When it comes down to final cuts, NFL coaches and general managers often say the best 53 guys will make the roster, but we all know draft status and financial strings tied to players factor into those decisions. That wasn't the case for the Las Vegas Raiders Tuesday. General manager Dave Ziegler absolutely meant it.
On Tuesday, the Raiders waived 2021 first-round offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood and traded 2019 second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen to the Arizona Cardinals for a 2023 conditional seventh-round pick that can become a sixth-rounder, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
At first thought, you may be taken aback by those moves, but remember, Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels didn’t invest premium draft capital in Leatherwood or Mullen. The previous regime under head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock had plans for those players that changed course once the new decision-makers walked in the door.
At the NFL owners meetings in March, McDaniels said Leatherwood would have a chance to earn a starting position, but he didn’t guarantee the second-year offensive lineman anything (h/t ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez)
Unfortunately, Leatherwood seemed to regress after a subpar rookie season at tackle for the first four games and guard for the remainder of the campaign.
At the beginning of training camp, NBC Sports' Peter King noted that Leatherwood fell behind Brandon Parker in the competition for the right tackle job.
After Parker suffered an injury in the Hall of Fame Game, rookie seventh-rounder Thayer Munford Jr. surpassed Leatherwood for first-team reps at right tackle.
Munford suffered an (undisclosed) injury days before the Raiders played the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 of the preseason, which allowed Jermaine Eluemunor to take over first-string reps.
The Raiders told everyone what they thought about Leatherwood’s outlook with the team as they limited his starting reps in favor of a fifth-year veteran who's struggled in past seasons (Parker), a late-round rookie (Munford) and a journeyman (Eluemunor) in an open competition.
Anyone who watched the exhibition games understood why Leatherwood fell in the pecking order.
For much of the preseason, Leatherwood played against second- and third-stringers, sometimes late in games, and he struggled mightily in pass protection. According to Pro Football Focus, Leatherwood gave up two sacks in 153 snaps, but he also allowed constant pressure because of his unrefined hand technique and a passive attack plan at the line of scrimmage:
Kyle Crabbs @GrindingTheTape
Look at the lower half mobility for Jaelan Phillips here....when you talk about bend/flexibility, this kind of dynamic base makes it much more challenging to squeeze rushers out. Phillips logged a pressure of Stidham on this play. (And yes, Alex Leatherwood's hands didn't help.) <a href="https://t.co/NQmJfqeRKk">pic.twitter.com/NQmJfqeRKk</a>
Zack Cox @ZackCoxNESN
Daniel Ekuale got the sack, but watch UDFA LaBryan Ray (74) on this play. Straight-up bulldozed ex-Alabama teammate Alex Leatherwood. <br><br>Feels like Ray has flashed in every practice/game since the start of camp. <a href="https://t.co/9C0SpHVK0O">pic.twitter.com/9C0SpHVK0O</a>
Bleacher Report’s Brandon Thorn nailed his scouting report on Leatherwood and projected him as a second-round pick.
“He needs to add variance to his hand techniques as a pass protector to avoid becoming too reliant on using his outside hand to initiate contact, which makes him vulnerable to the cross chop as well as inside-out stutters. In the run game, he needs to clean up his aiming points and angles working off combo blocks to better locate and fit on second-level defenders.
"Leatherwood has the play strength, athletic ability and competitive toughness to develop into a high-end starter but has concerning technique issues in pass protection that need to be addressed first.”
Leatherwood had some decent moments as a run-blocker at tackle and guard, though he hasn't shown any improvement in pass protection.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Raiders tried to deal Leatherwood, but they couldn’t find a trade partner:
Per the MMQB’s Albert Breer, Vegas will move forward with Eluemunor and Munford for the short- and possible long-term future:
Albert Breer @AlbertBreer
Raiders aggressively tried to move him to no avail.<br><br>Jermaine Eluemunor is the likely Week 1 starter at right tackle, with rookie Thayer Munford (who's impressed the staff) having a legit shot to unseat him when he gets healthy and back out at practice. <a href="https://t.co/XXXEgBe3PW">https://t.co/XXXEgBe3PW</a>
Despite the fact that the Raiders will have to eat $7.9 million in dead money for a former first-rounder (h/t Schefter), team brass will move forward with cheaper options who didn’t come into the league with a high draft status or garner leaguewide recognition.
Though Leatherwood played right guard for the majority of the 2021 season, the current coaches didn’t take an extensive look at him as an interior offensive lineman. Instead, they skipped the possible experiment and moved on, opening up a roster spot for someone who, in their eyes, earned it.
Sure, Leatherwood struggled on his own account, but we cannot let Gruden and Mayock off the hook for a poor-value draft decision, which in hindsight, looks like a running theme with their recent first-round picks:
Ari Meirov @MySportsUpdate
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Raiders?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Raiders</a> first-round picks from 2019-2021:<br><br>2021: Alex Leatherwood: Cut<br>2020: Henry Ruggs III: Cut<br>2020: Damon Arnette: Cut<br>2019: Clelin Ferrell: 5th year declined.<br>2019: Josh Jacobs: 5th year declined.<br>2019: Johnathan Abram: 5th year declined.
The three first-round picks who remain on the roster may suit up for new teams in 2023.
We can definitively say Gruden and Mayock overdrafted Leatherwood or selected him to play the wrong position at the start of his career. As the 2020 Outland Trophy winner, he has talent but needs a fresh start elsewhere.
Ziegler’s decision to trade Mullen seems like a strong vote of confidence for Nate Hobbs, who had an impressive rookie campaign by Pro Football Focus' standards:
Mullen led the Raiders in pass breakups for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, starting in 26 out of 32 games in that span. Last year, he missed 12 contests because of foot and toe injuries and underwent surgery in May.
While Mullen spent an extended period on the physically unable to perform list this summer, Hobbs took reps on the outside and went toe-to-toe against arguably the league’s best wide receiver in Davante Adams:
Paul Gutierrez @PGutierrezESPN
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Raiders?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Raiders</a> coach Josh McDaniels, an offensive mind, on his reaction after seeing a defensive player make a big play in practice, like Nate Hobbs' pretty PBU against Davante Adams on an out pass from Derek Carr yesterday: "I'm emphasizing the team...I win and lose on every play."
"Nate is one of the best young DB's I've been around," Adams tweeted weeks ago.
Though Mullen made strides through his first two years before injuries derailed his 2021 season, the Raiders likely see something special in Hobbs, who can line up outside in the base formation and inside in nickel with five defensive backs on the field.
Despite his 2021 fifth-round draft status, Hobbs can do more for the Raiders defense than Mullen, who’s a boundary cornerback.
Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal believes Hobbs will take on an expanded role beyond his slot cornerback duties from last year:
Hobbs' role could compare closely to Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl cornerback Kenny Moore II, who’s played 92-plus percent of defensive snaps every year since 2018 as a slot cornerback in nickel and a boundary cover man in base alignment.
Secondly, Mullen is going into a contract year. The Raiders have Hobbs under contract for $900,763, $1 million and $1.1 million for the next three years, correspondingly.
In a forward-looking assessment, Vegas traded a cornerback who’s coming off an injury and surgery in a contract term and may elevate a more versatile player (on a modest deal) capable of playing two positions with different responsibilities.
Ziegler is playing roster chess (not checkers) without an eye for favorites. The new regime has objectively assessed the roster and made the best decisions for the team’s new direction.
By the way, do we need to look at the Gruden-Mayock draft record for early-round picks again? While they deserve credit for hitting on Day 3 steals in edge-rusher Maxx Crosby and wideout Hunter Renfrow and plucking tight end Darren Waller off the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad in 2018, the tandem didn’t hit their top selections out of the park.
The Ziegler-McDaniels partnership hasn’t completely disassembled the roster though.
The Raiders have signed quarterback Derek Carr, Crosby and Renfrow to extensions. They also re-signed Parker, who's on season-ending injured reserve, nose tackle Johnathan Hankins and Eluemunor, who's previously played under McDaniels. According to CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson, the team is in talks with Waller about a market-setting deal.
Clearly, the new administration knows what it wants, and Ziegler isn’t going to wait for bad contracts to expire or let roster holdovers take a spot when the coaching staff sees more upside in other talents. Last week, Vegas released running back Kenyan Drake, and they'll eat $3.6 million in dead money for that transaction this year.
Ziegler and McDaniels saw a team that made the playoffs in 2021, rewarded the core playmakers at premium positions and jettisoned anyone who didn’t fit or answer the bell this summer. While the names on the way out may have shocked you Tuesday, this isn’t rocket science. That’s how you send a message about the new standards and expectations in Vegas.
Player contract information is provided by Over the Cap.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.