This offseason has been unlike any other for the entire NFL, and especially so for the Raiders, who will likely never experience such an unusual and uncertain time again.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all teams to conduct free agency remotely, and they’ll do the draft entirely from home, too. Add in the Raiders‘ in-progress move to Las Vegas and their flurry of roster adjustments made in the pre-draft portion of the offseason, and you’ve got a significantly changed franchise.
The Raiders‘ changes have been needed. The club took its first steps out of the cellar in 2019, finishing 7-9 and looking promising in some key areas, especially where general manager Mike Mayock’s first draft class performed. He followed that up with a free-agent period that included him signing a handful of potentially key contributors: wide receiver Nelson Agholor, linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, defensive end Carl Nassib, safeties Damarious Randall and Jeff Heath, and tight end Jason Witten.
Yes, it will be weird to see Witten in a uniform that doesn’t feature a star on the helmet, but at least the helmet will still be silver. Mayock is hoping Witten will bring over some of the wisdom learned from the tight end’s career spent in Dallas.
“If there’s a Mount Rushmore of NFL tight ends, he’s on it,” Mayock said of Witten. “I know he’s 37 years old and I know we have a pretty good tight end room, but when you talk about bringing in a guy like him, not only can he still play, he had over 60 catches, can block the backside C-gap, still a competitive football player, but on top of that, he brings this wealth of knowledge about how to be a professional. You guys got tired of hearing me talk about foundational players last year and the locker room and culture, that’s who this guy is. He’s the quintessential culture guy.
“We plug him in our locker room and we have one more veteran that can look around the room and tell people what to do and what not to do. And even more importantly in the tight end room, you have a guy like Foster coming off an ACL, hopefully he’s going to be 100 percent day one, but if he’s not, we have a conventional Y that can play, plus we have a guy in that tight end room that I think is going to help the young guys, and I’m talking about all of them, Darren [Waller], Foster, Derek [Carrier]. Jon [Gruden] and I looked at this, we were jointed at the hip on this decision.”
Culture is important to turning a team around, especially one that has seldom won in much of the last 20 years. Mayock has been bent on doing just that, and he knows his roster moves aren’t finished for this offseason. Agholor was a nice addition, but Mayock won’t hide it — his Raiders still need a No. 1 receiver.
“There’s quality at the top, there’s depth throughout, it’s no secret we need to get better at wideout, we understand that,” Mayock said. “We really like adding Nelson Agholor, but we still need to get better at wideout. Again, it’s kind of like the corner conversation, I think you have to let it come to you a little bit; whether it’s in the first round, second round, third round, fifth round, I’m hoping to find a wideout that fits the Raiders‘ need and culture.”
Such a culture can sometimes spread via osmosis; spend enough time in the building and some of it will eventually become part of a person. But none of the Raiders‘ staff can get together, meaning the only thing absorbing Mayock’s wisdom — at least directly — are his whiteboards.
“As far as this draft is concerned, I kind of laugh because everyone is talking about this virtual draft and how high-tech it is, if you could see my living room right now it’s the ultimate in low tech,” Mayock quipped. “I have five huge whiteboards, I probably have 1,000 magnets with names on them, all over the place. I feel like I’m still sitting in the middle of a 1976 draft room, it’s kind of like Back to the Future.”
If Mayock keeps at his current pace, the Raiders‘ future might seem a bit like a trip to their glory-filled past. The stadium sure will look a lot different, though.