As the college football playoff begins, several players on the final four teams are of interest to the Raiders and could be targeted in the 2020 NFL Draft. Here’s a look at a few of them.
In order to change the Raiders’ recent history of futility, the roster needs winners—players with big-game experience who shine in the biggest moments.
Raiders general manager Mike Mayock accepted his first NFL front-office position with a clear vision. Last year, he stood on the sideline before the Clemson vs. Alabama College Football Championship Game with a laser-eyed lock on the cream of the crop.
In April, the Raiders selected three players from Clemson: defensive end Clelin Ferrell, cornerback Trayvon Mullen and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. They also picked Josh Jacobs out of Alabama. Based on their rookie performances, a hyperfocus on playmakers with a winning pedigree worked out well.
The Winning Strategy Works
Jacobs has become a focal point in head coach Jon Gruden’s offense. Mullen took over a starting job midseason, and he leads the team in pass deflections (nine). Renfrow logged his first 100-yard receiving game on any level of competition. He lists second on the team in receptions (43).
Ferrell has been the subject of criticism because of his draft status as the No. 4 overall pick and pedestrian sack count (4.5). Nonetheless, he’s a solid presence on the edge and displays all-around versatility with seven tackles for loss and five pass deflections.
All four players have contributed to a somewhat surprising season in which the Raiders (7-8) still have a slight chance at a playoff spot. As the franchise transitions to Las Vegas, Mayock and Gruden should stock up on more winners.
With the College Football Playoffs set to kick off Saturday, we’ll highlight eight prospects to monitor among the top four programs in the nation. The selections are realistic targets who fit the scheme and fill roster needs.
In other words, Ohio State edge-rusher Chase Young won’t appear on this list. He’s a top-five pick, and the Raiders have the Nos. 14 and 18 spots in the 2020 draft. Team brass has favored athletic press cornerbacks, so a slow-footed zone-specific cover man wouldn’t fit in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme.
Keep in mind, Las Vegas doesn’t have a second-round selection because of the Khalil Mack trade.
Notable Omission: S Grant Delpit, LSU
Grant Delpit will likely be the first safety off the board. He’s an exceptional asset in the box with the instincts to go downhill, pushing the pocket on blitzes and helping out in run support. The LSU product can also track the football when opposing quarterbacks target his zone area.
However, Delpit has some issues with his tackling technique that may turn off Raiders scouts and coaches. Secondly, he isn’t the most fluid in coverage with his hip movement while tracking the ball.
The Raiders should pursue a veteran at the position to pair alongside Johnathan Abram, who’s only played one NFL regular-season game. An inexperienced safety tandem could lead to early miscommunications and deep coverage busts before they’re able to play on the same page.
Delpit isn’t a terrible pick, but he’s a probable top-15 selection with one basic question mark (tackling). The Raiders can aim for a better target with their first-round picks.
QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
Personally, Derek Carr seems like the guy to start at quarterback in 2020. Although he’s had some clunkers, Gruden has brought up the lack of wide receiver talent around him and his ability to do the best with the pass-catching talent available.
With that said, the Raiders could draft a quarterback to develop behind Carr. Someone who’s not a Day 1 starter but possesses the potential to push the lead signal-caller and present another dimension to the position.
As Lamar Jackson’s popularity rises at an exponential rate. Teams will look for the next prospect who can emulate some of the MVP front-runner’s traits. Jalen Hurts has significantly improved as a passer in comparison to his days at Alabama. He’s always had the mobility with the shake-and-bake skills to make defenders miss.
However, Hurts has a glaring issue with protecting the football, and he knows it, per Abby Bitterman of The Oklahoman.
“My ball security, it sucks,” Hurts said. “So I’ll try to fix it.”
Hurts has fumbled 25 times in his collegiate career and lost 14—six for this season. His tendency to give away possessions may drive Gruden up a wall—in a bad way. So, unless he falls to the third round, where the Raiders can use one of their three Day 2 picks, he’s a hard sell for the Silver and Black in the top 32.
If Hurts struggles in his playoff matchup, he’s a realistic target for development in a backup role. If the senior quarterback flashes, teams with a stronger need at quarterback will likely attempt to trade up for him.
Among the four signal-callers, Hurts is the only realistic option to watch. Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence must return to school for at least another year. Joe Burrow will likely be a top-three pick in April.
OG Jonah Jackson, Ohio State
The Raiders may have a changing of the guard (literally) on the interior of their offensive line. Richie Incognito has put together a strong overall performance, but he’s on a one-year deal. At 36 years old, the four-time Pro Bowler will likely contemplate his future in terms of chasing a big short-term contract or stepping away from the game again.
Right guard Gabe Jackson had a rough 2019 term in pass protection. He’s allowed at least five sacks in back-to-back seasons, per Pro Football Focus. According to Over the Cap, the front office can release him and recoup $9.6 million in cap space without owing any dead money for the remaining three years on his deal.
Jonah Jackson spent four years at Rutgers before joining Ohio State’s program as a graduate transfer. As a Big Ten opponent of the Scarlet Knights, the Buckeyes had a profound respect for the 6’4″, 305-pounder prior to his arrival, per Cleveland.com’s Nathan Baird.
“He was one of the better guys they’ve gone against within the league,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said based on his players’ assessment. “As an interior guy, he was strong and powerful in the run game and did a good job in pass protection.”
Buckeyes center Josh Myers commended Jackson’s ability to adjust to new surroundings in a short period.
“He was a captain at Rutgers — and that wasn’t a mistake,” Myers said. “He’s a great leader. He fit in so well.”
At Ohio State, Jackson has played left guard, showing more of his position versatility on the interior. Even if the Raiders retain Incognito and Jackson, the five-year collegiate athlete could develop as a starter-in-waiting at one of the two guard spots.
WR CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
A personal favorite, CeeDee Lamb can bring an immediate spark to the Raiders passing attack. The wideout’s numbers improved every year at Oklahoma. He’s recorded 58 catches for 1,208 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
Lamb can force defenders to pick their poison. If a cornerback presses up on him, he can outmuscle the opposition or gain a step on slower cover defenders. After the catch, the Oklahoma wideout can separate from defensive backs like a running back who sees open space on the ground.
More importantly, Lamb makes sense in Gruden’s west coast offense because he can win with short routes and extend plays:
Lamb won’t test as the fastest wide receiver in this draft class but watch him during the gauntlet drill at the NFL Scouting Combine. He’ll show great focus, hand-eye coordination and strong hands when tracking the ball.
Lastly, Lamb’s football instincts are off the charts. He can beat different types of defenders. Gruden would be able to move him around the formation, which is a huge plus.
Jerry Jeudy will likely lead the wide receivers in draft placement, giving the Raiders a chance at Lamb within the top 15 spots.
WR Tee Higgins, Clemson
If Lamb comes off the board before the Raiders’ pick, Gruden can add another big-bodied wide receiver in Tee Higgins, who stands at 6’4″, 215 pounds.
No one can dispute Higgins’ ability to win the 50-50 ball and matchups at the top of his route. The Clemson product’s wide catch radius provides a friendly target trait for any quarterback.
In his six seasons, Carr has built a strong rapport with possession receivers. James Jones and Michael Crabtree come to mind. In recent years, he’s locked on to bigger targets with success, specifically tight ends Jared Cook and now Darren Waller.
Higgins brings comparable size to a tight end with the requisite pass-catching skills of a wide receiver. He’s also a former high school basketball player, which is appealing for red-zone situations.
Waller only has three touchdowns this season. When the Raiders don’t run with Jacobs inside the 10-yard line, Higgins could serve as a consistent threat over the top. He’s a solid back-shoulder receiver. The Clemson product will also high point the football:
At Higgins’ height, that’s hard to defend on any level.
LB Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Because the Raiders have selected off-ball linebackers later in drafts, primarily in Day 3, this seems like a wishful thought, but team brass must change its selection strategy at the position.
Las Vegas’ defense doesn’t feature a solid coverage linebacker. Under the watchful eye of the league, Vontaze Burfict isn’t a reliable asset with his play style. Plus, he must apply for reinstatement, which isn’t a guarantee.
At his best, Tahir Whitehead can play well going downhill against the run, but he’s not versatile enough in today’s game where spacing could leave him in precarious situations on passing downs.
Simmons should be a top-10 pick, but if he slips a few spots because of an influx of quarterbacks going early, the Raiders must pounce on him with one of their first selections in the opening round.
In today’s NFL, with play-callers spreading defenses thin, Simmons can fill gaps in coverage and still provide the two-down qualities of a linebacker. ESPN’s David Hale framed the Clemson defender’s skills eloquently.
“Simmons has blossomed into the prototype for a new type of defender — a hybrid who can rush off the edge, shadow a runner from sideline to sideline or cover the fastest slot receiver an opposing coach can find. Simmons is the answer to all the questions the modern spread attacks have forced upon defensive coaches,” Hale wrote.
Although this sounds dramatic, Simmons could finally solve most of the Raiders’ midfield coverage issues and shore up the linebacker position, which has disappointed for several of the previous seasons.
Over the past three terms, Simmons has recorded 138 tackles, 26.5 for loss, 10 sacks, 18 pass breakups and three interceptions. If he’s on the board for the Raiders’ selection, that’s a no-brainer decision for the Silver and Black.
LB Jacob Phillips, LSU
Kenneth Murray deserves an honorable mention here, but the Raiders would have to gamble on his growth in pass coverage. Although he’s capable in that area, it’s not his strong suit. The Oklahoma linebacker can clean up plays with solid tackles and add a blitz component to the defense.
The Raiders need to focus on a linebacker who’s shown a clear ability to handle shallow coverage assignments. Jacob Phillips checks that box, and he may be available for Oakland in the third round.
Phillips’ box score statistics won’t fully reflect his ability to shadow pass-catchers in the seam areas and on shorter routes. He’s recorded just five pass breakups and an interception in three collegiate terms, but you can watch a few games and see the LSU linebacker’s upside in coverage assignments:
Phillips wouldn’t be a high-excitement pick in the third round, but the Raiders play in the same division as tight ends Travis Kelce, Noah Fant and Hunter Henry—if he re-signs with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Oakland badly needs a linebacker who doesn’t look like a fish out of water in space. Phillips’ athleticism will allow to swim as a solid linebacker in the pros.
EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU
Raiders fans may have a sour draft taste in their mouths when it comes to pass-rushers out of LSU. Arden Key hasn’t quite panned out in a situational role, but Las Vegas should continue to stockpile talent at the position.
The defense still ranks 26th in sacks and 31st in quarterback pressures. Since Ferrell is billed with responsibilities beyond rushing the passer, the Raiders can find room for an athletic edge-rusher with tremendous upside.
In three terms, K’Lavon Chaisson has 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, but you need to watch him play in order to see his possible projection on the professional level.
Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network briefly discussed Chaisson’s physical traits that will make scouts and general managers salivate.
“Chaisson has a football player’s build — broad shoulders and plenty of muscle mass below the waist…which is backed up by his explosiveness and short step quickness…Chaisson has versatility in space, too. LSU moved him all over their defensive sets — playing him as a rush linebacker, a nickel defender and a zone cover option in the shallows.”
As a Day 2 prospect, Chaisson makes sense for the Raiders defense, which would feature two hyperathletic defenders with Crosby already in the fold. Even though it’s too early to give up on Key, the redshirt sophomore linebacker’s fluid movement around the edge and ability to drop his hips in coverage may be too good to pass up in the upcoming draft.
CB Kristian Fulton, LSU
We know what the Raiders like at cornerback—long athletic cover guys who can press on the boundary and make plays on the ball. Kristian Fulton checks the first two qualities in spades. He only has two interceptions on the collegiate level, but he usually gets his hand on the ball, logging 18 pass breakups at LSU.
The Raiders seem stubbornly committed to leaving Lamarcus Joyner in the slot for now, so Fulton would man the boundary position opposite Mullen.
Ideally, Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah would be the top choice among the cornerbacks, but he’s listed in the top five in most mock drafts. Nonetheless, the Raiders shouldn’t scoff at Fulton as a consolation prize. He’s an instinctive cover man who uses the sideline to his advantage and doesn’t buckle against solid route-runners.
For those who like to use the blanket best-player-available approach during the draft, Fulton may be the top option when the Raiders go on the clock in the middle of the first round.
At 6’0″, 200 pounds, Fulton gives the Raiders defense some hope in covering quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ wide receivers downfield.
Beyond the College Football Final Four
The Raiders will have plenty of prospect options outside of the top four programs. At Alabama alone, linebacker Dylan Moses, cornerback Trevon Diggs and Henry Ruggs III all come to mind.
Nonetheless, the eight prospects above can drastically improve or deflate their draft stocks with crucial playoff games coming up. Based on the Raiders’ choices last year, Mayock and Gruden want to see the best collegiate athletes rise to the occasion and lead prestigious programs in high-pressure situations.
At 7-8, the Raiders’ short-term projection points up. They earned that outlook with high-profile players in key roles from well-respected programs.
Some of the players above won’t be available for the Silver and Black, but fans should feel giddy about a few of these names if they pop up on the screen during April’s draft.