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.

Raiders sign rookie OT Sharpe, LB Lee, all four seventh-round draft picks

Raiders sign rookie OT Sharpe, LB Lee, all four seventh-round draft picks

The Raiders signed several members of their 2017 draft class, the team announced on Friday. Later round picks put pen to paper following the first week of OTAs, which began on Monday.

Fourth-round offensive tackle David Sharpe and fifth-round linebacker Marquel Lee highlight this group of signings, as both players inked four-year rookie contracts.

All four seventh-round picks also signed their first professional contract. That group includes running back Elijah Hood, safety Shalom Luani, offensive lineman Jylan Ware and defensive tackle Treyvon Hester.

These deals aren’t hard to work out. The NFL and the league’s players union agreed on a rookie wage scale in the last collective bargaining agreement that slots salaries by draft order, which leaves little negotiating room within the set payment structure.

The team’s top picks remain unsigned, though they’ll get done in time. First round cornerback Gareon Conley, second-round safety Obi Melifonwu and third-round defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes remain unsigned.

Here’s a list of estimated contract values over a four-year rookie deal for each signed draft pick, per spotrac.com:

OT David Sharpe (No. 129 overall): $2,986,415 total; $586,415 signing bonus
LB Marquel Lee (No. 168 overall): $2,653,693 total; $253,693 signing bonus
S Shalom Luani (No. 221 overall): $2,494,414 total; $94,414 signing bonus
OT Jylan Ware (No. 231 overall): $2,484,295 total; $84,295 signing bonus
RB Elijah Hood (No. 242 overall): $2,469,750 total; $69,750 signing bonus
DT Treyvon Hester (No. 244 overall): $2,468,601 total; $69,750 signing bonus

Marquel Lee gets to play for his father's favorite team: 'He started bawling'

Marquel Lee gets to play for his father's favorite team: 'He started bawling'

ALAMEDA -- Marquel Lee’s NFL draft weekend wasn’t always fun, a byproduct of high hopes unrealized. The former Wake Forest linebacker wanted to go early, but slid into Saturday and waited well into the fifth round before his phone lifted spirits.

A 510 area code brought Lee out of an emotional rut, one so deep he started wondering whether he’d get drafted at all.

“When I got the call from the Raiders, everything changed,” Lee said in the latest episode of NBC Sports California’s Raiders Insider Podcast. “I was so excited to play for this organization.”

Marquel Lee wasn’t the only one. His father jumped over the moon.

“He might’ve been more excited than I was,” Marquel Lee said. “He started bawling. I’ve never seen my dad cry like that.”

Corey Lee’s tears don’t come easy. He’s a no-nonsense military man who served 11 years in the Navy before entering the private sector. He was a strict but fair father and football coach who instilled the discipline and work ethic required for his son to realize great potential.

Corey Lee is also a lifelong Raiders fan. Seeing his son get drafted by his favorite team created a perfect emotional storm.

“I’m as die-hard as they get,” Corey Lee said. “When they called his name in the fifth round, it was such a great, powerful moment. There was some relief, because he worked so hard and sacrificed to reach this point. When families were on vacation, we were in summer camps and working out hard.

“Everything we did was to prepare him for the next level. I was so proud to see him achieve a goal he had.”

Corey Lee didn’t break down completely when Marquel Lee officially became the Raiders’ fifth-round selection. This proud papa let emotion overcome for a beat, and then darted for his bedroom. He returned to the party with a brand new Raiders hat and a No. 89 Amari Cooper shirt from his vast Raiders collection.

Marquel Lee threw on dad’s gear to honor his new team and the golden opportunity to play for a linebacker-starved Raiders team.

That wasn’t Marquel Lee’s first time in silver and black. He rocked a full Raiders uniform at age 2, complete with a helmet, football pants and a Tim Brown jersey.

He donned one again when rookies reported to the Raiders offseason program earlier this month. The full-circle moment wasn’t lost on Marquel, a man proud of his past and excited about an NFL future.

“There’s a picture of me in a Raiders jersey, pants and a helmet on my second birthday,” he said. “I look at it now and think, ‘Wow. It really happened.’ I’m wearing a Raiders uniform for real. My dream is becoming a reality.”

Corey Lee grew up a Raiders fan in Southern California, going to games with his family at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Pardon Marquel for not following in those footsteps. He grew up on the East Coast when Donovan McNabb was a superstar and gravitated toward the Eagles. Ray Lewis performed in Lee’s Maryland backyard and became an athletic role model.

Marquel watched tons of NFL football with his dad, complete games where father and son would talk about strategy and scheme. Marquel would watch game tape with his father at an early age and when Corey Lee deployed with the Navy, his mother Katanya – she, too, understood football -- made sure that practice continued.

Marquel Lee was armed with natural athletic gifts and cultivated knowledge of the game, allowing him play quarterback and middle linebacker as a junior at Westlake High in Waldorf, Md. His dad was a guiding light as youth instructor, a JV head coach and a varsity linebackers coach, but took steps to separate family and football.

“As a father, I never would allow him to call me dad on a practice field or anywhere,” Corey Lee said. “I was always ‘Coach’ during the season, whether we were at home or at practice, because I wanted to keep him in that mindset.”

Football was a primary focus back then, when the family often traded summer vacations for skills camps. Despite buzz around Marquel’s talents, Corey was against his son doing interviews with recruiting websites or ranking services. Father wanted his son’s head on straight, and it has remained that way. 

Top schools were slow to come around, but gravitated after Marquel fully recovered from a torn patella and stood out early in his senior year. He chose Wake Forest, a commitment his father wanted upheld even with late interest from other programs.

His growth continued as a collegian, and took a real spike during the 2016 season. Wake Forest’s defensive captains graduated, leaving him to assume a leadership role and put team over stats. Lee considered his junior season at Wake Forest subpar, and vowed to do better.

“I was pressing a lot, trying to rush my time and trying to get to the NFL,” Lee said. “I was on a road where I thought I wanted to leave (school) early. I was so hard on myself, especially if I didn’t produce. That’s why I said it was subpar. I don’t think I played like a team player that year.

“(The next season) I made a decision to finish what I started and be the leader I always knew I could be. I wanted to help my team get to a bowl game. I hadn’t played in one. That was a major part of me coming back in 2016. … I grew up a lot. I feel like I gained respect as a team leader, and really understood what it took to own that responsibility.”

Lee might have major responsibilities as an NFL rookie. The Raiders don’t have many options at middle linebacker, and Lee will be allowed to compete for a starting spot. It’ll take a solid spring and summer to earn it and give the Raiders confidence to hand an important starting spot to a rookie. The Silver and Black could add a veteran to that position group, though they have high hopes for their fifth-round pick. Lee could well make an instant impact. 

“We definitely think he has the potential to start,” Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie said in an interview with 95.7-The Game. “He’s a long ways away from that. We haven’t even begun to get the pads on, so a lot will be determined in training camp and the preseason. So far, he has looked very good.”

Lee considers himself well prepared for the challenges ahead, and believes he can compete at the professional level.

“I’ve been getting ready for this a long time,” Marquel Lee said. “My dad has been telling me that this experience will be different. It’s not like college anymore. It’s a job, and I have to be mentally prepared for everything I’m about to do. I’m here and I’m learning and I’m trying to do my best.”