An influx of young talent will affect key position battles this year
We can finally put the NFL draft behind us as the Oakland Raiders will experience an influx of young talent that will define many of this year’s training camp battles.
In a draft where the team was awarded a solid “B” by myself, general manager Reggie McKenzie addressed many of the team’s holes. Both phase two of the offseason program and the rookie camp have been completed. What’s left is prognosticating the futures of proven and unproven players: Position battles at key positions on defense.
Speculation of a shift to a “2-Man” coverage scheme has set in as ex-Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano was brought in to assist with the defense. Pagano specializes in defensive backs and exotic team specific blitz packages.
The last line of defense was often an eyesore and yet remained opportunistic. Reggie Nelson is coming off a Pro Bowl season, but he often was targeted by opposing game plans. When 2017 starts, he will be 34 years old and more physically suited to play in the box near the line of scrimmage.
Six-foot-four 220 pound safety Obi Melifonwu was drafted with the intention of plugging someone physically capable of handling the ever-growing tight end and big receiver threat. In that regard, he’s expected to make a huge leap in ability this coming season. Karl Joseph will be fully recovered from his knee injury, which robbed him of his senior year at West Virginia, as well as from his toe injury which sidelined him late last season.
Nelson doesn’t have the speed to play single high anymore, putting him in that position is setting him up to fail. Joseph, on the other hand, is spectacular as the single high safety. The Mountaineers employed a 3-3-5 scheme at West Virginia and that role got Joseph selected number 14, in the 2016 draft. Nelson may be more experienced and mentally acclimated light years ahead of Melifonwu, but father time has got one arm around Nelson, and physically there’s no comparison.
Final Prediction: FS Karl Joseph, SS Obi Melifonwu
A much-maligned group, no position has been quite as “under fire” or scrutinized as the corners. The Raiders pass defense was historically awful, except for whenever they were playing bottom of the barrel quarterbacks. Moreover, a lot of the issues in the secondary seemed to stem from communication issues and a lack of pass rush.
Sean Smith signed a huge contract to come in and be “the guy”, but in his first game he surrendered a 98-yard touchdown pass and got benched. It would be unfair to use his worst game against him for the entirety of the 2016 campaign because he endured a shoulder injury and spent most of the year “toughing it out”.
In 2015, David Amerson was sensational and appeared to be on his way to being worthy of his second round selection; however, 2016 wasn’t as good a year for him. Like Smith, he didn’t have a horrible year but surrendering deep touchdowns while transitioning to safety help was not a good look for any party involved.
With first-round pick D.J. Hayden no longer standing in his way, T.J. Carrie may now get the opportunity to compete as he seemingly got brushed over. This may be the most competitive battle of the camp, as the incumbents have left the door open as wide as the grand canyon itself.
Enter Gareon Conley, less heralded amongst teammates Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore back at OSU. “Conley Island” played host to all of the Buckeyes toughest receiving opponents. He may not be the tallest, but he’s the superior athlete of the bunch. In rookie camp, he already has been asked to operate out wide and in the slot.
Final Prediction: A switch to a potential 4-2-5 base alignment should allow three corners on the field at all times. Conley will be one of them, a triple-threat battle for the other two positions should see Smith and Amerson emerge as the other two.
Perry Riley was signed off the scrap heap midseason and became the settling factor on a defense in need of direction. Frightening considering nobody else seems to think he could play then or now. An offseason removed from an 84.2 PFF grade, remains unsigned and could potentially remain the Raiders best option. Having seen how frequently the other linebackers made mental mistakes it would be hard to disagree. Similarly, placing faith in a fifth round draft pick would be a little much.
Tight ends are still running free in Jack del Rio’s nightmares, in fact, so much that in an interview with NFL Network, Del Rio stated he didn’t feel as if the position had been adequately addressed. Not exactly a vote of confidence in Corey James, Ben Heeney, Jelani Jenkins, or to a lesser extent, recently drafted Marquel Lee and even Perry Riley Jr. who still remains unsigned.
Final Prediction: TBD, this is an extremely fluid situation and a coach callous enough to vocalize his displeasure with a position group usually does something to fix it. Del Rio and the Raiders will be no different; hopefully, Lee and James step up and answer the bell.