Two trades, a number of new signings and re-signings later, the 2021 version of the Las Vegas Raiders will look noticeably different. In fact, the look of the latest edition of the Raiders appears to reflect a new philosophy.
When Jon Gruden arrived, the Raiders made it clear that the offense would be the focal point of their franchise — specifically, the offensive line. In his first season with the Raiders, Gruden spent his No. 1 pick on left tackle Kolton Miller, while in his second he handed center Rodney Hudson a $33.75 million extension and gave free agent right tackle Trent Brown $66 million. This all on top of the $56 million extension Gabe Jackson signed a year before Jon arrived.
In 2021 though? Hudson was traded for a third-round pick, Jackson for a fifth and Brown for a 2022 fifth. They will be replaced by Andre James, an undrafted rookie center entering his third season, Denzelle Good (re-signed for 2 years, $8.4 million) and presumably a rookie they’ll draft in April.
While Hudson’s money won’t disappear from the salary cap, Jackon and Brown’s removal from the books has freed up around $23.5 million in cap space — money that was spent on defense.
This sure is a new Jon Gruden…..
Here is a quick breakdown of all the moves the Raiders have made thus far:
Yannick Ngakoue, DE (2 years, $26 million)
The 26-year-old was the No. 3 free agent not to receive the franchise tag on The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia’s board, and so for the Raiders to lock him down so quickly has been the most overlooked move of the week — especially when you see the contracts given out to other pass rushers.
Simply put, Ngakoue is the best pass rusher the Raiders have had since Khalil Mack, and it isn’t even close.
Kenyan Drake, RB (2 years, $11 million)
You haven’t heard much about Ngakoue, because all people want to do is clown about this one. The Raiders already have Josh Jacobs and they already have Jalen Richard (making $3.5 million), so why Drake? Honestly, it’s a great question. If they release Richard, it’ll make some sense if you consider you’re paying just $2 million more for a substantially better player — but after finding Devontae Booker for basically nothing a year ago, I’m not sure why this move was necessary. Maybe Jon Gruden’s self-control got the best of him as the week wore on…
Quinton Jefferson, DT (1 year, $3.25 million)
After the Maliek Collins experiment failed miserably last year, the Raiders were back on the market for some help inside. After re-signing Jonathan Hankins (see below), Jefferson is the best bet to start alongside him next season. Jefferson had 23 tackles (three for a loss), three sacks and a forced fumble last year with the Bills. He also played with Ngakoue in college at Maryland, plus his time in Seattle explains a bit of the Gus Bradley connection.
John Brown, WR (1 year, $3.75 million)
With Nelson Agholor departing and signing the worst contract handed out thus far (in my opinion), the Raiders were in the market for a similar player to replace him in the wide receiver rotation.
Enter Brown. The 30-year-old has a pair of 1,000-yard seasons under his belt (one as recently in 2019) but played in just nine games last season due to injury.
Solomon Thomas, DT (1 year, $5 million)
The actual terms of this deal are unknown, but the reports have said he could earn “up to” $5 million this season. The former No. 3 pick comes over from the 49ers as a reclamation project of sorts, and honestly, I like the move.
In 2019 he was stuck behind two of the better defensive linemen in the league (DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead), and then in 2020, he was injured. In Vegas, he gets a fresh start without the expectations he had in San Francisco and comes at a position of desperate need for the Raiders.
Trent Brown and a 2022 7th round pick traded to the Patriots for a 2022 5th round pick
While everyone talked about possibly cutting Brown, I always imagined a trade market would materialize. Brown’s time in Vegas was a disaster as he couldn’t stay on the field and never seemed to settle into Jon Gruden’s ecosystem.
Cut the cost, take the pick and move on.
Rodney Hudson and a 2021 7th round pick traded to the Cardinals for a 2021 3rd round pick (No. 79 overall)
Again: word came out the Raiders were going to release Hudson, and it made no sense. Sure enough, a day later the Raiders were able to secure a middle-of-the-third-round pick back from a team who didn’t want the competition of an open market.
The Raiders believe in backup Andre James, and while this doesn’t help them cap-wise this season, it does in 2022.
Gabe Jackson traded to the Seahawks for a 2021 5th round pick (No. 167)
Rinse and repeat. The Raiders asked Jackson to take a pay cut, and he said no while his camp leaked word that the Raiders were going to release him. Instead, a few days pass and the Raiders move him to Seattle for a 5th rounder.
All things considered, it’s better than nothing, although this move definitively makes the Raiders worse in 2021.
Jonathan Hankins, DT (1 year, $3.5 million)
Hankins was arguably the team’s best defensive lineman last season, often times a one-man wrecking crew against the run.
This year he should have more help, but this was a key move to keep the dream of defensive improvement alive.
Nicholas Morrow, LB (1 year, $4.5 million)
Like Hankins, Morrow was a rare bright spot last season — especially as an undrafted rookie the Raiders have developed themselves.
After investing heavily in Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski last season, retaining Morrow means the Raiders need that group to be among the best units on the roster.
Derek Carrier, TE (1 year, compensation unknown)
Jon Gruden loves tight ends, and Carrier has always been a solid option as the No. 3 guy in the room.
With Jason Witten gone (thankfully), Carrier should see a small bump in opportunities this season.
Theo Riddick, RB (1 year, non-guaranteed aside from 50k)
This was the move that made me think Jalen Richard’s days might be numbered. Riddick played well in limited opportunities last season and fills the same role that Richard currently holds. Something to monitor in the coming days.
Zay Jones, WR (1 year, $2.5 million)
Jones is the team’s No. 5 WR — and all things considered, he’s a perfectly fine option there.
Obviously, the Raiders like him enough to keep bringing him back, but the hope is that the four guys in front of him make sure he doesn’t see the field or the ball too much.
Nevin Lawson, CB (1 year, compensation unknown)
The last move they made before writing this was re-signing Lawson, who will add depth to the cornerback room heading into camp. He’s a serviceable guy to have around, but it’ll be an issue if he sees serious playing time.
I’ve seen a ton of folks say the 2021 Raiders are worse as of now than the 2020 version, and honestly, I just don’t see it. I think the defensive coordinator change is a massive upgrade, and even from a personnel perspective, I think there is a lot to like (not to mention the Raiders have four picks in the first three rounds of next month’s draft).
Obviously, this team’s success will depend primarily on improving their young guys like Jonathan Abram, Damon Arnette, Trayvon Mullen, Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards more than any other free-agent signing — but that should be the case. They should expect improvement from these guys, given the draft capital they used to acquire them!
I don’t think this group is dramatically better than 2020, but it’s clear it’ll be different. Defensively this unit should be far closer to league average. At the same time, offensively, you hope that Gruden and Derek Carr can maintain some of what they found last season — even with an offensive line that’s a lot less expensive.