With what was a forgettable 2017 season now over, Raider Nation is turning their attention to the draft.
Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has shown an ability to hit on key picks in previous draft classes (2014) but has also made some selections leaving Raider Nation scratching its head (Jihad Ward & Shilique Calhoun in 2016).
In order for the Raiders to rebound in 2018, McKenzie must nail the draft process once again. As such, here are three positions the team must address via the NFL draft.
A high-quality cornerback can dramatically change a defense by taking away half the field. The New Orleans Saints found this to be true with their first-round selection of Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore in last season’s 2017 NFL draft.
Similar to the Saints, Oakland had high hopes for their first rounder, fellow Buckeye defensive back Gareon Conley, but his rookie campaign has been marred by injuries. Among active cornerbacks in Oakland’s secondary, it is T.J. Carrie who has been the most consistent, despite some lapses in coverage. With Sean Smith and David Amerson being the other two starters, the cornerback group is among the worst in football.
Smith is slow and flat-footed and cannot be left on an island with smaller receivers or big receivers with quickness. The limited success he has had is against big straight line receivers who have lost a step like Denver’s Demaryius Thomas or Philadelphia’s Alshon Jeffrey. However, with that being said, there is no denying the drastic improvements for Smith under new defensive coordinator Jon Pagano.
As for Amerson, his performance last year was an anomaly, as 2017 and pre-2016 performances have been below average per Pro Football Focus’ rating. At this time, Raider Nation knows who Amerson is and it seems like he’s returned to what made him underperform in D.C as a Redskin.
As of now, the Raiders have a potential CB 1 in Conley and a CB 2/3 in Carrie. Don’t forget, Carrie is a free agent and might not return if his asking price is too high. If Carrie leaves, the Raiders are left with no proven talent.
Have you seen Khalil Mack being triple teamed and wondered why no one else on the line can get to the quarterback? That’s because the line is shifting to Mack’s side and Bruce Irvin and the interior linemen are not winning their one on one battles.
Irvin has underperformed under former coach Ken Norton Jr. but has brought his game up under coach Pagano. The interior linemen, with the exception of Denico Autry, have been mostly run stuffers and have not mastered enough pass rushing moves to be a factor against the passing game.
In order to increase the odds of defeating a team with a solid quarterback, the pressure created by edge-rushers and interior linemen is crucial. Adding another productive edge rusher will keep each other fresh and give more options for the defensive coordinator to work within passing downs.
In the two Super Bowl losses sustained to Tom Brady-Bill Belichick led Patriot squads, the only thing consistent in those losses is the winning team found a way to pressure Brady and not allow him to step up in the pocket.
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Two names to remember for round one is Bradley Chubb from North Carolina and Harold Landry from Boston College. Chubb is a personal favorite of mine as he is both quick and powerful and is consistently in the backfield. I don’t see McKenzie passing by Chubb if he falls to Oakland in round No. 1.
What do Cory James, Nathan Stupar, Miles Burris, Sio Moore, Neiron Ball and Ben Heeney have in common? These players are all linebackers drafted by McKenzie in mid to late rounds. Aside from James, none of them are currently with the team. James’ strength has been against the run, albeit it has come with inconsistencies. Over the last three years, Raider linebackers have been unable to stop anything in the air as tight-ends continuously picked up yards in chunks and moved the chains.
The Raiders brought in former All-Pro NaVorro Bowman in Week 7 and he’s done extremely well lining up in the front seven and playing the pass and run at a level Raider Nation is not used to seeing in Oakland. However, more than one good linebacker is needed and the Raiders will likely draft an off-ball linebacker before the fourth round.
As the game is evolving to more of a passing league, demands for smaller and faster linebackers are increasing. Undrafted rookie free agent Nicholas Morrow has flashed but still needs time to adjust to the NFL and rookie Marquel Lee looks to be an early down run stopping linebacker at the moment.
If Pagano is retained to coach the defense moving forward, this unit should see significant progress next year, especially if the above mentioned weak spots are upgraded through the draft or free agency.