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Las Vegas Raiders: What’s next for their trio of 2019 first-rounders?

In 2019, the Las Vegas Raiders (formerly Oakland) went into the draft with three first-round picks and the idea that those players would lay the foundation for a successful rebuild. They traded edge rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper to acquire the additional first-rounders—a roster reset.

Under the previous administration, with former head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock calling the shots, the team opened the draft with a big surprise, selecting defensive end Clelin Ferrell with the No. 4 overall pick. They added a hard-nosed ball-carrier in Josh Jacobs at No. 24 and an old-school Raider-type player in safety Johnathan Abram at No. 27.

Three years later, the Raiders have big decisions to make with that trio. By May 2, the team’s brass must decide whether to exercise the fifth-year options on their contracts—all set at different amounts based on playing time and accolades.

Owner Mark Davis hired Dave Ziegler and Josh McDaniels to take over the general manager and head coach positions, respectively. We’ll find out how much they value the former first-rounders. While one or two of the decisions seem obvious, let’s make the call on the fifth-year options and break down how all three players fit under a new coaching staff.

Related: Updated Las Vegas Raiders 2022 draft needs following early waves of free agency

Defensive end Clelin Ferrell

las vegas raiders: clelin ferrell team option
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  • Fifth-year option: $11.5 million

Let’s state the obvious right off the top. The Las Vegas Raiders won’t pick up Clelin Ferrell’s fifth-year option.

As a rookie, Ferrell had some bright moments, recording 38 tackles, eight for loss, 4.5 sacks and 15 quarterback pressures, but his production dipped significantly in the following seasons. Last year, under former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, he lost his starting job to Yannick Ngakoue, which wasn’t a shocker.

This offseason, Vegas traded Ngakoue to the Indianapolis Colts where he’ll reunite with Bradley. The team also upgraded with the addition of two-time All-Pro edge-rusher Chandler Jones.

Here’s another spoiler: Ferrell isn’t going to get his starting job back.

Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will make an attempt to help Ferrell carve out a role because barring a trade, the defensive end is on the books with about $10 million in dead money this coming season. After playing just 261 snaps through the 2021 campaign, he doesn’t have any trade value at his current cap hit.

Before the 2020 season, Ferrell bulked up 13 pounds, so if he’s about 280 pounds, Graham can try to use him in the nickel as a down lineman. If not, the Raiders can plug him into 4-2-5 alignments when Jones needs to take a breath on the sideline. While Graham has used mostly odd-man fronts in the past, he’ll toss in some even-man looks to stay “multiple” in his attack.

At this point, we must forget that the Raiders selected Ferrell with the No. 4 overall pick and see him as a backup who needs to find an identity under his third coordinator. Perhaps, he can help out on run downs.

Related: Davante Adams, Chandler Jones send a clear message to the Las Vegas Raiders

What will the Las Vegas Raiders do with Josh Jacobs?

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals
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  • Fifth-year option: $8 million

Ziegler should pick up Josh Jacobs’ fifth-year option.

In 2019 and 2020, Jacobs finished eighth in rushing and earned a Pro Bowl nod in the latter campaign. While he struggled behind a subpar offensive line last season, the physical ball-carrier finished with a bang, running for 129-plus yards in two of the last three weeks of the term, which included a career-high 132-yard performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in a play-in game for the postseason.

Running backs Kenyan Drake and Brandon Bolden (on passing downs) may cut into Jacobs’ workload, but he’s worth the $8 million in 2023. For the upcoming campaign, he’ll take on the lead role out of the backfield, averaging about 16-18 touches per contest, which may go a long way to preserve him for an entire term.

For comparison, Jacobs averaged a little more than 20 touches (rush attempts plus receptions) in his first two seasons. Last year, he averaged 18.1 touches per outing. While the fourth-year pro can carry the team’s ground attack, McDaniels must be mindful of when the bruising tailback gets nicked up. That’s happened a little too frequently over the past three seasons.

Drake could have a bigger role in the short passing game under McDaniels. Consequently, Jacobs would likely see his target share drop after he caught a career-high 54 passes for 348 yards last year. But for him, less is more in the big picture through a 17-game season.

Related: 7-round Las Vegas Raiders mock draft

Safety Johnathan Abram

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Las Vegas Raiders
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
  • Fifth-year option: $7.9 million

Donning the iconic No. 24 in Silver and Black, Johnathan Abram has the unwavering support of fans, but he may go into the 2022 campaign under a lot of pressure to keep his starting job.

Graham can use Abram similar to the way he deployed Jabrill Peppers in the box and in the slot, but that’s not enough reason to pick up his $7.9 million fifth-year option.

Abram has clear holes in his game as a pass defender who’s allowed 81.8 and 79.2% completion rates in coverage for the 2020 and 2021 campaigns, correspondingly. He also gave up five passing touchdowns last year.

The Raiders signed Duron Harmon, and 2021 fourth-rounder Tyree Gillespie will try to make a strong first impression with the new coaching staff after playing just 13 defensive snaps last year. The latter spent some time on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.

Harmon could push Abram for snaps because of his ability to play both safety spots alongside Tre’von Moehrig. Over the last two seasons with the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, the 31-year-old safety has served as a full-time starter in 33 games.  

Throughout his nine-year career, which includes seven seasons with the New England Patriots, Harmon hasn’t played a lot of snaps in the slot, but he’s an immediate upgrade over Abram in coverage, which is why you’ll most certainly see him on the field in dime packages (six defensive backs).

Abram should be able to carve out a consistent role, but Graham may dial back his snaps, especially against some of the league’s better passing teams in favor of Harmon. Yet the hard-hitting safety can still make plays going downhill to stop the run and on blitzes.

In 2021, Graham’s Giants defense blitzed on 25 percent of dropbacks (ranked 16th), which is a significant difference from the Raiders under Bradley (ranked 32nd at 12.1 percent). With a more aggressive defensive play-caller, Abram may be able to make more plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.  

Abram’s future with the Raiders can go in either direction. Even if they decline his fifth-year option, a solid 2022 campaign can help him earn a short-term extension on a lesser contract.

Maurice Moton covers the Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.