The Raiders may be on the precipice of a complete identity shift. With potentially a new head coach and new general manager on their way in, the Raiders may be taken in a completely different direction than in years past. This shift coincides with a massive list of potential free agents the Raiders may lose in the 2022 offseason.
Some names, such as quarterback Marcus Mariota, may have priced themselves out of the Raiders’ range while others, such as Richie Incognito, are a bit long in the tooth and have an unnerving injury history. The rest should be fair game, and below is a list of some of the most important pending free agents that the Raiders should prioritize re-signing in the upcoming offseason.
We start off our list of priority free agents by lumping together two players who have more than proven their worth to the Raiders organization. Punter AJ Cole and kicker Daniel Carlson have both been stellar in 2021, combining to give Las Vegas arguably the best special teams unit in the league.
Cole has been on a tear this year, averaging 51.2 yards per punt on 45 punts, downing 20 of those inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. Meanwhile, Daniel Carlson is 24 of 27 this season including two game-winners. Those game winners have helped Carlson net the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week twice in 2021.
“A lot of people don’t really realize just how big that field position battle is,” Carlson said when asked about Cole after the Raiders’ Thanksgiving win against the Cowboys. “He’s been doing a great job for us all season… That whole specialist unit, we’ve got a lot of work together, and it’s nice to see it pay off today.”
Both of these players have proven to be special players for the Raiders and effective weapons during Las Vegas’s push towards the playoffs. These two men have certainly earned big extensions and the Raiders would be wise to keep their special teams core together for the foreseeable future.
DT Solomon Thomas
Versatility is a key component for NFL players in the age of positionless football. The ability to fill multiple roles gives a player a certain amount of staying power on any team and that is exactly what Solomon Thomas brings to the table.
Lining up all over the defensive line, Thomas can be used in a variety of different ways. The former third overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft had a disappointing showing while in San Francisco but has had somewhat of a career resurgence since coming to Las Vegas.
Already surpassing his career high in sacks (3 in 2017) with four on the year, Thomas has also forced two fumbles and is grading out as one of the best run-stopping defensive linemen in the league. At 26, Thomas is still in the prime of his career and can be a centerpiece that the Raiders defensive line can be built around.
WR Zay Jones
It is safe to say the Raiders’ receiving core will need revamped in the offseason. Henry Ruggs III is no longer with the team and veteran DeSean Jackson may not be back in Las Vegas after his one-year contract expires. Bryan Edwards hasn’t exactly inspired much confidence so far, and outside of slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, the depth chart at receiver is suspect.
That is what makes bringing back Zay Jones so important. The Raiders will certainly target a receiver in free agency or early in the draft, but retaining pass catchers that know this team and QB Derek Carr is just as vital. Jones has proven to be a halfway-decent deep threat and has developed a comfortable rapport with Carr over the last few years. That trust will be important as the team brings in new faces to boost this passing attack. He may not warrant a top-end contract, but the Raiders would be wise to retain the services of Jones for the next few years.
CB Casey Hayward Jr.
Playing in the AFC West presents innumerable challenges for the Las Vegas secondary. Going up against the likes of QBs Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert and a talented receiving corps in Denver twice a year means the Raiders defensive backs are under intense pressure. Thus, it is important to have the cool steadiness and veteran leadership of a longtime corner like Casey Hayward Jr.
“Very instinctual. (Hayward Jr.) really brings a sense of poise to the DB group,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Thursday. “There’s some young guys back there kind of learning the ropes a little bit. I think with him on the field, you can see him communicating after every play, talking to the guys, some alerts and things like that, and his instincts.”
“The way he’s played and how we position him, trying to best utilize his skillset. He’s always been that. I think that’s what we appreciate the most: his instincts.”
Though he is 32 years of age, Hayward has been stellar on the defensive backend for Las Vegas. Grading out as one of the top corners in the league throughout the first half of the season, Hayward has defied the laws of aging and is playing like he is ten years younger. Hayward has certainly earned a contract extension and if the Raider secondary is going to improve, keeping the sturdy veteran around can only help these young players.
LB Nicholas Morrow
Once upon a time, Nicholas Morrow was seen as a promising, up-and-coming young linebacker. Unfortunately he hasn’t quite made that leap most were expecting, but those flashes he showed early in his career proves that the talent is there. Morrow has yet to play in 2021 due to injury (it’s not known whether he will return this season) and the Raiders have felt his absence.
Though the Raiders have invested heavily in the linebacker position over the last few years, Morrow has still found a way to carve out a niche on this defense. Losing him showed how important Morrow is as a special teams player and a depth linebacker off the bench.
With several of Las Vegas’s high priced linebacker free agents underperforming, bringing back a young defender who shows he can play everywhere could push whomever is in front of him on the depth chart for serious playing time. A one-year ‘prove it’ deal may be best for a player coming off a big injury, but retaining Morrow could be a low risk, high reward move for the Raiders.
DT Quinton Jefferson
Several of the defensive linemen in Las Vegas have expiring contracts next season, meaning the Raiders may have to bring multiple guys back just to fill out the ranks. I’ve already mentioned Solomon Thomas, but determining which other defensive linemen deserve extensions is a key question. The answer to that question is Quinton Jefferson.
Coming in from Seattle, the six-year pro has been solid in Las Vegas’s rotation. While his tape won’t blow anyone away, he has proven to be a solid interior pass rusher and has made more than a handful of plays behind the line of scrimmage. With three sacks on the season, he is nearing his career high total (3.5) and already has a career high in forced fumbles with two, Jefferson is having perhaps the most efficient all-around season of his career. Retaining him in order to keep some solid rotational depth is a wise way to go for the Raiders.
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