As the Raiders plot their moves for next season, they face a series of critical decisions. What they decide will go a long way toward determining whether they will become legitimate playoff contenders.
In order of importance, here are the five most pressing issues.
1. Hiring a defensive coordinator
The Raiders will look outside their building to find a new defensive leader, with Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, Los Angeles Rams assistant head coach and linebackers coach Joe Barry and Atlanta Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris among the most prominent candidates.
Wasting another playoff-caliber season from Derek Carr and the offense by picking the wrong coach would be a devastating setback.
In addition to the usual mix of characteristics, the defensive coordinator the Raiders hire will need to be able to develop the current defensive players, who the Raiders have devoted ample draft capital and free agency money to acquire. That was lacking under the leadership of Paul Guenther.
The new coach also will need to have a eye for talent and a major say in the defensive players the Raiders acquire, both in the draft and free agency.
2. Getting Cory Littleton back on track
Littleton was a top-five linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams from 2018 to 2019. His proven track record was the big reason the Raiders invested three years and $35.25 million in him as a free agent.
To say Littleton failed to live up to expectations — the team’s and his own — is an understatement. In fact, he looked like a completely different player with the Raiders.
Much of that is on Littleton, who struggled early on trying to make the transition from the 3-4 scheme to the 4-3 and seemed to play tentatively as a result. He also suffered a slip in tackling and pass coverage.
Some of the blame is also on the Raiders’ defensive coaching staff, which failed to put him in a position to maximize his strengths.
It’s up to the new defensive coordinator to use Littleton in a way that takes better advantage of his playmaking and pass-coverage skills. The talent and will are there.
3. Fixing Johnathan Abram
So much was expected of Abram, who missed all but part of the season opener of his rookie year in 2019 with a shoulder injury. What was expected to be a coming-out party for the second-year strong safety this season turned out to be a major disappointment.
Abram struggled to find the fine line between carrying out his assignments and deviating from them to make plays. The freelancing tendencies ended up hurting the Raiders on a handful of occasions. Abram was often out of position, creating easily exploited voids in the defense.
A case in point was leaving his coverage area to make a play on Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, only to leave tight end Travis Kelce unguarded in the end zone for an easy game-winning touchdown reception.
In addition, Abram was the third-most penalized safety in the NFL.
Going into his third year, Abram needs to take a hard look at himself and decide who and what he wants to be. The emotion and passion he brings are important and worthy attributes, but he can’t let them keep him for realizing his potential.
4. Negotiating with Trent Brown
The Raiders have paid in full the $36.25 million guaranteed portion of Brown’s four-year contract. In return, they’ve gotten just 16 games from their right tackle the last two seasons, including four full games and a handful of plays in another this year.
Brown is under contract the next two years for $13.75 million in 2021 and $15 million in 2022. But that is just paper money as neither salary is guaranteed. That means the Raiders can walk away from Brown next March with no penalty to their salary cap.
On the other hand, when right, he is one of the best players at his position. His departure would create a huge hole in the offensive line.
The Raiders could — and probably should — approach Brown with an offer to guarantee him money on a restructured deal that reduces his yearly salary to a much more acceptable number.
Brown has little leverage. It is highly unlikely any market for him exists at $28 million for the next two seasons. So the Raiders have the upper hand.
If he objects, the Raiders can simply move on from him.
5. Bringing back Nelson Agholor
Signed to a one-year deal to provide veteran depth at wide receiver, Agholor took advantage of a chance at more playing time by delivering 48 catches for 896 yards and eight touchdowns while becoming a trusted target of Derek Carr.
He deserves a pay raise. The challenge is establishing an acceptable and fair deal for both sides, while also not letting the presence of Agholor stunt the growth of young wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards.
Agholor, though, is too important not to bring back.