HENDERSON, Nev. — Watching the Las Vegas Raiders practice this week, it was hard not to wade into the swamp of retooling concepts that will be the connective tissue of this franchise for the next five months.
Bridge quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Trade deadline target Davante Adams. Running back holdout Josh Jacobs. Foundational 2023 draft picks spent on an edge rusher and a three-down tight end. Not to mention nearly 80 percent roster turnover in 18 months.
For the sake of locker rooms, fan bases (and sometimes owners), coaches and front offices often do everything they can to avoid framing these kinds of roster decisions for what they are. Not because they want to — but because in today’s year-to-year NFL cycle, they have to. Honesty about a reconstruction is pain. And that pain is often unacceptable in franchises, even when it’s both necessary and prudent.
But after coming through Raiders training camp in back-to-back seasons, I’ll just say what others in this franchise can’t: This is a wall-to-wall build that is beginning one year later than it could have. A needed reimagining of a roster that had a fool’s gold playoff appearance in 2021, led by a quarterback in Derek Carr who — if we’re putting all the cards on the table — is a (talented player/nice guy/good leader) who ultimately doesn’t fit the mold of a quarterback capable of giving you a shot to contend for a Super Bowl in a multiyear window. At best, with all the breaks and catching every green light, he represents the maybe-he-gets-hot hopefulness of a Nick Foles or Joe Flacco. And that’s no way to build a team, even if you don’t have other enticing options.
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Carr’s supporters will disagree, and that’s fine. But I’ll continue to look at the last two decades of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and lean into the overwhelming majority being first-ballot Hall of Famers, multiple-time league MVPs, or some of the most prolific statistical passers in the history of the game. Those are players that you work to build around for 10-15 years — or until the wheels fall off. Not Carr, who signed with the New Orleans Saints after the Raiders cut him. And that alone is enough to push the organization into a significant left turn.
But it’s still worth asking how the Raiders got here. Which I wondered myself after coming through one year ago and seeing a team with at least one significant serious flaw (the offensive line), but also a multitude of talented players on offense. Were they a question mark in the AFC West? Yes. But not one that I would have predicted would win only six games — particularly in a season when the Denver Broncos would absolutely implode.
But what I failed to appreciate is the same trap I often fall into nearly every offseason, forgetting that good or great players don’t always translate into good or great fits. And that among the many traits defining great teams, culture and leadership fits between the locker room and the surrounding staff remain overwhelmingly important. So much so, it’s hard to think of a single Super Bowl-winning team or even a long era of NFL success that existed in spite of an ecosystem that wasn’t in sync.
That was the Raiders in 2022. They won’t say it, of course. But I will. It was a season in which a regime arrived and tried to embrace a pair objectives that ended up being a tougher fit than expected. On one hand, there was an element of trying to embrace the momentum of a 2021 season that saw the Raiders pull themselves through total chaos to an unlikely playoff appearance. But on the other hand, there was the need to introduce a culture change and long-term building plan that wasn’t going to mirror what came before it.
If we simmered all of that into a single concept, it would be this: The new regime came in and went for it in 2022, making additions to the roster that were geared toward seizing on the success of the previous season. If that success was legitimate, it would be sustainable under new management. If it wasn’t, a secondary priority would kick in. Namely, figuring out who and what worked, then curving the build to that reality.
Again, these are things that the Raiders’ braintrust can’t really say out loud. Not just because it’s unpopular, but also because the byproduct of that kind of reality is often some combination of cutting, remodeling or even starting over completely in some parts of the depth chart. And that is where this franchise is right now — settled into an evolving version of rebooting that isn’t quite tearing everything apart, but definitely changing enough to require some patience beyond the 2023 season.
So what’s going to go into it?
First and foremost, it’s going to be figuring out what kind of runway is left for a 31-year-old Garoppolo and whether or not he’s just a bridge quarterback setting up a longer-term solution that isn’t readily obvious. To me — and the Raiders might disagree — I think his easily exitable contract makes it clear that all options remain on the table. If he gets hurt at some point (and that’s always possible at any given moment with Garoppolo), this could be a team that slides quickly into the territory of a 2024 quarterback class that is expected to be remarkably talented at the top of the draft. Conversely, if Garoppolo plays a full season, the coaching staff and front office is going to get a very good handle on precisely what he has left in the tank and whether he can ever be a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback again.
Beyond that quarterback question? There’s the Josh Jacobs quandary, which I believe will end up in some kind of Saquon Barkley-esque compromise that gets him back into the fold, followed by a 2023 that either unites the two sides in a long term deal or ends their relationship entirely. What I don’t expect to happen is the slow-motion public relations train wreck that has unfolded with the Indianapolis Colts and Jonathan Taylor. At the very least, Raiders ownership has helped keep a tough and emotional Jacobs negotiation clean and from becoming a headline war.
After those two spots on the roster, there will be an unfolding landscape with Adams, who at 30 seems like an odd fit within the current construction and a likely trade target for some teams at the deadline — if the Raiders aren’t still holding their own in a playoff race in November. Of all the situations on the roster that have the potential for some awkward moments, this is the spot. Most especially because the New York Jets and quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be trying to maximize a Super Bowl window for at least the next two seasons, and that dovetails nicely with the remaining years of Adams’ prime window.
When you get past the microscope on those three players and positions, fans are going to have to get comfortable with the more patient element of a traditional build, which is ultimately going to focus on drafting homegrown players who will be developed inside the culture of head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler. The full draft slate in 2023 will be a prime example, with edge rusher Tyree Wilson and tight end Michael Mayer expected to be a pair of significant cornerstones, accentuated by the considerable potential already showcased by players like third-round wideout Tre Tucker and fourth-round cornerback Jakorian Bennett.
These will be the players who represent bricks in a new foundation moving forward. A future that won’t be steeped in free agent splurging and instant gratification. Unfortunately for the fans and maybe even for ownership, last season’s measurement and less-than-ideal results now necessitate the most bothersome of NFL assets: time and patience.
The Raiders leadership might not want to say it. Their fans might not want to hear it. But that doesn’t change what this really is: a reconstruction that was overdue before the current regime walked into the building 18 months ago.