5 offseason moves to launch Las Vegas Raiders into 2021 AFC contention

The Las Vegas Raiders are closer to AFC contention than it may seem, and some bold offseason moves could set up a spectacular 2021 season.

By Matt Fitzgerald
Dec 26, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) with head coach Jon Gruden against the Miami Dolphins at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Las Vegas Raiders are knocking on the door of being a playoff team in the AFC, but won’t qualify for the postseason this year. As 2021 closes in, there are obvious upgrades coach Jon Gruden’s team can make in order to be a true contender in the new year.

Whether it’s adjustments to the depth chart, trimming costs to save salary cap space or acquiring talent from outside the building, Las Vegas has no shortage of avenues to improve for next season.

Let’s take a look at five bold offseason moves the Raiders can make to not only challenge the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West, but also make the playoffs and build a foundation to chase a Super Bowl in the next few years.

Release three expensive veteran players

Las Vegas Raiders offseason 2021: Release expensive veteran players
Dec 29, 2019; Denver, Colorado, USA; Oakland Raiders free safety Lamarcus Joyner (29) before the game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Massive right tackle Trent Brown is due to be a $14 million cap hit next season and none of it is guaranteed, but we’re not talking about him here. Brown was injured at the end of 2019 and has dealt with COVID-19 and been banged up this year, leading to a dip in performance. Provided he’s healthy for 2021, he’ll be back in elite form.

The veterans in question here are receiver Tyrell Williams, defensive back Lamarcus Joyner and guard Richie Incognito.

Las Vegas’ receiving corps should be fine going forward without Williams, and there’s the opportunity to find upgrades elsewhere. Plus, with rookies Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards hopefully dealing with fewer injuries in Year 2, the Raiders should have a couple promising playmakers in the passing game as is.

As for Joyner, he’s versatile in that he can line up anywhere in the secondary. However, he’s meant to be a leader for this unit, which has been an abject disaster this season, and a large reason why Las Vegas isn’t going to make the playoffs. He should be gone.

In Incognito’s case, he has a checkered background, and turns 38 in July. Not worth the headache, nor the $6.35 million cap number.

Just these moves alone free up so much room for the Raiders to work with. If general manager Mike Mayock cuts Williams, Joyner and Incognito, that’ll create a total of $26.65 million in cash to spend.

Promote Marcus Mariota to QB1, cut Derek Carr

Las Vegas Raiders offseason 2021: Cut QB Derek Carr, start Marcus Mariota
Dec 13, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) and quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) warm up before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ooh, snap! Didn’t see this one coming, eh?

Yours truly is a big Carr fan. His 2020 numbers are rather strong: 25 touchdown passes, seven picks and a 102.2 passer rating. Alas, cutting Carr outright would save over $19.6 million more in cap for 2021, and the promise Mariota showed in relief duty during Week 15 was reason enough to roll with the former No. 2 overall pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2021.

Mariota counts $10.1 million against the cap this coming year, which is pretty darn high for a backup. Yes, Carr is serviceable in this offense, yet he’s risk-averse and doesn’t take enough downfield shots to merit continuing on in Las Vegas. He leaves too many big plays on the field.

Having seen his chance to start in Tennessee expire amid Ryan Tannehill’s renaissance, Mariota really has nothing to lose entering a contract year. He’ll be in his second season with Gruden, who wasn’t shy about using the dual-threat QB’s skill set to its fullest extent when he saw action against the Los Angeles Chargers, when Mariota ran for 88 yards on nine carries.

Perhaps a quarterback running that much isn’t sustainable. But for just one year, it can be.

Having Mariota at quarterback is a win-win for all parties. He’ll give the Raiders’ rushing attack extra juice, the passing game more explosive potential, and if he mimics Tannehill’s resurgence, the 27-year-old will enter the 2022 free agent market in high demand.

Whether Las Vegas would re-sign Mariota in that situation or not depends on just how good he is and what the asking price is. Either way, it opens up some flexibility for the Raiders at the position instead of forging ahead with Carr, who seems to have a clearly defined ceiling as an NFL starter.

Re-sign WR Nelson Agholor

Las Vegas Raiders offseason 2021: Re-sign Nelson Agholor
Dec 26, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Nelson Agholor (15) is defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones (24) on an 85-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter at Allegiant Stadium. The Dolphins defeated the Raiders 26-25. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With all the cash left over from some relatively easy cut decisions would free up more than enough resources to keep Agholor in the fold. A former first-round cast-off of the Philadelphia Eagles, Agholor experienced a strong comeback in Las Vegas, with a recent highlight being an 85-yard touchdown catch. He has 839 yards and eight touchdowns on just 47 catches (17.9 average), proving how explosive he can be.

Here’s why Agholor in particular is important to the Raiders, who have very few other priority free agents in house: Ruggs had a rocky maiden season. He didn’t live up to his billing as a Day 1 draft choice. That’s something Agholor can directly relate to, and can help Ruggs on as a mentor in terms of how to handle those weighty expectations.

Agholor has legitimate long speed and made the most of his second chance in Las Vegas on a very minimal contract. It’s time for the Raiders to reward him with a significant raise. Imagine what he and Ruggs could do together down the road.

What works in the team’s favor to retain him is the fact that Agholor successfully revived his career and would presumably want to return to see what more he could in Gruden’s offense. That might lead to a slight discount, and in any event, Agholor won’t cost as much as the other elite wideouts on the open market.

Shell out for Brandon Scherff in free agency

Las Vegas Raiders offseason 2021: Land Brandon Scherff in free agency
Oct 25, 2020; Landover, Maryland, USA; Washington Football Team guard Brandon Scherff (75) prepares to block against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Running back Josh Jacobs was a revelation in 2019 as the Raiders’ clear workhorse. Although he’s continued to produce in terms of touchdown production and pass-catching ability, as an NFL sophomore, Jacobs’ yards per carry and per reception are both down by a full yard.

Injuries have played some part in Jacobs’ lessened explosiveness, but more glaringly, the interior offensive line is the big problem spot for Las Vegas. That’s why it’s vital for the Raiders to use some of their cap room and pursue the best free-agent guard out there in Washington Football Team star Brandon Scherff.

Incumbent Las Vegas guards Gabe Jackson and Denzelle Good haven’t played well, placing 53rd and 54th respectively out of 81 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus‘ run blocking grades. The Silver and Black went from sixth a season ago in Football Outsiders‘ adjusted line yards to 17th now.

Scherff is someone who can step right in and be a huge upgrade over either player in the trenches. As PFF’s No. 3 guard in pass protection and ninth-ranked run blocker, Scherff has the type of enviable all-around game that should garner big bucks this offseason. Provided Vegas makes the aforementioned moves leading up to this, they’ll have the funds to secure Scherff’s prestigious services.

Related: Jon Gruden is a great football coach, Las Vegas Raiders need a defense

2021 NFL Draft: Trade up for best pass-rushing prospect

Las Vegas Raiders offseason 2021: Trade up to land Gregory Rousseau in NFL Draft
Sep 21, 2019; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes defensive lineman Gregory Rousseau (15) celebrates wearing the turnover chain during the first quarter of a football game against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Using The Draft Network’s premium simulator with trades available, it’s clear Las Vegas has a real opportunity to move up in the 2021 NFL Draft at good value and land an exceptional, instant-impact player despite its current standing of picking at No. 16 overall in Round 1.

There’s the possibility Jacksonville could use its second first-rounder and other assets to outmaneuver the Raiders, but in this scenario, Mayock and the front office pull off the following deal with the Philadelphia Eagles:

  • Eagles receive: No. 16, No. 117 (Round 4) overall picks in 2021 NFL Draft + 2022 first-rounder
  • Raiders receive: No. 6 overall pick in 2021 NFL Draft

That leads to the following three-round mock:

  • Round 1, Pick 6: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami (Florida)
  • Round 2, Pick 48: Jabril Cox, linebacker, LSU
  • Round 3, Pick 79: Darius Stills, defensive tackle, West Virginia

Rousseau opted out of the 2020 campaign, yet he’s unquestionably the best pass-rusher in this class. The Raiders have lacked a viable edge-rusher ever since the Khalil Mack trade, and Rousseau would change that. He racked up 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks last season. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Rousseau has elite physical tools and freakish athleticism to support his pure production.

Trading up for Rousseau would go a long way in helping the inexperienced secondary featuring cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Trayvon Mullen, along with safety Johnathan Abram, grow into a better group.

Although Las Vegas has decent coverage linebackers already, Cox is a playmaker who could adequately replace one of Mayock’s recent personnel whiffs. If the Raiders trade underachieving linebacker Cory Littleton on June 1 or after for maybe a 2022 seventh-round pick, per Over the Cap, they’ll save another $11.5 million in cap room.

As for Stills, the defensive line is an area that needs serious help. The West Virginia product had 19.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks in his last 20 collegiate games. In working his way into the rotation, Stills would offer the Raiders versatility on obvious pass-rushing downs and bolster a run defense yielding 4.7 yards per carry in 2020.

Related: 2021 NFL Mock Draft – Big trades, 5 QBs in all-offense top 10