133 tackles, two sacks, four interceptions, and nine passes defensed in 2019. He’s a player with consistent production over his three seasons as the Browns starter in the middle of the defense. He’d be an expensive signing with less concern of turning sour as some other players who will get as much or more money guaranteed.
Let’s imagine now that Harris and Schobert were signed by the Raiders to contracts paying them each $14 million per season, including first year cap hits totaling $26 million. If Vegas made no cuts, they’d still be left with $24 million in 2020 cap space, per OvertheCap.com.
At that point, the front line defensive depth chart may shake out like this:
DE - Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Arden Key
DT - P.J. Hall, Maurice Hurst, Johnathan Hankins
OLB - Tahir Whitehead, Nicholas Morrow
ILB - Joe Schobert
FS/SS - Johnathan Abram, Anthony Harris
CB - Trayvon Mullen, Lamarcus Joyner, Nevin Lawson, Isaiah Johnson, Ken Crawley....
The most obvious areas of concern are starting cornerbacks, outside linebackers, and additional depth along the defensive line. I think the latter concern can be addressed with the remaining $24 million in free agency. While some of that money must be allocated to things like rookies, practice squad, bonuses, and injured reserve, there’s enough potentially left over to sign veteran defensive linemen, a market that I think will be overloaded compared to other positions. Especially at defensive tackle.
My predicted defensive tackle cuts alone name Linval Joseph, Tyrone Crawford, Dontari Poe, Marcell Dareus (already available), Tyson Alualu, and Brandon Mebane as likely getting released. The second wave free agents after guys like D.J. Reader and Leonard Williams at the top include afterthoughts like Mike Daniels, Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Maliek Collins, Jarran Reed, and many others. So I go into the defensive tackle market with the mindset that you should wait.
The Raiders may also free up space in a variety of ways, including $6.2 million if they release Whitehead and $3.25 million if they want to nix that depth with Erik Harris.
(Wait, so you’re telling me I nailed the free agency section of this piece? Wow. Amazing. I’m so proud of myself, but there’s a whole other section to go!)
As for the draft, what if Las Vegas then uses both first round picks on defensive players?
While I don’t like to rely on rookies to help your team, we know that it happens quite often. We saw it in 2019 with players like Nick Bosa, Josh Allen, Devin Bush, Darnell Savage, Montez Sweat, and plenty of other defensive rookies. The Raiders have two picks, plenty of opportunities, and are staring down one of the deepest crops of prospects we’ve seen in modern times.
The most obvious area would be to draft a cornerback as soon as possible because that is the position that is perhaps the hardest to fill right now and the most glaring need on the defense. The corner who most are now expecting to be the second off of the board after Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah is C.J. Henderson out of Florida. He was one of the fastest players at the combine (4.39) and now I’ve* just drafted** him.
**made a pretend
CJ Henderson moves better than everyone out here.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) March 1, 2020
Now this is where a lot of people would be screaming about the need at receiver but all I’m doing with this piece (see: premise) is imagining a world where these resources are focused on defense and in this case, Vegas could get a great value by picking a linebacker at pick 19. Linebackers can be seen as being “less important” in some regards and fall out of the top 10 even though they have highly productive careers ahead of them.
In this case, they could draft Kenneth Murray out of Oklahoma or Patrick Queen out of LSU. I could pretend to prefer one or the other but at this stage in their careers we don’t really know yet where they may fit best. In either case, they’d be lining outside next to the newly-signed Schobert and I’m going to choose Murray.
Rookie Sack Leaders in 2019— Raiders PR (@RAIDERS_PR) December 30, 2019
1. Josh Allen (10.5)
2. Maxx Crosby (10.0)
3. Nick Bosa (9.0)
4. Brian Burns (7.5)
5. Montez Sweat (7.0)#RaiderNation
Now the defense looks like this:
DE - Ferrell, Crosby, Key,
& Nash (Jason Pierre-Paul??)
DT - Hall, Hurst, Hankins, (Dontari Poe??)
LB - Murray, Schobert, Anyone
S - Abram, Harris
CB - Mullen, Joyner, Henderson. (Jimmy Smith??)
(Damn and this premise, ladies and gentleman, is nearly complete.)
Let’s say that the team still had $25 million to spend and they continued to look for plugs for the leaks on defense.
In modern times, that third linebacker spot is usually not as important as the slot corner. There is a world here where the Raiders also trade up for Isaiah Simmons, potentially filling both the outside linebacker spot AND the concerns over covering the slot/tight ends/running backs all at once. In fact, Vegas could trade up and still target Henderson or one of the other corners who had a first round grade at 19.
Sidenote: How’s this for a Mayock-type trade — the Raiders send 12 and 19 to the Carolina Panthers for 7 and 38? Just a thought I had right now that I wanted to get on record but I also didn’t want to use a parenthetical once again. Unless it was for the joke.
(A brilliant joke.)
So I think it’s fine if that third linebacker is Morrow or Will Compton or someone else. If they wanted a veteran, there are plenty of options, such as the currently-still-out-of-prison Mychal Kendricks, Terrell Suggs, and I think the Seattle Seahawks will release K.J. Wright. It’s not a big deal.
They could still target a veteran corner like Darqueze Dennard, Bradley Roby, Ronald Darby, Jimmy Smith, Eli Apple. You’re not getting a great corner but that’s not the expectation if you’ve lost out on Jones or Bradberry and you’re just trying to make it to 2021, hoping that by that point Henderson and Mullen have established themselves as starting corners. Then I think you can reinforce your edge depth with Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Lawson, or Jabaal Sheard. Someone like that. They won’t all be current stars who are thought to change your defense but you never know.
Justin Houston, Shaquil Barrett, JPP, Robert Quinn, Markus Golden, and Bruce Irvin were all low-key free agent signings who were quite productive last season.
(I overdid it. I went too far. Wrote too many words and mentioned too many names. This premise has fallen apart, I’ve failed, and I’ve reached for the stars. Wait, the stars are a good thing! I actually killed it. Perfect article. So far...)
The most unrealistic thing about this premise is that Vegas has focused their cap space and their most important draft capital on only defense despite that their offense — like their defense — finished 24th in the relevant points category. That being said, other than at receiver, how much attention does Mayock and Gruden really have to give to changing the offense?
The entire offensive line is as set as any in the NFL. They have their franchise running back and tight end. They could be fine with Darren Waller, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, and Josh Jacobs as the main weapons on offense, while simply adding one receiver. In the 2020 NFL Draft, there are considered to be as many as 25-30 worthy of going on day one or day two, perhaps the most we’ve ever seen. Mayock could use both first round picks on defense and still has three round three picks to sit and take a couple of shots or to move back into round two. If the Raiders are content with Derek Carr as the QB, and I will believe that they are until it seems certainly otherwise, then the only thing they really have to do is add one receiver. For now.
And all the talk from Mayock emphasizes that defense is going to be the focus.
Mayock said the #Raiders don't have to be surgical addressing the defense this offseason:— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) February 25, 2020
“We’re not very good at all. We have so many needs over there. We have to get bigger, longer, faster … really, what we have to get is more dynamic — we didn’t make many plays.”
These four moves and changes are simply one way to go out of millions of potential combinations — and estimate I came up with because somehow whenever someone is like “So there are six options and millions of combinations from those options” and it’s always way more than you think — but they could also target Byron Jones, Cory Littleton, then draft K’Lavon Chaisson and Patrick Queen. They could target D.J. Reader and James Bradberry, then draft Grant Delpit and Yetur Gross-Matos. The thought experiment could be endless, but this article is ending ...