Help wanted: Raiders defense must improve 'at all levels'

Help wanted: Raiders defense must improve 'at all levels'

The Raiders were pretty darn good last season, with the talent required to make a playoff run. Not, however, without their MVP. Quarterback Derek Carr’s broken fibula brought the season crashing down, with the Raiders losing both games played without him. The last was a playoff flop at Houston that closed proceedings for good.

While few teams could absorb a franchise quarterback’s loss, especially with the timing of Carr’s injury, the MVP candidate covered up some weaknesses general manager Reggie McKenzie hopes to fortify this offseason.

Fixing a flawed defense tops the agenda.

“We’re just going to have to improve in every area,” McKenzie said a few weeks back. “We’re going to have to figure out the players, number one. We’re going to have some free agents and we’re going to have to overcome some injuries that we had late, but we should be okay with that.

“We feel like, at each level, we need improvement. That’s D-line, linebackers and the DB’s. We need to get better at all levels. We really do. I don’t think we’re locked in anywhere as far as position.”

That’s especially on the interior. Let’s take a look at some areas where the Raiders need an upgrade.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

The Raiders struggled getting solid push up the middle from their defensive tackles. While that position group was hampered with Mario Edwards Jr. out 14 games with a hip injury, more is required from the interior pass rush.

The Raiders had a league-low 25 sacks, and 19 of them came from edge rushers. That has to change, which head coach Jack Del Rio made clear shortly after the season.

“The interior pass rush, it’s critical for us to get that going. We were not nearly effective enough. I think Stacy (McGee) had the 2.5 sacks in there and Mario, we got Mario back late and he wasn’t a huge factor. (Jihad Ward) wasn’t a huge factor, Denico (Autry) played with that wrist all year and he wasn’t (as effective).

“I didn’t feel like we got enough inside push. That’s going to be an area for sure that we’re going to have to be better and do better.”

Defensive tackle could be a target in free agency or high in the NFL draft. There could be some turnover as well. Dan Williams’ salary could be trimmed without penalty, and McGee is an unrestricted free agent, and Ward might be better suited developing as a rotational player.

INTERIOR LINEBACKER

Expiring contracts leave the Raiders with a skeleton crew at middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, positions generally posted in the middle of the field in coverage and against the run. Ben Heeney (recovering from ankle surgery) and Cory James are the only options under contract. Perry Riley and Malcolm Smith started there, and both guys are set to hit unrestricted free agency.

Riley could be brought back to add a veteran presence in the middle. Coaches like Smith, though he may have played too key a role in recent seasons. He could return or the Raiders could look for an upgrade in search of speed and sure tackling at that spot.

EDGE RUSHER

Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin were obviously strong getting after the quarterback, but there was no support behind them. Depth is needed at this spot. Shilique Calhoun wasn’t effective enough as a rookie sub, though Aldon Smith could be a huge addition if he’s reinstated. He’s an excellent pass rusher, and could help especially in sub packages. His reinstatement could come in March and would impact how the Raiders proceed in this area.

CORNERBACK

Many fans were disappointed in the return on investment from Sean Smith, but he wasn’t all bad and should benefit from offseason shoulder surgery and another year in the Raiders system. David Amerson wasn’t as good as 2015 following a contract extension last summer, but it’s reasonable to expect him and Smith to start outside again. DJ Hayden is a free agent and could be brought back, though TJ Carrie fared well despite a hamstring tear. One can’t have too many good cornerbacks, so a draft pick is certainly possible here.

SAFETY

The starting lineup seems set with Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson and 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph. Depth is required, especially if Nate Allen signs elsewhere in free agency. A versatile player could help in the back, and Nelson’s replacement could be groomed right away, with the Pro Bowler playing next season at 34 and in a contract year.

Lynch outcome should determine whether Raiders draft a running back

Lynch outcome should determine whether Raiders draft a running back

It’s officially NFL draft week. Marshawn Lynch still isn’t a Raider.

A contract impasse remained as of Sunday morning, a few days before general manager Reggie McKenzie’s desire for a by-Thursday resolution.

Deadlines, even soft ones, prompt deals. But Marshawn is unique, adding a level of uncertainty to procedings. 

The Raiders would prefer Lynch agree to terms on a new contract so they can acquire his rights from Seattle -- that’s the easier part – and know where they stand heading into the NFL Draft.

McKenzie left several doors cracked during a Friday pre-draft presser, saying Lynch’s presence wouldn’t stop him from drafting a rusher, not having the Oakland native wouldn’t guarantee it, and that there’s always a chance Lynch could come later no matter what happens during amateur selection.

Those things could be true. Or, you know, not. McKenzie prefers mystery this time of year.

Bottom line: The Raiders need a bigger back to pair with smaller, yet elusive runners DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard.

The Raiders want Lynch to fill the void. Ditto for Raider Nation, especially the Oakland state. A few free-agent options remain, including LaGarrette Blount. Or the Raiders could draft a back, something the Raiders have done well in later rounds.

They got Latavius Murray in the sixth round four years back, and he provided quality before changing uniforms this offseason. They got Washington in the fifth last time and pulled Richard from undrafted free agency. They could mine talent again this year. Waiting seems more likely if Lynch is around. 

Quality abounds in this draft class, with several worthy of early selections and talent easily found late. Let’s inspect McKenzie’s draft options at running back, should he need one:

Good fits: It’s hard to see the Raiders looking at a rusher in the first round, considering the draft’s depth at the position and major defensive needs. A first-round talent might be considered in the second. If controversial former Oklahoma rusher Joe Mixon is available following a free fall due to off-field issues described in detail here, a running back might come early.

Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara could be another Day 2 option, an explosive talent who analysts say has wiggle and power to create coveted yards after contact. He could be a three-down back thanks to quality as a receiver.

Odds are, however, the Raiders will look deeper into the draft. Wyoming’s Brian Hill was an excellent college producer who runs strong and might fit well into the Raiders rotation. Round projections vary, but he should be available on Day 3.

Pittsburgh’s James Conner offers great power at 233 pounds. He could run through tacklers and wear down defenses for the Raiders’ shift backs. He's also well known for drive and work ethic. He is projected as a fifth or sixth round pick.

Brigham Young’s Jamaal Williams might offer value and power rushing later in the draft. Clemson’s Wayne Gallman has tackle-breaking ability, but analysts say he isn’t a strong pass protector.

 

Healthy Edwards, NFL Draft could help Raiders improve interior pass rush

Healthy Edwards, NFL Draft could help Raiders improve interior pass rush

The Raiders had an NFL-worst 25 sacks last season, and that’s with Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin in their employ. That duo had 18 sacks (and 11 forced fumbles) between them. That left only seven for everyone else. Stacy McGee and Denico Autry had 2.5 each, and McGee isn’t here anymore.

Mario Edwards Jr. was certainly missed last season, when he missed 14 games with a preseason hip injury. The versatile defensive lineman is a solid edge run defender and internal pass rusher in the sub package.

If he’s healthy, Edwards Jr. could pose a real threat rushing the passer next to Irvin or Mack.

“Having Mario healthy will make us a better defense, and that’s not just as a pass rusher,” general manager Reggie McKenzie said in March. “He’s a solid run player. We’ve just got to have him healthy.

“But we’ll continue to add there, too.”

McKenzie subtracted one Tuesday, releasing Dan Williams to free salary cap space. He hasn’t yet added a defensive tackle in free agency, but could certainly do so in next week’s NFL draft.

There’s some quality interior pass rushers in this class. Let’s take a look at some options the Raiders could select and when:

Good fits: The Raiders select 24th overall in this draft, far lower than years past. Some quality defensive tackles might be a proper fit there, especially with depth at positions of need.

They could use some versatility, players like Edwards Jr. who can play multiple techniques. Michigan State’s Malik McDowell is an strong, athletic freak who analysts believe needs to improve his effort and technique. McDowell could develop into a top talent and be viewed as a steal at No. 24, or not realize full potential.

Michigan’s Chris Wormley is a versatile player in the Edwards Jr. mold, a player who seems to fit Raiders needs. Analysts says inconsistency is troubling but has the leadership quality and character the Raiders love. He can be a base end and move inside when required. He also has the size at 6-foot-5, 298 pounds and could develop well at the NFL level while making an immediate impact.

Florida’s Caleb Brantley is also an intriguing prospect adept at reaching the offensive backfield. Analysts say he’s a powerful player with quickness and an ability to work through blocks despite being slightly undersized. Brantley is potential to be a quality NFL pass rusher, and is confident in his ability. He didn’t play a high snap count at Florida, but the Raiders might use him in sub packages as a rookie and fill an important role right away. He’s viewed as a second round pick, and the Silver and Black might cross fingers he’s available at No. 56.

Auburn’s Montravius Adams could help if the Raiders are looking for more of a run stuffer. Clemson’s Carlos Watkins could also play multiple spots and could be available later in the middle rounds. Old Dominion’s Rashaad Coward also fits that mold and would be available in later rounds, though he hasn’t had much pass-rush production.