A trio of rookies on defense could be key for the Oakland Raiders to turn around a unit that has ranked near the bottom of the league in recent years.
The Oakland Raiders aren’t scheduled to make the move to Las Vegas until the 2020 season, but Jon Gruden and Reggie McKenzie are already taking big time gambles. The best way to describe the 2018 draft class is “high risk, high reward.” But those risks are exactly what could finally turn around the team’s defensive woes.
The surprises began in Round 1, when the Raiders traded back with the Arizona Cardinals and selected tackle Kolton Miller 15th overall. The pick didn’t receive high praise from Raider Nation, as many feel Miller is a project player with the potential to eventually become a solid left tackle. But the trade down provided McKenzie and Gruden with some ammunition to maneuver up and down in later rounds — more on that later.
The biggest shock of the draft and also the pick with the biggest risk involved may have been in Round 2. The Raiders once again traded back and selected defensive tackle PJ Hall from FBS school Sam Houston State.
Hall was a little known player to many prior to his Pro Day, so much so that he didn’t even receive an invite to the NFL Combine. Hall turned heads with his absurd numbers, most notably a 4.7 40-yard dash. It should be mentioned that Hall did this as a 310 pound man. This pick was seen by many experts in the draft industry as a reach, but PJ’s athleticism combined with production in college provides optimism that he can be successful at the next level.
At @BearkatsFB pro day today, DL P.J. Hall measured 6-0 1/2, 308, ran 40 in 4.83/4.71 seconds, had 38 VJ, 9-8 BJ, 36 lifts. Wow!
Moved from DE to DT. Quick off ball but slows down. Reminds some of Aaron Donald. My pick to be earliest non-combine invite drafted. https://t.co/kVWNlxPH6f
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) March 26, 2018
PJ Hall's numbers are so crazy. All of his stats look like typos lol
86.5 tackles for loss
14 blocked kicks
9 forced fumbles
— Nick Hjeltness (@NickHjeltness) May 1, 2018
Gruden and McKenzie continued to go all in when they selected troubled prospect Arden Key in the third round, and talented but risky Maurice Hurst in Round 5. Hurst was flagged at the combine for a heart condition and many teams took him off their boards completely. There is no denying the talent of both of these players. Key looked the part of a potential top five pick after his sophomore season at LSU, when he finished the year with 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
Here are all of Arden Key's sacks from when he was fully healthy in 2016. pic.twitter.com/y51LKQzhwJ
— Ryan McCrystal (@Ryan_McCrystal) April 3, 2018
Someone asked me if there’s a DT I’d take in the 1st. This is the one.
Here’s 2 min of Maurice Hurst & essentially every play he made or impacted in the backfield last year. pic.twitter.com/MJf6v9J3IA
— KP (@KP_Show) April 16, 2018
There is certainly risk involved with almost all draft picks beyond the first round. Hall, Key, and Hurst are no different. However, if these three picks turn out to be productive players early in their careers, then the Raiders defense will certainly take a big leap forward.
Jon Gruden made it quite clear he felt his new team had glaring weaknesses in the interior pass rush department. Beyond Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin on the edges, the Oakland defense did not have another threat to rush the passer. With the additions of Hall, Hurst, and Key, that should change in a hurry. Each of them posses a quick first step and the get-off you look for in a disruptive pass rusher.
— OAKLAND RAIDERS (@RAIDERS) May 6, 2018
73 Hurst and 99 Key work on getting their elbows out pic.twitter.com/IycOtIkVEm
— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) May 4, 2018
One of the reasons Raiders fans should be excited about the potential of their new trio of pass rushers is because of new defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. He’s a well respected defensive line coach and he helped groom several talented lineman in his time with the Green Bay Packers.
When you combine the new additions on defense with Mack, Irvin, Edwards, Vanderdoes, Hester, and Carradine, the Raiders all a sudden have some solid depth that should make quarterbacks uneasy in the pocket. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will put players in the best position and scheme to be successful unlike defensive play callers of the past.