At my core, I am a Raider fan. Before Fridays on the radio covering high school football, before the blogging, the podcasts, and everything else, for me, there was Raiders fandom. I remember the bad football in the 1990s watching those games with my family after long hours at the tailgate. Those seasons were bad, but we never felt those season tickets were wasted.
Then like a bolt out of the blue came this young and charismatic visor wearing head coach that seemingly changed everything. Suddenly those dollars spent on the season tickets felt worth it. A few seasons later it all came crashing down in a miserable Super Bowl performance and what ensued was fifteen years that rivaled any of the worst 15-year stretches in NFL history.
Almost repeating twenty years ago, like a bolt out of the blue comes the same coach that once led Raider Nation nearly to the promised land, but now he is older and wiser. I am a fan first, but I was not one of the Gruden “fanboys” that immediately acted as if this was the greatest coup in coaching history. Instead, I reserved judgment to see what kind of staff Gruden would bring in.
Well, he crushed that step. Next was free agency. I was impressed. Next came the draft. For those who read my mock draft know that I included a trade down to the Cardinals at fifteen for the Raiders, and I had the Raiders taking an offensive tackle. All of that in mind, I certainly did not see the Kolton Miller pick happening.
When it was said and done, the draft was the most intriguing part of this entire transition under Gruden. Half of Raider Nation is convinced the Gruden had one of the worst drafts in NFL history. If you obsess about grades, then I can understand this mindset. After listening to a podcast in which Connor Rogers and Matt Miller both killed the Raiders for not taking players of value when ten minutes before that they stipulated one must ignore value to appreciate the Browns’ draft, I took to Twitter to try to explain to them why Raider fans were unhappy with their judgment.
As I should have expected, Connor Rogers did not take kindly to me trying to explain the finer points of messaging and how he was basically acting the same as MSNBC or Fox News, but I made my point. The fact is if you want to understand what the Raiders did in this draft you have to open your mind to the idea that the Raiders knew they had issues and they attacked them. By attacking them, they put their faith into prospects that some may not like, but these coaches believe in those men and those skill sets.
At times Twitter becomes a massive echo-chamber and because of this, it creates an entire mindset for how one must think about a particular issue. This definitely developed in regards to how the Raiders should attack this draft. The constant perpetuation of the idea that the defense had unsolvable deficiencies that had to be addressed in the draft was omnipresent.
Rather than go down this precise route, the Raiders did a good job at acquiring sufficient talent for the immediate future in the defensive backfield. They may not be the biggest names in the NFL, but we need to put some respect on the names of Marcus Gilchrist and Rashaan Melvin. Their additions allowed for outside of the box thinking.
Two seasons ago when the Raiders were blowing out the Indianapolis Colts and looking like a potential Super Bowl team, they reached those heights by protecting Derek Carr. The 125 million dollar quarterback broke his ankle in that Colts game and then broke his back the following season. Jon Gruden took the job in Oakland to be with three players and the most important of them is Carr. After recognizing his 35-year-old left tackle would not be around this offseason as he recovers from Lisfranc surgery and the options at right tackle were not ideal with him gone, this coaching staff made the bold move.
Kolton Miller is not everyone’s cup of tea. There have been many concerns that he is not aggressive enough. He also has a bit of a false step when he is in pass protection. What Miller does have is incredible length and athleticism. On top of that, he also has flexibility because he played both left and right tackle. Many people beat the pick up and claimed that Miller was a third or fourth round talent. Mike Mayock had him at 31, Mel Kiper had him at 13, and I thought he was a high upside second rounder. To put that in context, I only had 14 players with a first-round grade.
What made the Raiders draft truly valorous was doubling down on an offensive tackle by taking Brandon Parker in the third round. Parker was a mildly heralded prospect from North Carolina A&T. He dominated his competition but struggled a little at the Senior Bowl. When watching his game against Grambling, there was a play where he was expected to make a seal block to the outside. He shot out of his stance and spun himself in the air to face the outside and then sealed out both backside blockers.
Parker has sneaky athleticism and his athletic profile shares some characteristics with Miller. For one, they are both freakishly tall with freakish arm length. Secondly, they have similar vertical jumps, broad jumps, and 20-yard shuttles. This means they have similar explosive short-area traits and similar agility traits. What we see here is a type. We have seen this all offseason and it was cemented in this draft. This coaching, unlike previous years, knows what they are looking for and the scouting staff found those guys. Ultimately, it takes valor to stick to your guns and build strength upon strength.
If round one was not interesting enough, the Raiders definitely went off the radar in round two with PJ Hall from Sam Houston State. Hall was someone who Vic Tafur had mentioned prior to the draft and personally, I looked at him as a third round type of guy. I had some questions if he was more of a three-technique or nose tackle. Lance Zierlein, who writes the analysis of the draft-eligible prospects for NFL.com, gave him a third to fourth round grade and compared him to Grady Jarrett.
It is time to be honest. If PJ Hall is a Grady Jarrett level talent, then grabbing him in round two is a fantastic value. It is clear that this was a guy that the scouting team would have noticed early on as fitting the skill set that Paul Guenther is looking for at one or both of his defensive tackle positions. Most likely, we will see Hall lining up at three-technique, but he could certainly find success rushing the passer at the nose tackle spot. The Raiders could also use some “wide 9” concepts and rush the passer with two-three techniques.
To add to his obvious talent, Hall is also amazingly strong. There have been videos going around of Hall parallel squatting over 700 pounds and almost doing it with ease. That is freakish strength and with his bowling ball shape, he can prove to be extremely destructive inside for the Raiders.
Arden Key was nabbed in round three. This was a guy I felt fit the Raiders perfectly. His size and athletic profile fit in some respects what they already had in Bruce Irvin and he would make a natural understudy to him that could develop into the long-term pass rush partner across from Khalil Mack. During rookie minicamp, Key had mentioned that one of his favorite players growing up was Irvin and he models his game after him.
Regardless how one feels about Arden’s issues, round three is a nice place to take the risk on him because his upside is that high. We are talking about a top talent in this draft if he did not have his off-field issues. The plan, however, is very clear.
Step one: protect Carr.
Step two: sack other quarterbacks.
By trading down to fifteen with the Arizona Cardinals, the Raiders picked up an additional third round pick and an extra fifth-round pick. The trade down did not net what many fans felt the Raiders should have got, but the market yields what it yields and no two draft day trades have comparable circumstances. What the Raiders did with this pick by turning it into Martavis Bryant was brilliant.
With Bryant in the fold, they either have a long-term answer at the number two wide receiver spot, or they will receive a third-round compensatory pick when he signs a huge deal in free agency. All that said, this is a veteran receiver who understands the league and language of professional schemes. There will be a minimal learning curve for him and he projects to immediately make an impact for the Raiders.
It came out after the draft that the Raiders and Steelers had been working on this trade for some time, and it simply got to the point where the compensation was too good to pass up. If a third-round pick nets the Raiders a 26-year-old receiver that can average 1000 yards and eight touchdowns for the next five years, then that price was a value.
Bryant was not the only gift the Raiders received via trade in this draft. On day three the Raiders flipped second-round draft bust Jihad Ward for slot receiver/special teams asset Ryan Switzer. Switzer is entering his second year in the NFL and was a favorite of special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia. He is not only a special teams asset though. Switzer is a shorter receiver with a thick lower body that runs precise routes. He can definitely develop as a solid slot receiver and the fact the Raiders got him for Ward is truly mind-blowing.
Although he does not qualify specifically as a “gift”, the selection of Marcell Ateman really helped solidify the plan the Raiders have for the receiver group. By adding a second big bodied vertical receiver, the Raiders now have depth at the X receiver spot. That is notable because the X receiver is the one that is lined up opposite of the tight end and almost always has to deal with press. Now Amari can be lined up off the line of scrimmage and get a free release due to that new vertical threat opposite of him.
Although the Raiders addressed the needs in the defensive backfield in free agency, coming into the draft they certainly needed to address the long-term health of the position. Part of this was signing Daryl Worley in free agency in the run-up to the draft. Worley has a physical profile very similar to Melvin and has experience in a scheme that will have similarities with what the Raiders will do. Many commentators choose to not mention this addition, but as far as I am concerned, the addition of Worley took pressure off of the organization to find a boundary cornerback early in the draft.
I have several guys in this draft class that I really enjoyed watching on tape. At the top of that list was Nick Nelson and when the Raiders signed Gilchrist he was on my list of guys who would make a natural understudy in that big nickel slot position. Nelson was a late round one type talent that fell due to a meniscus tear in pre-draft workouts. Vic Tafur had mentioned the Raiders were looking at safety early in the draft but decided on an offensive tackle. Many fans assumed that meant they were not confident in Obi Melifonwu. I believe they were considering taking an ideal long-term replacement for the slot backer position that Gilchrist will fill and safety is the most natural replacement in terms of skill set.
When Gilchrist came into the NFL, the San Diego Chargers immediately gave him a role in the slot. When he was drafted, most analysts viewed him as a slot guy even though he played most if not all of his college career on the outside. The exact same was said when the Raiders drafted Nelson. Due to his lack of height, he is more suited for the slot, but he is not a thin framed guy. He is thick, muscular, and has no problem thumping anyone that roams into his area.
Another longer-term developmental guy is Azeem Victor. Taken in round six by the Raiders, Victor ended his college career unceremoniously with off-field issues. When he showed up at Washington he was a dynamic force in the middle of the field at the linebacker position. When he left, he had gained weight, muscle, and was not nearly as dynamic as he once was. Luckily for him, he was drafted to a team whose defensive scheme does not require the most athletic linebackers.
Rather what Guenther looks for is guys who have a nose for the ball, can take on blockers, are willing tacklers, and guys who can blitz. Victor checks all of those boxes and is in a great spot to develop this year behind Derrick Johnson and step into a starting role next season. The Bengals rarely used high-end draft capital at the linebacker position and instead allowed their system to maximize the skill sets of the linebackers they did select.
The elephant in the room for this section is Maurice Hurst. If you are familiar with my Twitter feed then you are familiar with my love of this guy as a prospect. For the Raiders to get this guy in round five is incredible. Yes, the heart condition is a concern, but the Raiders seem prepared for this issue. The plan is to give him yearly check-ups and allowing medical staff to determine if he is fit to play every offseason.
There is no right way to handle this kind of issue. Ultimately the medical profession will have different opinions depending upon how the diagnosis is perceived. Right now he is cleared and the addition of him to this defensive line is scary. Now the Raiders have gone from a mixed cornucopia of skill sets that do not really have consistent traits, to a group of guys with distinct skill sets and defined roles. The combination of Hall and Hurst inside could be scary for many NFL teams.
Stabilizing Special Teams
Day three of the draft among other things was the time for Rich Bisaccia to get his guys on special teams. In round five the Raiders drafted Johnny Townsend the punter from Florida who was well-known on the internet for some incredible hang time. Townsend led the NCAA in net average the last two seasons and in his four years hold the SEC record for best net average. He also held for Eddy Pineiro, his kicker at Florida who hit 29 of his final 30 kicks with five of those over 50 yards.
Technically Piniero was part of the undrafted free agent class for the Raiders, but they added the best special teams duo from the NCAA to this team that has the best special teams coordinator in the NFL. Not so much of a problem to cut Marquette King in the end was it?
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