The five most pressing needs, ranked in order, that the Oakland Raiders need to address prior to the start of the 2018 season.
The Oakland Raiders will head into the 2018-19 season with renewed optimism, largely thanks to the return of Jon Gruden to the sidelines. But in order for the Silver and Black to make it back to the playoffs, Reggie McKenzie and Gruden will have to work together to patch several team needs.
With the 9th or 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, plus 10 additional selections — including four recently added 6th round compensatory picks — the draft will of course be the primary way to add depth and hopefully find some key contributors as well. But McKenzie may also dip back into the free agent market to add a notable name or two, depending on what the salary cap looks like after Khalil Mack’s eventual extension and a few potential cap casualties.
Ranked starting with the most pressing need on the roster, here are the five positions the Raiders are in need of the most help for the 2018 season, and also some options on how to fill those needs.
No position on the Raiders roster is in more dire need of help than at cornerback. David Amerson has been released and Sean Smith will surely be let go at some point this offseason, and this group gets mighty thin from there. Well, more thin than it already was.
Gareon Conley’s rookie season was derailed due to injury, so it’s way too soon to write him off. He has the size, athleticism and ball skills to succeed — it’s just a matter of him putting it all together. And with Derrick Ansley as the new secondary coach, there is plenty of reason to believe that Conley will develop into a standout corner.
But after Conley, the current cornerbacks Oakland has under contract for 2018 are Dexter McDonald and Antonio Hamilton. That’s it. That’s the list.
T.J. Carrie will hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent, so it’s certainly no guarantee he’ll return in 2018. Carrie has had some nice moments but his career thus far can be defined as inconsistent. However, considering he was a 7th round draft pick, he’s been a quality rotational player that has had the ability to play at multiple spots. If he can be brought back on a reasonable price tag, that will be the first step in beginning to solidify this positional group.
A couple of cornerbacks could be in consideration with the 9th or 10th pick — namely Denzel Ward and Joshua Jackson — but it might be a bit too soon to take either of them. Some other names to know in early or mid rounds would be Mike Hughes, Isaiah Oliver and Quenton Meeks. But whatever round(s) the Raiders address this position, it’d be a good idea to walk away from this draft with two cornerbacks.
If and when Sean Smith is cut, if McKenzie wants to go back to the well and look for a premium free agent cornerback, perhaps he could look at Trumaine Johnson, Kyle Fuller or Malcolm Butler. The Raiders have already visited with Vontae Davis, so it seems they’ll add at least one cornerback via free agency. While those are the flashly names, a more reasonable free agent signing would be a player like Patrick Robinson.
Interior Pass Rusher
Khalil Mack needs help. What better way to help him then to add an interior pass rusher?
Bruce Irvin has been an admirable sidekick, and his presence has absolutely helped alleviate some of the pressure Mack faces on a weekly basis. But when Bruce isn’t having a great game, Mack will sometimes even face triple teams. That would change with a pass-rushing presence in the middle.
More importantly, in times when Mack gets around the edge, if there was a quality contributor in the interior of the line, the quarterback will not be able to step up in the pocket to avoid outside pressure.
Currently, the Raiders rotate of a variety of lineman across the defensive line — Denico Autry, Justin Ellis, Jihad Ward, Eddie Vanderdoes and Trevyvon Hester — but none of them are true interior pass rushing presences. Autry has been quality in this regard, but he’s an unrestricted free agent and could demand more money than the Raiders will be willing to offer.
With their first round selection, Maurice Hurst or Vita Vea could fit the bill as disruptive interior lineman worthy of a pick at that spot. Hurst is the superior pass rusher of the two, so that’s where I would lean. Taven Bryan, Da’Ron Payne, Nathan Shepherd are some other potential targets after the first round.
The free agent class is littered with potential defensive tackle targets, including Sheldon Richardson, Dontari Poe, DaQuan Jones and Dominique Easley. Richardson has been linked to the Raiders for years, and there was some buzz that Poe was a potential target last offseason, but it’s hard seeing either of those signings coming to fruition.
Raider Nation has been desperate for a solution at inside linebacker for years. And finally, thanks to the addition of NaVorro Bowman, there was at least a short-term answer.
Unfortunately, “short-term” was exactly 10 games of the 2017 season, and Bowman is now an unrestricted free agent. There should definitely be mutual interest between the two parties to reunite, but nothing is guaranteed in the NFL.
And even if Bowman does come back, a long-term solution is needed. NaVorro will be 30 years old in May, heading into his 9th season. The wear and tear of playing inside linebacker in the NFL combined with a handful of serious injuries has taken more tread off of Bowman’s tires than your average linebacker.
Marquel Lee played well in run support early in the season, but he was a liability in pass coverage. Cory James has had some nice moments, but he may not be best suited to play on the inside.
The name that entices most of the fan base is Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith. He’s the prototype for the modern day linebacker, and is considered by many draft pundits as one of the best players in the entire class. And thanks to inside linebacker not being a premium position — even Luke Kuechly and Patrick Willis were drafted 9th and 11th, respectively — there is a legimiate shot Roquan is on the board when the Raiders are on the clock.
Rashaan Evans could be a 2nd round option, or perhaps Malik Jefferson in the 3rd or someone like Tegray Scales in the 4th or 5th round. Jack Cichy is another interesting name depending on how far he might slide due to injury.
If Bowman doesn’t re-sign, the free agent class at the position after him is quite weak. Jerrell Freeman, Avery Williamson and Kevin Minter are some of the most notable names that will be available on the open market.
Along the same lines of the explanation given in the aforementioned interior pass rusher selection, Khalil Mack needs help.
The two most important aspects in football are widely considered having a quarterback, and having a player (or two) that can get after the quarterback. Bruce Irvin has done well as the secondary pass rusher, but he’ll be 31 next season with $8.25M on the books. And also no dead money if he is released. He finished the year strong but did show some signs of slowing down, so his roster spot isn’t guaranteed for 2018.
And like what was mentioned about NaVorro Bowman and the inside linebacker spot, even if Irvin does come back, a long-term solution will be needed. There isn’t anyone else on the roster that is up to the task.
The winner of the race for third place on the team in sacks since 2016 is Denico Autry, with 7.5. Next up is Mario Edwards Jr., with 3.5. Mack and Irvin have combined for over 65% of the total sacks the last two seasons — so literally almost two-thirds. Help is badly needed.
Unfortunately, both the draft and free agent classes are not that stacked with talent at the position.
Bradley Chubb is the best option in the draft, but he’ll be gone by the time the Raiders are on the clock. And it’s too soon to go after Harold Landry or Marcus Davenport with a top ten pick. There is a decent crop of mid-round options though, like Sam Hubbard, Chad Thomas, Uchenna Nwosu and Hercules Mata’afa.
Ezekiel Ansah and Adrian Clayborn are likely the top two pass rusher that will be free agents, but in a weak class, both of them could end up with paydays outside of what the Raiders will want to pay.
Whatever happens, count on Paul Guenther to get the most out the team’s pass rushers. During his time with the Bengals, Cincinnati ranked 2nd in the NFL in total pressures created.
Marshall Newhouse was not good in 2018. He has a few quality games early in the season, but that quickly changed and he was the clear weak link the rest of the way. With $1.75M in savings with no dead money if released, he could be cheap enough to keep around, but even if that does happen, he should not remain the starter.
Of all the positions discussed thus far, this is the one with the most likely in-house options for the job. Between David Sharpe, Jylan Ware, Vadal Alexander and Denver Kirkland, the Raiders have a handful of young players who could compete for this position. But no one in this group has done enough to stand out as a favorite to be named the starter. Perhaps Vadal, but he’s also had some rough moments.
In today’s NFL, with as many talented pass rushers as there are — especially in the AFC West — not having a solid option at right tackle is a dangerous proposition. So while there may be some potential in-house options, it still would be wise to bring in some additional competition.
As far as potential draft prospects go, Austin Corbett could be an option, although some project him to be a center instead in the NFL. Nick Gates of Nebraska is another option, as is Ike Boettger or Toby Weathersby.
Alternatively, McKenzie could decide to make a bigger investment here, drafting someone like Orlando Brown or Connor Williams earlier in the draft. Either one of them could be play right tackle in the short-term and then slide over to the left side after the end of the Donald Penn era.
If McKenzie opts to head back to the free agent market to address right tackle, Chris Hubbard is one of very few options that could suffice. He played well after being forced into playing time at right tackle due to injury, and he also has versatility to play guard — something McKenzie is known to covet with offensive lineman.