After a bittersweet ending to the Oakland Raiders’ 2016 season, the Silver and Black prepare to finally retake the field with the eyes of Raider Nation ready to be fixated this Sunday.

During this past offseason, the Raiders focused on areas of need specifically on the defense; case in point, in this year’s draft, the team went defense in the first three rounds and six of their total nine picks were defense.

With that said, here are five defensive rookies to pay close attention to as the regular season has arrived with so much depending on how the defense will perform.

Treyvon Hester

The Raiders used one of their many 7th-round picks to take Treyvon Hester, a defensive tackle from Toledo, where he finished his four-year career with 77 solo tackles, 161 total, 32 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Many Raider fans (including myself) thought that he would be a long shot to make the 53 man roster before the preseason, but Hester made our eyebrows raise when he got on the field for preseason. He wanted to show his teammates and coaching staff why he deserved to be on the roster, and he finished the preseason with three games played, six tackles, four solo, and three sacks.

For a 7th round pick fighting his way to a roster spot to end up with these stats is a testament in itself that he will do whatever it takes to help his team win. Right now as the depth chart stands, he is behind 3rd round pick Eddie Vanderdoes so he might not get a whole lot of snaps just yet but I expect to see him in the rotation as he has had some success with rushing the passer.

Shalom Luani

Another 7th rounder I will be looking at is Shalom Luani, safety from Washington State. Shalom played two years at Washington State and amassed 114 solo tackles, 157 total, 11.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, eight interceptions and 11 passes defended.

Shalom was highly regarded as a guy who had a nose for the football and knowing where to be at while delivering the hard hits as well as jumping routes to get the interception. Shalom was another 7th round rookie to stand out this preseason; he finished with four games played, 12 tackles, ten solo, one interception and two passes defended. Shalom showed that he won’t just be a key special teamer but perhaps a rotation player at safety as he has shown that he is more than capable of making plays against the run and defending the pass.

With Reggie Nelson getting up there in age, it would not shock me to see Shalom gradually edge into those reps and play along side Karl Joseph. Not to mention, the Raiders 2nd round pick Obi Melifonwu, safety from Connecticut who is out on the PUP who was originally supposed to be Reggie’s backup, which bodes well for Shalom to get more reps and perhaps prove that he can be a key piece to this secondary.

Eddie Vanderdoes

Once rated as a 5-star recruit, Eddie Vanderdoes began his career at UCLA and was on the Freshman All-America Honors for finishing with 39 tackles, 4.5 for loss. He followed up the 2014 season with 50 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and two sacks. His junior year he was headed in the same direction when he suffered a season ending injury and tore his ACL in his left knee in the season opener.

Vanderdoes returned this past season not as sharp, and reports were to have said he had gained around 40 pounds. Playing at 340 was not to Eddie’s forte, and his stats showed it, finishing with just 27 tackles and one and a half sacks. Vanderdoes, however, did work in the offseason to lose that weight, all 40 pounds of it, and showed up at the Senior Bowl looking slim and very explosive as NFL Draft Guru Mike Mayock put it.

“I didn’t think he played really well at all last year; he was heavy, out of shape and couldn’t finish plays. All of a sudden at the Senior Bowl, there’s quickness and explosion. Oakland is obviously hoping they get the slimmed-down, aggressive, quick version.” – Mike Mayock (NFL Analyst & Draft Scout)

Since then he has kept the weight at around 300 Pounds and has shown the aggressiveness in the run game during this preseason. He has demonstrated that he can help collapse the pocket in passing downs and stick to his gap assignments against the run. Vanderdoes is listed as a starter on the depth chart so we should see him get a significant amount of snaps at defensive tackle on first and second down.

Gareon Conley

Before you freak out, Conley should be number one on this list, but there’s little to nothing that we can examine as far as Conley’s concerned. Still battling back from a “certain” injury, we do not know exactly when Conley will play, especially tomorrow given these circumstances.

Regarded as a “Top 10” talent in the 2017 NFL Draft, Conley was the subject of a sexual assault allegation just before the draft which caused him to slip to number 24. The charges would be dismissed by a grand jury in July due to insignificant evidence. Gareon finished his career at Ohio State with 91 total tackles, 66 solo, 6 interceptions and 15 passes defended. He was highly touted for his playing style on opposing wide receivers, he uses his length to play around them and can make plays on the ball. His 4.44 speed makes it such that he can keep up on vertical routes. The Raiders are hoping to see this from him when they take on the Titans, who have a formidable rookie receiver of their own in Corey Davis.

As of now, Conley is listed as second behind David Amerson, but I would not be shocked to see him in the nickel if he does play on Sunday.

Marquel Lee

Raider fans have been clamoring for linebackers since the start of the offseason, and the Raiders waited until the 5th round to take Marquel Lee, MLB from Wake Forest.

Regarded as one of the most aggressive linebackers in the ACC, Lee was acknowledged for his efforts in 2016 with 105 total tackles, 63 solo, 20 tackles for loss and seven and a half sacks. He was one of 15 players in the nation to finish with 20 tackles for loss.

He has a great build at 6’3″, 240 pounds and has shown that he can fill gaps in the run game as well as rush the passer. The primary concern with Lee is if he can hold up in coverage against running backs and tight ends. There were times in the preseason where he looked lost in coverage and wasn’t able to gain the necessary speed to catch up.

Going into Sunday’s game, Raider fans are concerned with how he will do against the Titan’s tight end Delanie Walker and running back Demarco Murray who can catch out of the backfield.

In three games played in the preseason, Lee racked up nine total tackles, seven solo, and one interception. He is listed as the team’s starting middle linebacker alongside Cory James. It remains to be seen how much Lee will be able to contribute and if he can solve the glaring issue of linebacker left by Raider Nation favorite of last season, Perry Riley. Myself and Raider Nation will be looking to see if Lee has a chance to be the answer.

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