Hayden Nadolny takes an in-depth look at defensive areas of need for the Oakland Raiders heading into the 2018 NFL Draft and season.
Change is in the air throughout the Oakland Raiders organization, and the same can certainly be said for Paul Guenther’s revamped Silver-and-Black defense. Coach Jon Gruden‘s Raiders are moving away from a 3-4 hybrid scheme to a 4-3 single-gap scheme under Guenther. As a result, there have been numerous personnel moves made during free agency, with many stopgap solutions. These moves give General Manager Reggie McKenzie more time to plug the many holes that remain on the defensive side of the ball on a team that underperformed at 6-10 in 2017.
Let’s take a look at glaring needs Guenther and McKenzie will need to address heading into the 2018 campaign.
Defensive End Depth:
Starting defensive ends Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin are as good a pair as you’ll find in the league — or close to it. However, the Raiders lack depth to give these guys a breather and ensure fresh legs during key moments when it matters late in games.
Currently, the Raiders have Shilique Calhoun and James Cowser, who could rush from a defensive end position as part of the rotation. Tank Carradine, a recent free agent addition from the San Francisco 49ers, and Mario Edwards Jr. might also get their chances on the edge. Edwards appears to be more suited to collapsing the pocket from a three-tech position, though, and Carradine has never played a full 16-game season. The Cincinnati Bengals, under Guenther, have always had four defensive ends in their rotation, so it’s likely the Raiders will add someone in the middle rounds of the draft. If the Raiders want to address the position earlier, Harold Landry and Marcus Davenport are options, though both appear to be reaches in the first 10 picks of the first round.
Interior Pass Rush:
The Raiders need to find an interior pass rush if they are going to terrorize quarterbacks on defense. The current personnel have not been able to get it done in recent years, and while there will be schematic changes to help in this area, some upgrades are necessary.
The top defenses in the league all have at least seven — and up to nine — defensive linemen who rotate throughout a game to give them an optimal pass rush. The Raiders, as it stands on the inside, have Justin Ellis, Edwards Jr., Treyvon Hester, Eddie Vanderdoes and Jihad Ward. Ellis is a pure run-stuffer, while the others are unproven or have injury clouds hanging over them. A blue-chip player is paramount to lead this group.
Geno Atkins was that guy in Cincinnati. He made the scheme work. Hence, drafting an interior lineman 10th in the first round is a real possibility. The two names that will be bandied about are Vita Vea and Maurice Hurst. Vea is an absolute monster of a man at 6-foot-4, 347 pounds, and, although he only racked up nine sacks in college, he was productive at putting pressure on the quarterback. Hurst is considerably smaller than Vea, but has an elite burst off the line of scrimmage, which could fit to perfection in Guenther’s single-gap scheme. If the Raiders prefer Hurst, trading down a few spots and grabbing him later might be their best option.
The second level of the Raiders defense harbors much uncertainty heading into the draft. The only certain starter at linebacker is Tahir Whitehead. Even then, it’s up in the air as to which of the three linebacker positions he will play. Given his contract is roughly $6 million per year, it’s suggestive that Whitehead will be a three-down linebacker for Oakland. After reviewing some tape of Whitehead from last year, it’s very apparent that he’s a monster in the run game. He has unique strength for someone his size, and he is able to translate this strength into power at the point of attack. hitehead’s best position in Guenther’s scheme is on the weak side (Will linebacker), as he will be able to assist the undersized Irvin more in run support.
The middle linebacker position has largely been neglected by McKenzie during his time in Oakland. Nick Roach was a very good player, but taken out of the game due to concussion, and they seemingly didn’t replace him until NaVorro Bowman came off the street last year. Bowman had a very solid year, and, as the year progressed, showed he could still play as a three-down player in the middle. Bowman hasn’t re-signed, but the Raiders are cautiously optimistic a deal will be reached. If the Raiders and Bowman are unable to agree to terms, they might have to move Whitehead inside or play either Cory James or Marquel Lee in that position. Neither of those options are particularly appealing. Roquan Smith, the talented rookie from the University of Georgia, is an option at No. 10 in the draft, though he projects more to be a Will linebacker given he is severely undersized to man the middle in a 4-3.
The strong-side linebacker position is also yet to be filled. The Sam backer isn’t as vital a position as the middle and the Will because the strong side isn’t on the field nearly as much, given that sub packages make up roughly 70 percent of all defensive snaps these days. That being said, the Raiders still need to have a reliable player in this role. The most intriguing option would be to draft Tremaine Edmunds at No. 10 and have him play as the Sam on early downs. He is versatile enough he could even be placed at defensive end on obvious passing downs, but he’s also athletic enough to cover running backs and tight ends. If not Edmunds, the Raiders will likely have to fill this spot with one of the current guys on the roster. James, Emmanuel Lamur or even Cowser would have to step up in that case. This has the potential to be a real problem area, especially since none of the current players are solid fits on the surface.
Solidifying The Slot:
The Raiders have filled plenty of needs in free agency, but the slot corner position is still largely up in the air. Leon Hall and Shareece Wright have been signed, but question marks surround both players.
Hall spent 2017 with the 49ers and lined up mostly as a safety during the latter half of the year. However, he is expected to compete for a role in the slot in training camp. Hall spent 2007 through 2015 in Cincinnati, so he will have familiarity with Guenther’s scheme, which should enable him to act as an extra teacher for the many young defensive backs on Oakland’s roster. Wright projects to compete in both the slot and dime corner positions. He will compete with Dexter McDonald and any other young player added via the draft.
If Hall and Wright aren’t up to the task, the Raiders could lean on Marcus Gilchrist to provide some snaps in the slot. Gilchrist is listed as a safety, but has played in the slot and wouldn’t be completely out of place. Alternatively, the Raiders could move Gareon Conley inside in sub packages and draft a corner to play the outside. Then again, if the Raiders see Conley as a true No. 1 corner, they might be better off keeping him outside full time, and drafting a corner specifically for the slot. Denzel Ward is definitely an option for the Raiders at No. 10, while it would be hard to imagine the Raiders passing on Minkah Fitzpatrick if he is available when on the clock in a little under four weeks.