Other than an agreement with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering period, the Las Vegas Raiders made few notable moves before the second week of NFL free agency.
On Monday, general manager Dave Ziegler turned up the activity rate to sign a slew of free agents, including tight end O.J. Howard, wideout Cam Sims, defensive end Jordan Willis, safety Jaquan Johnson and they also re-signed wide receiver Keelan Cole. Even with the addition of cornerback David Long Jr. on Wednesday, fans continued to ask, where are the potential starters on defense?
It’s a good question that the Raiders will likely try to answer in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Ziegler isn’t likely to find all the answers to the team’s defensive woes in April, but he’s clearly banking on a strong incoming class to fill multiple needs on that side of the ball.
Based on Ziegler’s strategy through free agency, we can see clear signs of a rebuild.
Other than a stopgap quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, the Raiders went conservative as they shopped on the open market. A few of the team’s most notable additions, Garoppolo, Meyers and Dorsett have previous ties to head coach Josh McDaniels from their New England Patriot years.
They’re “system fits” for the new regime, which rubbed some fans the wrong way. But that’s usually what teams do in a rebuild, bring in players familiar with the program.
Related: 2023 Las Vegas Raiders mock draft
Lackluster free-agent class sets up for crucial 2023 draft
Looking ahead, the Raiders’ 2023 draft will have some parallels to the 2019 class because of its importance to a regime in its second season. Like Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock’s 2019 group, the 2023 class can become the foundation of a rebuild with or without a quarterback included in the crop of rookies.
Though the Raiders had three first-round picks in 2019, they made four selections within the top 100, which is the same number of picks the team has in the top 100 in April. As the case four years ago, they also hold a top-10 selection.
In 2019, Gruden made multiple splashes with veteran additions in the second year of his second stint with the franchise, acquiring Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers and signing Trent Brown, Lamarcus Joyner and Vontaze Burfict. He tore down the roster in 2018, trading Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper.
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Ziegler and McDaniels flipped the order in the first two years of their rebuild. They acquired high-profile players last offseason, trading for Davante Adams and signing Chandler Jones. Now equipped with 12 draft picks, the Raiders will attempt to fill several positions of need with young talent, which is what the team did under Gruden in the second year of his second stint with the team.
Regardless of how the current and previous regimes handled a roster rebuild, the team has to overcome a perpetual problem, a recent history of poor or underwhelming drafts.
Related: Las Vegas Raiders 2023 NFL Draft picks
Las Vegas Raiders must overcome suboptimal recent draft history
On Monday, when asked about the Raiders’ most recent above-average draft class, many fans agreed that the 2014 group set the standard with Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson and Justin Ellis starting in big roles as rookies. T.J. Carrie had a solid rotational role and earned a primary starting position in his second year:
Some fans mentioned the 2019 class. While that group included Josh Jacobs, Maxx Crosby and Hunter Renfrow, who all remain on the roster, the Raiders drafted far better on Day 3 than they did on Days 1 and 2 of that year.
The Raiders didn’t retain three of their four top-40 picks from the 2019 class. Clelin Ferrell (No. 4 overall) signed with the San Francisco 49ers in free agency. The club waived Jonathan Abram (No. 27 overall) in November and traded Trayvon Mullen (No. 40 overall) to the Arizona Cardinals in August.
If Gruden and Mayock hit on their early picks, the Raiders’ 2019 class could’ve been the foundation for the franchise’s sustainable rise. Instead, Gruden and Mayock had to dip into free agency to patch up holes that their rookie classes couldn’t fill every year. They also whiffed on high-priced signings such as Joyner and Cory Littleton, who’s still on the team’s payroll for $10 million in dead cap.
Las Vegas Raiders in need of a foundational draft class
Like that 2019 class, the Raiders have the draft capital to lay the groundwork for a bright future.
Though Vegas has eight of its 12 selections after the third round, don’t forget that the club selected Crosby with pick No. 106 in 2019. Nate Hobbs, who was No. 167 in the 2021 group, had a promising rookie campaign before taking a step back under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
Ziegler could find a couple of Day 3 gems who play significant snaps right away, though he must do much better than Gruden and Mayock with his early-round picks. If he lands three starters with his top four selections, those players can fill half of the major holes at starting positions: guard, tight end, defensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback and safety. With a couple of Day 3 contributors, the roster could have some balance on both sides of the ball.
Even though the Raiders’ lack of quality defensive acquisitions in free agency should raise concerns, this isn’t the make-or-break period for Ziegler and Co. With or without a selection at quarterback, Vegas needs a draft class that compares closely to Reggie McKenzie’s 2014 group in early impact.
If Ziegler chooses a quarterback, he’ll likely back up Garoppolo, but the other top picks must provide some production if this club wants to avoid another sub-.500 season.
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Ziegler’s strategy in free agency places a lot of pressure on his draft plan, but if he brings in a top-notch rookie haul and the coaching staff develops those players into quality playmakers, the Raiders would finally have a pool of young talent that can become the core of their future. And for the first time in a long time, Raiders fans would have something to look forward to in a rebuild.
Maurice Moton covers the Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.