INDIANAPOLIS – The Raiders are at the NFL Scouting Combine primarily to evaluate draft prospects. That's what you'll see on TV, and hear about with each team meeting with 60 college players turning pro this week.
The combine's also the unofficial start of the free agency negotiating period. Tampering rules prevent outright contract talks with players from other teams – that formally starts in mid-March – but background work is taking place in and around Indianapolis this week.
That's why the Raiders have spent so much time recently focused on free agency. They need an actionable plan as markets start to take shape.
"I've spent hours and hours with Jon Gruden and the coaching staff watching free agency film," Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said Wednesday in a discussion with Raiders beat writers at the combine. "We've spent the last couple weeks leading up to that doing nothing but free agency and thinking about what our game plan is and how we're going to (execute it) and how does that compliment the draft.
"The reality is that, there has to be a complete game plan in place, and you have to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the draft and how you go out and fill those complimentary holes in free agency."
The Raiders will take a different approach to free agency this year. They signed a massive number of veteran free agents during Jon Gruden's first offseason back as Raiders head coach, many of them 30 or older. That plan was executed thinking the team could compete, but it didn't pan out. The Raiders are in a full rebuild now, one that will take some time.
Gruden said he wants "blossoming young players" from free agency this year. That will certainly decrease the number and quality, meaning they might pay more to a select few this time around. The Raiders will primarily reconstruct the roster through the NFL draft over establish veterans allowed to hit the market.
"From my perspective, free agency is always looked at with caution," Mayock said. "There are more busts over time than there have been Pro Bowl players. What are you looking to do in free agency? Fill some holes. We have some holes we need to fill. I'd much rather have some young guys who can come in, compete, go to Vegas with us and be part of what we're doing moving forward as opposed to the 35-year old stopgaps. I'm not saying there's not a fit for some one-year guys because there are, but I would think we'd much rather do it with some younger guys to be part of who we are down the road."
The scheduled Las Vegas move in 2020 will already play a role in free agency. The main reason: state taxes. California taxes its highest earners 13 percent, while Nevada doesn't levy state income taxes of any kind.
That difference could be worth a significant sum, so the Raiders could get creative with contracts offered from here on out. It also might impact how much of the $71 million in salary cap space available this year, while massive cash payouts could come in 2020. As a note, teams can carry cap space from one year to the next, so deferred payments are possible.
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That tax issue is already being discussed.
"We can't counsel them on tax matters, technically and legally, but we're all aware of it," Mayock said. "Once we get into trying to structure contracts that crossover into Nevada timeframe, we've already seen agents asking questions about it. The genesis of that is that those guys go from 13 percent of zero percent. That's a pretty good pop in a contract."
That, a new stadium on the horizon and Las Vegas' draw as a destination city, could be attractive to the type of younger free agents the Raiders are looking for. They'll still sign some older players – Gruden has a soft spot for experienced vets – but are focused on adding pieces on the ascent and ready to peak when the Raiders more competitive.