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Raiders offseason: Not as much salary cap space as we thought?

Vegas’ ample cap space likely to evaporate quickly, but team can maneuver to create more

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Las Vegas Raiders general manager Dave Zielger has some pressing personnel matters he’ll attend to this offseason. From free agency, the NFL Draft and contract extensions for incumbent Raiders, the offseason is going to be a busy one for the new GM.
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A total of 51 players under contract and slightly over $18.89 million in cap space. That’s the Las Vegas Raiders roster and money to work with according to Over The Cap. That is an ample amount of cap space for a team with a new general manager and head coach.

When new Raiders GM Dave Zielger gets cooking on players that fit new El Capitan Josh McDaniels’ roster, we’re likely to see that $18-plus million and change evaporate rather quickly. And we’re not merely talking about acquisitions, either. Vegas is likely going to be a player in the upcoming free agency period by signing potential impact players during the frenzy in March. Free agency is a foray into filling out a roster that balloons up to 90 in the offseason and down to the 53-man version as we all get closer to the 2022 regular season.

But what looms on the horizon for Zielger and the Raiders is keeping foundation-type players in Silver & Black for the foreseeable future with contract extensions. The biggest domino that will fall is quarterback Derek Carr. DC4 is one of three integral Raiders who aren’t under contract past this season. By all accounts, McDaniels is enamored with Carr and eager to see how the veteran signal caller operates in his offense. So it seems only a matter of time until then new Vegas brain trust and Carr agree on a deal that locks him in for more than just the upcoming season. (I’ll have more in separate piece on Carr in the near future).

Then, there’s defensive end Maxx Crosby and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. The 2022 season marks the final year of both players’ rookie contract and both developed into integral Raiders. Crosby (fourth round, pick No. 106 in 2019) is a terrorizing pass rusher any NFL team covets while Renfrow (fifth round, pick No. 149 in 2019) blossomed into a reliable and consistent slot receiver. Vegas will need to dole out decent coin to keep both in Raider uniforms.

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Maxx Crosby, left, will likely join Derek Carr as well-compensated Raiders in the near future.
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Carr, Crosby and Renfrow represent the Big 3 in terms of contract extensions. But there’s more Raiders who have a chance to see their careers in Silver & Black extended. And it’s no surprising considering Over The Cap tracks the Vegas only having 19 players under contract for the 2023 campaign. The decisions on running back Josh Jacobs, safety Johnathan Abram, cornerback Trayvon Mullen and defensive end Clelin Ferrell loom for Ziegler. In the case of first-round picks — Jacobs (No. 24 overall in 2019), Abram (No. 27 overall in 2019) and Ferrell (No. 4 overall in 2019) — the Raiders could exercise the fifth-year option to buy them another season and year to negotiate.

(What is a fifth-year option? It’s an optional fifth year added to the standard four-year contract for first-round picks. The option allows a team to retain a player’s rights for five years rather than the standard four, which is the bonus of selecting a player in the first round. Cost-wise, the fifth-year option is a number based on the 10 highest salaries at the player's respective position during the previous season.)

The caveat here is the Raiders aren’t keen on using fifth-year options, having never used one since the league implemented it last decade.

Lastly, a decision on Mullen must be made, too. The long and lean cornerback from Clemson comes with prototypical size and speed, but injuries have sapped the all-important availability which limited him to just five games (all starts) in 2021. That makes this coming season a make-it-or-break-it type year for Mullen.

Yet, even if the cap space dwindles considerably with any free agent addition or contract extension, Zielger — like any other NFL personnel person — knows salary cap limits are nothing more than suggestions. Teams don’t lose players they truly want to keep due to the cap.

There are a number of maneuvers the team can enact to create more cap room — like jettisoning high-priced but disappoint linebacker Cory Littleton. If Vegas cuts him with the post-June 1 designation, the team saves $11.75 million in cap space while taking on a $4.018 million dead money hit. The Raiders could also do the conversion trick where teams make a player’s base salary and convert it to a signing bonus to provide immediate cap relief. That of course has it’s drawback of kicking the can down the road, something that’s happened with Littleton.

If the Raiders truly want to get a free agent or keep a current Raider for years to come, Ziegler and his crew know exactly what they need to do to free up coin to ensure that happens.