Thrust into the starting spotlight after being taken as a developmental-type draft pick, rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell did relatively well, all things considered. One of the 14 signal callers taken in the 2023 NFL Draft, the fourth-round pick garnered invaluable snaps in his 10 starts as QB1 this past season for the Las Vegas Raiders.
And the Purdue product wasn’t overtly bad.
The 25-year-old completed 213 of his 343 pass attempts (62.1 percent) for 2,218 yards, with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He showed a strong enough arm with his longest past being a 50-yard dime. O’Connell was sacked 24 times — which isn’t surprising from a 6-foot-3, 210-pound immobile pocket passer.
“Yeah, obviously that’s all outside of my control. And so, in a game like this, that’s our last time as a team. I think it’s not hard to get up for a game like that and be ready for a game because you want to end on a good note,” said O’Connell when asked during the postgame press conference about his approach to the Raiders’ regular-season finale against the Denver Broncos this past Sunday that turned out to be a 24-17 victory. “You want to make a statement to finish the season. And so, like I said before, I thought our guys did that. We had a really good week of practice and I think truly we enjoyed being around each other, and that was really fun to be a part of.”
But not being bad isn’t good enough. Not for the long-term quarterback in Silver & Black.
Let’s just say it plainly: Legitimate competition is needed in the Raiders quarterback room. For too long, there’s a clear-cut starter who rarely gets pushed by another signal caller.
And the absence of competition is gross negligence — regardless of whomever lands the general manager and head coach gigs. Even if both interim head coach Antonio Pierce and interim general manager Champ Kelly are brought back in permanent role capacities.
O’Connell, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Brian Hoyer are the quarterbacks currently under contract with the Raiders.
There’s a high probability Garoppolo won’t be on the roster long as carries the heaviest salary cap ramifications wit his three-year, $72.75 million deal he inked to be the starter before the regime change and ultimately getting benched.
Las Vegas could attempt to trade Garoppolo, but being cut is the likeliest route and it’ll be costly. The Raiders absorb a $28.3 million dead-money charge in 2024 and just a $199,000 cap savings if outright cut. However, if the team did wax Garoppolo on the post-June 1 designation, it’ll be a $15.5 million dead-money hit with $13 million freed up in cap for 2024. There’s also the 12.8-million dead cap (but a $15.716 million alleviation in cap space) in 2025.
Hoyer is a super veteran signal caller at age 38. His cap number for 2024 is at $2.77 million which is manageable. If the Raiders new brain trust wants to have a veteran in the quarterback room, Hoyer could be that guy. But he isn’t a serious competitor to unseat O'Connell.
It’s a safe assumption that neither Garoppolo or Hoyer will remain Raiders heading into free agency and the draft. And that’ll leave O’Connell as the only quarterback to have taken snaps for Las Vegas the prior season.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
O’Connell showed improvement over the course of his 10 starts — there were warts to his rookie year, but that’s to be expected from a mid-round-type rookie — and ended up going 5-5 this past season. He wasn’t an outright disaster and showed he can take care of the ball while hitting targets for first downs and touchdowns.
“I like what Aidan has done as far as how he carries himself on and off the field and in this building. I get he’s a rookie, he’s a little bit older, he carries himself like a pro,” Pierce said of O’Connell during his final press conference as interim head coach this past Monday. “Jimmy (Garoppolo) and Brian (Hoyer) have done a really good job of mentoring him as well. I don’t think enough credit has gone to those two gentlemen of what they’ve been able to do, especially Jimmy with his professionalism and the way he stepped in last night, regardless of if it was pretty, ugly, or good.
“But Aidan has really done a good job of putting himself in position going forward to be in consideration to be the starting quarterback in the National Football League.”
While O’Connell has the arm to make all the throws (along with it the accuracy) his decision-making and trust needs to continue development and refinement, and his lack of functional mobility makes him a one-dimensional quarterback to defend.
A signal caller that’s an immobile target in the pocket is easier to defend or take down than one who uses mobility to move in the pocket or take off to gain positive yard or first downs with their legs. O’Connell is not that, but perhaps it can be developed?
The eventual GM and head coach will have options to supplement the barebones quarterback room if the team does move on from Garoppolo and Hoyer. There’s the draft in April and free agency the month before. A veteran free agent can push O’Connell for snaps and make it a fight for QB1, however, for posterity’s sake, drafting a signal caller seems more apt.
Picking at No. 13 overall in the first round, the Raiders are likely to be out of reach for top prospects like USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye, and LSU’s Jayden Daniels. That trio had a penchant to escape danger in the pocket with their legs and gain positive yards when deciding to take off, and Las Vegas would have to trade up to land one of them. There are draft day slides, however, so perhaps the Raiders can be patient and see who falls.
If Las Vegas goes that route and O’Connell comes out tops in the camp battle, he can serve as a bridge quarterback with the extra motivation of having a prized draft pick waiting in the wings.
No matter what route the Raiders GM and head coach take, however, the depth chart at quarterback is most certainly going to look different in 2024.