What to look for from Las Vegas Raiders in free agency

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 6, 2024

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Tom Telesco has only been on the job as Las Vegas Raiders general manager for six-plus weeks.

But with NFL free agency beginning next week -- the legal tampering period starts Monday before players can be signed with the onset of the new league year next Wednesday -- and a gaggle of Raiders set to hit the market, he already has a goal in mind.

"I do want to establish a philosophy with the Raiders that we like to re-sign our own," Telesco said at the combine last week.

It's a noble pursuit, but one also fraught with risk.

The Raiders are set to have 16 unrestricted free agents, and Telesco added that he did not anticipate using the franchise tag.

With nearly $43.3 million in salary cap space, per ESPN's Roster Management System, Telesco and the Raiders have primary decisions to make on their "own" free agents as they embark on a new course with coach Antonio Pierce, who was hired as the full-time coach in January after going 5-4 as an interim coach this past season.

A look at three key decisions Telesco and Co. are tasked with making as the NFL's new league year approaches ...

RB Josh Jacobs

Jacobs has been referred to as the "heart" of the Raiders by Davis, the team's "heartbeat" and "heart and soul" by Pierce.

Yeah, Jacobs means that much to not only what Las Vegas wants to do on offense, but also locker-room chemistry. A do-everything back by every definition, Jacobs was a first-team All-Pro in 2022, when he led the NFL with 1,653 rushing yards and 2,053 yards from scrimmage. He is already the third-leading rusher in franchise history with 5,545 career rushing yards, and his 46 rushing TDs are the second-most in the league since 2019.

The Raiders are 21-11 in games in which Jacobs scores a TD, 12-0 when he scores multiple TDs. As Jacobs goes, so go the Raiders.

And you'd have to think new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who authored the league's Nos. 1 and 2 rushing offenses in Chicago the past two seasons, would love to scheme up the 26-year-old Jacobs.

But after getting the franchise tag last spring and sitting out the entirety of the Raiders' offseason program, training camp and the exhibition season -- eventually agreeing to a restructured one-year deal worth $11.791 million, just above the $10.091 million tag -- Jacobs had the worst season of his five-year career.

He missed Las Vegas' final four games with a quad injury and finished with career lows in games played (13), rushing yards (805), yards per carry (3.5), rushing TDs (6), rushing first downs (34) and yards from scrimmage (1,101). Plus, the minus-2 yards he had on nine carries at Buffalo in Week 2 represented the first time a reigning rushing champ had negative rushing yards in a game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

And second-year back Zamir White produced in Jacobs' absence at a fraction of the cost, rushing for a combined 397 yards and a TD while catching nine passes for 60 yards in the final four games.

"We're going to explore pretty hard to see if we can bring him back here and kind of go from there," Telesco said of Jacobs. "But as far as a player -- running game, passing game, pass protection -- he can really help you win games."

Offensive line

Jacobs is a big-ticket item on Las Vegas' roster -- the Raiders are also on the hunt for a franchise quarterback -- but who is going to open holes for the running back and protect the QB with the entire right side of the line and the center about to hit the market?

As Telesco said, "Offensively, we have a lot of work to do. I think that's pretty easy to see."

Right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor might be the highest priority of the free-agent linemen. He is coming off the best season of his six-year career, showing that he can be more than a swing tackle who can also play inside. He might be the first lineman the Raiders want to bring back.

He was No. 32 among 69 qualified offensive linemen with a 87.9% pass block win rate at tackle, per ESPN Stats & Information, and was charged with giving up nine sacks on the season (three came against the Los Angeles Chargers' Khalil Mack in Week 4, who he shut out in a Week 15 rematch). Eluemunor also had a 73.7% run block win rate and was flagged for 10 false starts the last two seasons combined.

After starting all 17 games in 2022 and playing at right tackle, right guard and left tackle that season, he is looking for a raise after playing on a one-year deal with a $1.857 million salary last season.

Andre James, a converted tackle who signed a two-year, $8.65 million extension with $4 million guaranteed in 2022, has been solid since replacing three-time Pro Bowler Rodney Hudson at center in 2021, starting 48 of 51 games. He missed two games last season with an ankle injury and was ably replaced by left guard Dylan Parham, giving the Raiders another center option if James departs.

James played 929 snaps and was flagged for only two penalties last season while having a 96.5% pass block win rate, the second-best among all centers. He was charged with giving up seven sacks and also had a 70.1% run block win rate.

Greg Van Roten, a 34-year old who Las Vegas signed as a free agent last year, had a 92.1% pass block win rate at guard (No. 59 of 168) while being attributed with seven sacks allowed, along with a 70.3% run block win rate.

Defensive tackles

If games are truly won and lost in the trenches, the Raiders have work to do on the defensive line, with three D-tackles hitting free agency in starters Bilal Nichols and John Jenkins and backup Adam Butler, who was the Raiders' most effective free-agent interior defender. Butler finished 2023 with five sacks and a career-high nine QB hits with a pass rush win rate of 8.4% -- along with a team-best 37.9% run stop win rate -- in 505 defensive snaps.

Nichols is the biggest name, having signed a two-year, $11 million free-agent contract with $7.125 million guaranteed with the Raiders in 2022 and starting all 34 games in which he played for Las Vegas. And while he teamed with Maxx Crosby to sack the New England Patriots' Mac Jones for a game-clinching safety in Week 6 and had an 8-yard scoop-and-score in their Christmas Day win at Kansas City, Nichols had just three sacks in two years. His defensive snap count fell to 54% last season, after playing 71% of the Raiders' defensive snaps in 2022, and he had below average pass rush (3.4%) and run stop (31.5%) win rates in 2023.

Jenkins, who will turn 35 before the 2024 season, is coming off a career-best season in which he started a career-high 17 games. He finished with career-highs in tackles (61), tackles for loss (4) and passes defensed (4) while also scoring the first touchdown of his 11-year-career on a fumble return in Week 15. He also had a 32.9% run stop win rate.