Last Sunday marked the end of the 2018 NFL season for all but the 12 teams advancing to the playoffs. For the Raiders picked in last years draft, they’ve completed their rookie campaign and we look back at how they did.rookies.
Based on early buzz, the Raiders coaching staff will stand as-is going into 2019. That stability means they can focus on fine-tuning techniques and mechanics instead of spending the spring and early summer mastering a new language and system. Players see the biggest jump in their performance between their first and second years and that continuity is going to help. As these raw athletes begin to round into form we will get the first glimpse of their true potential and can more accurately assess this past draft class. Now, with a season worth of film on these players, we can more accurately identify some of their strengths and areas they need to work on.
The Raiders made left tackle Kolton Miller their 1st round pick (15th overall) where he would start all 16 games. He joined center Rodney Hudson as the only two offensive linemen to suit up for every game this year. From his first start, Miller proved he had the athletic skill set to play left tackle in the NFL. He had an up and down campaign as most rookies do. That performance roller-coaster was exacerbated by left guard Kelechi Osemele missing five games due to injury.
Miller’s key strength throughout his career is going to be his athletic ability. His vertical sets and anchor are pretty good for a rookie as long as his drop is sound. On this play the Kansas City Chiefs schemed to get EDGE Dee Ford in a one on one with Miller. They use the threat of pressure in both A gaps to occupy the running back and prevent him from offering any support.
They also align a defensive tackle in a 4i alignment occupying Osemele forcing Miller to deal with the defensive end alone. Ford’s “wide 9” technique gives him a great angle to turn the corner on his pass rush and get to the quarterback. Miller is able to match his depth and anchor well enough to absorb the bull rush.
Hand fighting is really the biggest area that Miller seemed to struggle. He needs to improve his footwork and get stronger as most rookies do, but his hands should be a serious area of work. It doesn’t matter how well he sets or how powerful his anchor is if the defender can simply swipe his hands aside. Defensive line coaches preach “beat the hands and you beat the man”. Kolton needs to get those hands on more pass rushers.
VERDICT: While the argument can be made about other players that could have been selected, Miller proved himself this year. He battled injuries that forced other linemen to miss time and was impacted by those other players absences. He showed the intelligence and instinct to pick up stunts and twists. Handles power well when his set and anchor are sound. Has plenty of room to add bulk without losing quickness. Kolton struggles with speed and hand fighting. Added strength should help develop a solid punch to counter inside moves. He is a work in progress but will go into next season as the starting left tackle.
Early returns suggest that a pick that many fans panned as another 2nd round ( 57th overall ) reach on raw defensive linemen may have been one of the best. Defensive tackle PJ Hall is every bit of the explosive player his college film showed.
Hall’s biggest asset is his get off. Here he sensed the offensive line shift and managed to beat the tackle to his outside shoulder and ended up getting a hit on the quarterback. This play is a perfect example of how his season went. He ended up starting six of the 14 games he played logging 23 total tackles with three being tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. He also recorded a quarterback hit in each of Oakland’s last three contests.
He lined up at every position on the Raiders defensive line showing off his system versatility. A 300-plus pound man shouldn’t be able to get pressure on the quarterback from the 5 technique but Hall managed to do it. If Mike Mayock and Gruden pass on one of the gifted interior defensive linemen in this year’s draft it will be because of the presence of Hall.
The main area Hall needs to improve is getting the quarterback on the ground. He did not record a sack but got his hands on the passer and simply failed to get him on the ground. Playing lower and the extra strength he will gain this offseason should be all he needs to make that happen.
PJ also was responsible for some sacks that did not go onto his stat sheet as he was in this play. His burst off the ball into the A gap opened the lane for fellow tackle Clinton McDonald to get the sack. This play also ended up keeping Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of most of the second half, which played a big role in Oakland winning this game.
VERDICT: PJ Hall is as advertised, a physical freak. He is a 300-pound tackle that moves like a much lighter player. His motor is always running and will pursue plays downfield. Held up at the point of attack and wasn’t easily moved in the run game. Play and screen recognition is exceptional. Hall can play anywhere on the line. He wins more with his burst and relentlessness than technique and should add pass rush moves. The draft could be a factor in defensive line starting spots going into next season but Hall will get plenty of playing time. If he isn’t a full-time starter, he will be a priority in the defensive line rotation.
Oakland went with another small school athlete when they picked up right tackle Brandon Parker in the 3rd ( 65th overall ) round. He is practically a carbon copy of 1st round pick Kolton Miller in that he is a raw athlete who boasts a 6’8″ frame that still has plenty of room for growth.
He was asked to make a switch to the right side after playing his entire 48 games in college on the left side. That combination of a jump in competition as well as learning a new technique made for a rough season.
On this play, Parker attempts to strike the defensive end but has his hands swiped aside. The timing of the swipe was fatal to Brandon’s set and he was caught leaning. With his weight shifted so far forward, there was only one place for him to go and unfortunately it was face/fist into the ground. The positive takeaway from this is the reaction in the meeting room when this play came up. Nothing will motive a player like this kind of embarrassment in front of his teammates.
Also in his defense, Parker was forced into action before he was truly ready. He was named starting right tackle following a season-ending injury to tackle Donald Penn. He managed to play in 11 games while starting eight and will benefit from it in the long run. It’s one thing to have a coach put you through drills and explain what is being simulated. It’s another thing to be able to see it on film and mentally relive it. Parker was also nursing injuries that hampered his performance.
Verdict: Parker was playing before he was really physically ready. He will benefit from having the same offensive line coach though there are questions regarding the quality of said coach. He needs serious work on his sets and hand fighting. Showed the ability to handle twists and stunts. He has a frame capable of handling more weight and he will benefit from it. He struggles with speed and adding power to his punch should help. The team should sign a starting quality free agent for insurance in case his struggles continue.
The Raiders landed defensive end Arden Key in the third round ( 87th overall ) though he had been considered a top-10 player at times in college. He quickly went from being a guy who would probably see spot duty in pass rush situations to a full-time starter as players ahead of him on the depth chart left the team. The athleticism that propelled him to early success in his collegiate career stood out though so did the fact that he is still a work in progress.
Key played in all 16 games while getting the start in 10 of them. He put up 30 total tackles with four of them coming behind the line of scrimmage. He only tallied one sack but had 11 hits on the quarterback. Those numbers would be even higher if he secured the tackle on a few sack opportunities he had in which the quarterback was able to escape.
Key plays too high at times and will also benefit from some added weight. He will need to keep his diet clean in the process to avoid losing the explosiveness that makes him special. He struggled some with his weight in college but shouldn’t have any issues if he adheres to the program the Strength and Conditioning staff implement for him.
Verdict: In what is a common theme, Key played more than what was probably intended when he was drafted. Play and screen awareness improved over the course of the season. Needs to add to his pass rush toolbox. Lacks both power and counter moves but this is not uncommon from players who could dominate with sheer speed in college. Plays high causing him to miss tackles. Play against the run also improved over the season and he really perfected his use of the “wrong arm” technique. With added strength and mechanical refinement, Key will be a starting EDGE next season.