The 2016 NFL season begins now, with 32 teams scheming to knock off the reigning champion Denver Broncos. The NFL Draft is just around the corner, but the first step in any offseason plan is to assess a team’s needs. Here we look at what the Oakland Raiders team needs are.
These reports were compiled with the help of Inside The Pylon’s writers and editors, as well as the outstanding offseason primers at OverTheCap.com, which are invaluable for understanding the salary cap and contractual obligations of each team. In addition, the depth chart data is courtesy RosterResource.com – thanks for all your support!
General manager Reggie Mckenzie has done a tremendous job of building the Raiders roster with promising players through the draft like budding stars Khalil Mack and Derek Carr. Oakland finished last season with a 7-9 record and they competed in nearly every game over the course of the season. The offense was a revelation after the addition of Amari Cooper but cooled off towards the end of the season because of injuries. A lack of talent in the secondary and linebacker units caused the defense to struggle; however, the unit played much better towards the end of the season with the emergence of players like David Amerson and the resurgence of Malcolm Smith, who finally got his chance at extended playing time after only starting five games in Seattle in 2014. Because of this promising young talent, there is a lot of optimism surrounding the team going into the draft. However, even after making a splash in free agency, the roster is still lacking depth. Mckenzie will look to have another solid draft in 2016 and fill some holes while addressing the depth issue. If he is able to accomplish this, the Raiders might not only end their long playoff drought, but build a team that will be able to contend for a championship for a long time.
The Raiders’ struggles in the secondary were well documented. In 2015, the unit was held together by 38-year-old safety Charles Woodson, who somehow managed to play every game despite separating his shoulder early in the season. Even with only one good shoulder he was by far the best safety on the roster. Nate Allen was signed to be a starter but he suffered a knee injury in Week 1 and didn’t play well in his limited playing time after the injury. Reggie Mckenzie brought him back on a team-friendly one-year deal, but he does not look to be an unquestioned starter by any means. TJ Carrie played valiantly at safety but his skills are best utilized at nickel corner. Even with the recent signing of 33-year-old safety Reggie Nelson, the Raiders are left with one just one solid starter and very little depth at the position. Although there likely won’t be any safeties worthy of being picked at 14th overall, there are a few intriguing options that should be available on Day 2 like Karl Joseph and Darian Thompson.
The perception was that the Raiders had one of the best offensive lines in the league last year even before the signing of guard Kelechi Osemele. With the re-signing of Donald Penn, some consider the offensive line to be set, but I believe that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the AFC West, teams need two quality tackles. The Raiders have to play against Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, as well as Justin Houston and Tamba Hali twice a year. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s spread offense puts the offensive line in a lot of five-man or six-man protections, which means the tackles don’t get much help from tight ends or running backs in pass protection. Protecting Derek Carr has to be a priority given that the Raiders offense faded down the stretch in 2015 in large part because poor play at right tackle and offensive line depth. The starter at right tackle in 2015, Austin Howard, is solid, but he is no match in 1-on-1 situations against the elite pass rushers of the AFC West. Menelik Watson, who beat out Howard for the starting spot before he was lost for the season, is coming back from an achilles injury, which is no easy task. As of right now, he has very little experience so he is a big question mark. Head coach Jack Del Rio has said that Osemele would play guard not tackle, but his flexibility does add depth to the tackle positions. Also, Donald Penn is 32, so finding the left tackle of the future to go with the young offense is essential. An ideal situation is to draft a left tackle that has some experience playing on the right side and let him begin his career there, and put him on the left side when Penn declines. Ohio State’s Taylor Decker fits the bill and if he is available at 14, the Raiders would be wise to draft him.
The only two true inside linebackers that the Raiders currently have on the roster are Daren Bates and Ben Heeney. Bates is an undrafted free agent who did not play a snap last year. Heeney was a second-year fifth round draft pick,who showed some playmaking ability in the preseason and played well in his starts despite being undersized. Mckenzie might be looking for a “thumper” with more prototypical inside linebacker size after cutting Curtis Lofton even if the team views Ben Heeney as the starter.
Latavius Murray broke the 1,000 yard mark last year, but only had two one hundred yard games. He showed promise, but his inability to push the pile, and mental lapses were maddening at times. Although he has earned the right to build on a solid campaign, he will need to improve if he in order to continue to be the workhorse. Even if Murray is able to show progress, the Raiders need to add one or two more backs either through the draft or free agency. They could use a power back that can move the ball in short yardage situations and a third down back that could run routes and catch the ball out of the backfield. The Raiders see a lot of man coverage in the AFC West, so acquiring a back that causes match-up problems for linebackers in man would be advantageous for Oakland. Tom Brady and the Patriots have made a living with pass catching backs like Dion Lewis, and the Raiders would be wise to follow their blueprint. If Ezekiel Elliot falls in the first round, he would be an intriguing choice, as he is viewed as the consensus top running back in the draft. Elliot is an elite prospect and he catches the ball well.
Rodney Hudson is one of the best centers in the league, but his backup Tony Bergstrom signed with the Houston Texans. Hudson was sidelined for a few games last season and the blocking suffered as a result. It is not a big enough need for the Raiders to draft someone in the first few rounds with, but finding a serviceable center through the later rounds of the draft or through free agency is imperative.
The Raiders play a hybrid front, meaning they implement both a 4-3 and a 3-4. In their 4-3 front, they could use an upgrade at the 3 technique which ideally is a more athletic defensive tackle. Mario Edwards Jr. was such a great fit in this scheme because he could play the 3 technique or kick out to defensive end. He was also extremely effective as a 3-4 defensive end. There were doubts about him coming out of college, but he turned out to be an absolute force, and his flexibility provided overall depth to the defensive line. However, there are question marks about his recovery from a neck injury that he suffered at the end of last season. Without him, the Raiders have run stuffers Justin Ellis and Dan Williams, but they could use an athletic defensive tackle for passing downs. The question is whether the Raiders want to get creative with their pass rush personnel to make up for the possible absence of Edwards or will they want to draft an insurance policy.
Also, the re-signing of Aldon Smith adds one of the best pass rushers in the league to an already fearsome pass rush. However, Smith will have to finish his calendar-year suspension and remain clean off the field before potentially playing later this season.
Sam / Will Linebacker
When the Raiders are in a 4-3 alignment, the projected starters are Malcolm Smith and Neiron Ball. Ball showed a lot of promise, especially in coverage in his one start. Unfortunately, he was injured and was not able to return last season but the coaching staff might give him a chance to develop. Bruce Irvin was signed to rush the passer, which he will do more often than not, but he will also get snaps as an outside linebacker. Khalil Mack also gets snaps on the outside. If injuries do occur to Smith or Ball, the Raiders want Mack and Irvin rushing the passer rather than providing depth, so it is very likely that they go after a true outside linebacker.
Set, For Better Or Worse
Some may be surprised to see the cornerback position as set because of how poorly the unit played last season, but with the emergence of David Amerson and the signing of Sean Smith, the Raiders have a formidable duo at corner. Amerson still has a lot to prove, but he is coming into this third year after an exceptional season in which he finished second in the league with 26 passes defensed. Smith is a long, athletic corner with a proven track record. TJ Carrie is a good nickel corner, who was forced to play safety last year because of injuries. D.J. Hayden is considered a bust at this point, but he can be a solid fourth corner. Niko Thorpe, who the team believes has some promise based on placing a second round tender him, might push Hayden for the fourth spot.
Amari Cooper has more than lived up to the hype coming out of Alabama with a thousand yard rookie season. Michael Crabtree looks to have gotten his career back on track with a nine touchdown season. Seth Roberts made some big plays last season out of the slot, and Andre Holmes provides depth on the outside and has shown some big play ability. Although another receiver or two might be wanted to provide depth, it isn’t a major priority.
Clive Walford, Oakland’s third-round pick in 2015 showed some great promise as a receiving threat. He is a willing blocker but could add some lower body strength and work on his technique to improve his blocking. He is expected to take on a larger role in the passing game next season. Mychal Rivera is an above average receiving threat, who can make some plays when he is called on and provides good depth for Walford. Lee Smith, the third tight end on the roster, is a great and punishing blocker.
The Raiders may have the best guard duo in the league with Gabe Jackson and newly signed guard Kelechi Osemele. Last year’s fourth-round draft pick, Jon Feliciano, played well in some limited snaps, but he looks to be be a solid backup. Another guard could be added for additional depth.
The Raiders are the envy of the league because they have a budding star in third-year quarterback Derek Carr. He finished the season with a 32 touchdown-to-13 interception ratio. He made tremendous strides from his rookie year and will continue to grow. Back-up Matt McGloin is a fan favorite because of his strong play during the pre-season. He is a top ten backup in the league. There is no need to add to the quarterback position through the draft.