The Oakland Raiders’ defensive personnel remains a huge concern heading into the 2018 season.
The new defensive coaching staff is headlined by former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Guenther takes aim to mend a struggling group as a whole. There’s one player Guenther and the Raiders won’t have to worry about and that’s Khalil Mack, arguably one of the best defensive players in the league, also the former 2016 Defensive Player of the Year.
That brings us to the rest of the personnel. Who’s the second-best player on the defense? It’s not that simple and that alone speaks volumes to the struggles. Let’s take a look.
The Unproven Youth Movement
The common fan would think while using both the 2016 & 2017 drafts on only defensive players in the first three rounds that would result in some young defensive stars, correct? It has been much more the opposite.
Raiders 2016 Draft
- Karl Joseph – 101 tackles
- Jihad Ward – 17 tackles
- Shilique Calhoun – 9 tackles
Raiders 2017 Draft
- Gareon Conley – 5 tackles
- Obi Melifonwu – 5 tackles
- Eddie Vanderdoes – 13 tackles
I want to be clear that there are plenty of valid factors that play into the lack of their production. This was just a simple statistical-pull using only tackles as insight to point out an issue. Perhaps the biggest problem was injuries, but also coaching, scheme and positional placement took its toll. Either way, this isn’t a good return and a large reason the defense will likely take priority once again in the early rounds of the 2018 draft.
I have reserved confidence in Gareon Conley to emerge as a great player, but until it comes to fruition on the field, the only contender for the second best defender on the Raiders from this group is the strong safety, Karl Joseph.
Joseph has shown some ability to tackle in space and also has become a powerful hitter in the box on defense, but it’s popularly thought that he’d see more success as a free safety. Joseph has struggled at times in coverage and his compact frame hasn’t been ideal against the physique of the modern-day tight ends in the NFL. The positional change to free safety might occur and if it does, he’ll deserve a new type of judgment as he develops to become more of an impact player on the back-end of the defense, something he hasn’t shown yet. All things considered, Joseph isn’t the 2nd best defender on this team.
The Role Players
There’s a lump of players in this category that have shown moments of success but I’d like to focus on three. Mario Edwards Jr., for example, started 14 games in 2017 and logged 3.5 sacks while in constant rotation on the defensive line. His production as an every-down player really hasn’t ever lived up to the hype. We’re still waiting for his game to come together for him.
Nicholas Morrow was a UDFA rookie that found a very successful niche on the defense as a role player in pass coverage and also showed his speed to track down the football as a hybrid linebacker. The smaller swift player flashed great instincts and will surely remain an important piece defending pass-catching backs and underneath route-concepts. The young 22-year-old Morrow will have an intriguing off-season to follow, we’ll see how he’s developed as a young prospect.
Denico Autry only started three games but as a rotational role player, he constantly flashed his athleticism on the defensive line with five sacks and a whopping seven passes defended. Autry is an extremely underrated talent that has shown versatility in his technique all over the defensive line. Autry is the only worthy candidate in this group to be suggested behind Khalil Mack as the 2nd best defensive player, but all things considered, he hasn’t done enough. Hopefully, Autry is a priority to be retained and he earns a bigger role in 2018, he’s earned it.
There are only two starting veteran contenders in this group that would vie for second best defensive player honors. The two candidates are NaVorro Bowman and Bruce Irvin.
Irvin came way to Oakland via-free agency a mere two years ago and he’s asserted himself as a voracious vocal leader on the defense. Irvin has essentially been used as a pass-rush edge piece opposite Khalil Mack. The returns have been good at times. Irvin’s 15 sacks in two seasons stand out, but his consistency is where he’s tailed-off at times. Irvin is also seen similarly to how he was during his tenure as a Seattle Seahawk, a bit of a one-trick-pony if you will. Outside of rushing the passer, his value across the board as a defender hasn’t been as strong as it was hoped to be. I can’t entertain any talk that Irvin is the 2nd best defender on this team but he’s in the discussion for sure.
Bowman provides an interesting storyline as a Raider in this conversation. For the second straight off-season, the Raiders poorly addressed the MLB position. In 2016 the Raiders picked up Perry Riley Jr. in-season to become an instant starter, while in 2017 they similarly picked up Bowman, inserting him directly into the starting role as well. Bowman instantly provided a positive physical presence, while bringing his high-caliber intellectual understanding of the game around the young core. Bowman notched 58 tackles, 31 assists, 1.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and two passes defended in just 10 games as a Raider in 2017.
At 29 years old, Bowman proved he still has the elite talent that led him to notch four First-Team All-Pro seasons in San Francisco. This was a huge answer for the franchise in-season and now will be one of the biggest controversial storylines leading up to the 2018 draft. Will the Raiders keep the veteran and sign him long-term or choose to go young in the draft?
To me, Bowman is the second best defender on this roster at this time.
Bowman is also playing a position that is critical in the 4-3 scheme that Guenther is installing. Bowman has the type of leadership that this locker room needs after suffering from a dramatic 2017 season. It’s time to secure the most reliable player they’ve had at MLB in quite some time. Newly acquired head coach Jon Gruden did have a veteran, decorated linebacker corps during his last tenure in Oakland. Bowman seems like the perfect fit and that will certainly influence the first round draft focus for this organization.