Three things the Raiders need to address this offseason

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Thursday, January 18, 2024

HENDERSON, Nev. -- On its surface, the Las Vegas Raiders' 5-4 finish under interim coach Antonio Pierce doesn't seem all that impressive.

But it's how the Raiders got there, and what it looked like in going 8-9 overall and flirting with a postseason bid that has tongues wagging. Especially with openings still at general manager and head coach, with interim GM Champ Kelly and Pierce the purported front-runners to retain their gigs.

"When we play a clean game, don't turn over the football as well, and play the game the way it's supposed to be played, and you can look down here and say, 'Wow, that was a football game. And that's how you play it,'" Pierce said. "That's a credit to our staff and our players really buying in and understanding what it takes to win."

But no matter who is running the Raiders' ship next season, there will be issues to address. As such, here are three that jump to the forefront.

The offense, particularly QB

How does a unit that returned a pair of All-Pros in wide receiverDavante Adams and running backJosh Jacobs, as well as former 100-catch Pro Bowl wide receiverHunter Renfrow, finish 27th in total offense and 23rd in scoring? That's probably more of a question for the previous staff headed by Josh McDaniels. Because while Pierce tried to jump-start the offense by benching high-priced but oft-injured veteran quarterbackJimmy Garoppolo in favor of rookie Aidan O'Connell, it didn't quite work out.

Sure, O'Connell finished with a flourish, throwing eight touchdown passes without an interception in the Raiders' final four games. But any semblance of competent quarterback play against theMinnesota Vikings(a 3-0 loss at home, really?) in Week 14 andIndianapolis Coltsin Week 17 and the Raiders likely make the playoffs.

"For the offense in particular, it's been up and down. ... One week we'll have a good week, and the next we won't execute as well," O'Connell said. "I think we've done a good job of not turning the ball over. In that aspect, [we did] a good job."

O'Connell, Pierce said, showed he should be in "consideration" to be a starting quarterback in the future. His lack of mobility and slow internal clock in the face of the rush showed he's probably not the franchise's long-term quarterback. So where do the Raiders turn?

Garoppolo, and his massive contract, seems like a prime cut candidate, as does 15-year veteran Brian Hoyer. Trading forChicago Bearsstarter Justin Fields, who is actually younger than O'Connell, may be a relatively inexpensive option, as he is still on his rookie contract. But Las Vegas would likely have to pick up his fifth-year option for 2025 upon acquiring him.

Drafting a quarterback would seemingly be on the table, too, but the top three prospects -- USC's Caleb Williams, North Carolina's Drake Maye and LSU's Jayden Daniels, who has a personal connection with Pierce from their time together at Arizona State and was in the Raiders locker room after their season-finale win over Denver -- all figure to be long gone before the Raiders' pick at No. 13.

How about trading up? The chip seen as most likely to be moved is Adams, though that might be New York wishful thinking, with Aaron Rodgers stirring the pot. Plus, getting the Jets' No. 10 pick in a trade for Adams and pairing that with the Raiders' No. 13 likely wouldn't be enough to move into the top three to get Williams, Maye or Daniels. And dealing Adams for a quarterback prospect defeats the purpose, no?

The next wave of quarterback prospects -- Washington's Michael Penix Jr., Oregon's Bo Nix, Michigan's J.J. McCarthy -- might not be too enticing in the first half of the first round. Plus, who's calling the plays? With apologies to interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree, a new OC should be in the offing to unlock the talent already in Las Vegas.

"I'm proud of what this team was able to fight through," Adams said. "It seems like the Raiders are always fighting through some sort of something; whether it's a player and something's going on, or a coaching change, or whatever. But I'm proud of the way that these guys were able to rally, stay together, continue to play hard, get some meaningful wins down the stretch ... it's not where we wanted to end up, but you can't cry over spilled milk. You just got to go clean it up and figure it out after that."

Unlock Tyree Wilson and build upon a stingy defense

When's the last time the Raiders could earnestly say their defense was their calling card? Exactly. A switch flipped when McDaniels was shown the door. It seemed as though defensive coordinator Patrick Graham suddenly became more aggressive, the defense hungrier.

Pierce, an old linebacker himself, no doubt had an influence. Edge rusher Maxx Crosby, named second-team All-Pro, was his usual irrepressible self in racking up a career-high 14.5 sacks while third-year defensive end Malcolm Koonce took advantage, with six of his career-best eight sacks coming in the final four games.

"That's one of the best defenses that I've gotten to play with," said Adams, a 10-year veteran. "So, it's exciting when you can be carried by your D and hopefully that won't be the case moving forward, but it's still exciting to know that they can go and hold it down for us."

Imagine how much more fearsome Las Vegas' pass rush becomes if Wilson, the No. 7 overall pick who was slowed early as he recovered from offseason surgery to his right foot, grows more into his role. He finished with 3.5 sacks and played much better after the coaching switch, which involved lining the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Wilson up at different spots on the defensive line, including over center.

Middle linebacker Robert Spillane, who wasn't a frontline starter in four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, proved he could be in his first season with the Raiders, finishing with career highs in sacks (3.5), interceptions (3) and tackles (148). The secondary, meanwhile, found a spark in late-season signee Jack Jones, who had pick-sixes in consecutive weeks and credited playing for Pierce, who he has known since high school, for getting him on the straight and narrow.

While the Raiders finished with the No. 15 total defense -- only the fifth time since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002 they ended in the top half of the league -- and No. 9 in fewest points allowed, the Pierce influence was mighty. Consider: From Week 9 through the end of the season, the Raiders led the NFL in fewest points per game allowed (16), most defensive touchdowns (4) and fewest penalties (31) while tying for third in sacks (30). Building upon that momentum is paramount for 2024.

What about running back?

On one hand, Jacobs is the heart and soul of the team. Or, so Raiders owner Mark Davis and Pierce have said. On the other, Jacobs followed up his All-Pro season of 2022 with a mostly forgettable campaign, finishing with career lows in rushing yards (805), yards per carry (3.5), touchdowns (6) and games (13), after holding out and missing the entirety of the Raiders' offseason program, training camp and the exhibition season in a contract squabble after being given the franchise tag.

Plus, with Jacobs missing the final four games with a quad injury, second-year back Zamir White blossomed, rushing for a combined 397 yards and a touchdown while catching nine passes for 60 yards in those games.

The running back market was depressed last year and if that's again the case, Jacobs may actually want to be tagged again. Some projections have the running back tag at about $11.3 million while Jacobs made $11.791 million on a reworked tag, which was originally worth $10.091 million. The Raiders will have a decision to make, one made spicier by the emergence of White.

You'd assume the new OC's vision for using running backs will be a factor, though probably not as big as the desire of Davis, who said last offseason, "If we had 22 Josh Jacobs with that mentality, that guy's just amazing." Jacobs, meanwhile, said he was all in with the Raiders ... so long as Pierce was retained.

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