Tafur: Raiders land difference-maker in Christian Wilkins, lose ‘heartbeat’ in Josh Jacobs

The Las Vegas Raiders don’t always make a big splash on the first day of free agency — and when they do, like with Trent Brown and Chandler Jones, fans usually wind up soaking wet and shivering. But Monday was a great day for Antonio Pierce, Maxx Crosby and the Raiders as they signed a true difference-maker in defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who gladly stops the run on his way to smacking the quarterback.

Monday was also a busy day, as they signed a bridge quarterback in Gardner Minshew after flirting with the idea of trading for Justin Fields, and said goodbye to running back Josh Jacobs and right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor.

General manager Tom Telesco thought briefly about reuniting with former Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler. But he remembered how easy it was for him to say no to Ekeler in negotiations last year and the Raiders will find likely a complement to Zamir White in the running game later this week or in the NFL Draft.

But the big story was the 311-pound Wilkins.

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Teams that employ Crosby and Davante Adams should be in win-now mode, and the Raiders clearly are. Telesco didn’t give Wilkins $110 million ($85 guaranteed) of owner Mark Davis’ easily-earned stadium money because he has a nice smile.

Wilkins finished with 61 pressures last season, including 18 double-team pressures, the fifth-most among defensive tackles, per Next Gen Stats. Raiders defensive tackles combined for 15 double-team pressures, the fourth-fewest in the NFL. Wilkins also had more sacks (nine) last season than the entire Raiders defensive tackle rotation.

Pierce had said he wanted “to build this team inside out, and I would love to get some bad-ass dudes — heavy-handed and physical.” Wilkins will prevent teams from double-teaming Crosby as much, and like Crosby he is always on the field — they are two of only seven linemen to play more than 850 snaps last season.

Crosby had to be thrilled even though he lost one of his best friends on the team in Jacobs. Jacobs hit the free agent market after five seasons with the Raiders and while Pierce and company were hopeful of bringing him back, the Raiders balked when the Packers offered four years for $48 million. According to a league source, Jacobs will make $14.8 million guaranteed in the first season (the Packers have a longstanding policy of not guaranteeing money past the first season in non-quarterback contracts).

Jacobs ran for 5,545 yards — third-most in franchise history — and routinely gave up his body for the team after being drafted in the first round in 2019. I remember numerous occasions when he needed help getting his shoulder pads off after games. (I also have a feeling the Packers are going to show how under-utilized he was in the passing game.)

Jacobs wanted to leave the Raiders after ugly negotiations with former general manager Dave Ziegler last offseason (Davis saved the day), but he was excited about playing for Pierce after the 5-4 finish to last season under the then-interim coach. But things rarely work out the way that players want in the NFL. Only one running back — at best — per offseason truly breaks the bank, and that was Saquon Barkley this year. Barkley agreed to a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles worth up to $46.75 million, with $26 million guaranteed, league sources confirmed to The Athletic.



How Josh Jacobs fits as the Packers’ new No. 1 running back

(As for Eluemunor, last year’s starting right tackle left for the New York Giants, and the Raiders will now turn to Thayer Munford Jr. or the draft.)

Pierce had said that Jacobs was the heartbeat of the team, but that’s now been transplanted to a defensive line of Crosby, Wilkins, Malcolm Koonce and yes, Tyree Wilson, who should be much improved in his second season.

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Josh Jacobs made two Pro Bowls and ran for 5,545 yards over five seasons with the Raiders. (Steve Marcus / Getty Images)

The Raiders defense became its strength last season for the first time in almost two decades, and now under Pierce and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, looks to become one of the best in the league. A starting cornerback, another defensive tackle and a linebacker in free agency or the draft should get them there.

The Raiders still need to score points — 24 a game, Pierce said when he was promoted from interim coach — and they need a quarterback.

Minshew is probably not what you had in mind. Especially after Pierce said two weeks ago that he doesn’t want any more “Band-Aids” at that position for the Raiders. But Minshew is more like that waterproof kinesiology tape than a Band-Aid — he can scramble and make clutch throws and nearly helped get the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs last season after they lost rookie starter Anthony Richardson. In fact, they would have won in Week 18 to clinch a playoff spot if not for a late dropped pass.

Crosby got mad at Minshew when the two squared off last season and for a good reason. Minshew turned down a helping hand from Crosby after one play, and the Colts beat the Raiders in a game that had playoff implications. Crosby yelled at Minshew for the rest of the game, and the two competitors are going to enjoy going at it in practice.

Is Minshew the long-term answer? No.

Does he mean the Raiders won’t try and trade up for a quarterback in the draft? No.

But Minshew is insurance just in case the Raiders can’t move up and get Jayden Daniels, Drake Maye or J.J. McCarthy (or trade down for Michael Penix or Bo Nix). Pierce has said all the right things about Aidan O’Connell and his 10 starts as a rookie last season, but the Raiders are giving Minshew $25 million over two years ($15 million guaranteed) because they think he can beat out O’Connell.

They liked Minshew more than Russell Wilson — 12 times more, it turns out, when you factor in that Wilson got $1.2 million from the Steelers. Wilson wanted to come to the Raiders back in the Jon Gruden days and he still did now, according to team and league sources, but the Raiders didn’t see him as a fit.

The Raiders also kicked around the idea of trading for Fields, according to league sources, as his price goes down daily. But they already hired deposed Chicago Bears coordinator Luke Getsy, and reuniting the 2023 Chicago offense would have been a tough sell. When you hire Getsy, you are saying Fields was the problem with the Bears. If you bring in both … what, it was the offensive line’s, running backs’ and receivers’ fault?

Minshew may have a lower ceiling than Fields, but the floor is much higher.

And a steady floor is important if you might leap for a quarterback in the draft and make a playoff run behind a Crosby- and Wilkins-led defense.

(Top photo of Christian Wilkins and Josh Jacobs: Michael Laughlin / Associated Press)

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