If the 2017 NFL Draft started after Week 8, the Oakland Raiders would have the No. 30 pick. How should the front office approach next year’s selections?
Imagine you woke up and it’s NFL 2017 Draft Day. At this moment, the Oakland Raiders would go on the clock with the No. 30 selection. Yes, in this scenario, the Silver and Black wouldn’t have early dibs on their first draft pick. Ah, the cons of winning football games.
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Though it’s early, how should general manager Reggie McKenzie approach this particular draft class?
He’s earned trust over the past two years. He selected defensive lineman Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr in 2014. The former leads the team in sacks and the latter picked up MVP praise after a spectacular performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8. In the following season, the front office went with wide receiver Amari Cooper over defensive lineman Leonard Williams. The second-year pro now lists No. 3 in receiving yards (787).
Collegiate prospects will fluctuate up and down mock draft boards until late April in 2017. We’ll take a snapshot of the current moment between the NFL and NCAA.
How can the Raiders push this roster forward for sustained success? What’s the biggest need through eight games? What’s McKenzie’s move with the No. 30 pick in the 2017 draft and plan for the following rounds?
Oct 17, 2015; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive end Chris Wormley (43) celebrates his sack of Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) in the first half at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s be realistic. Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster and Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan won’t be available if the Raiders pick toward the end of the first round. Remember, this team wouldn’t have a top-15 pick at this juncture.
As a result, McKenzie should shift his attention to bolstering the interior pass rush. The team expects defensive end Mario Edwards to return to action in the near future, but there’s very little pressure up front without him on the field.
Regardless of Jihad Ward’s improvement, the Raiders could release Dan Williams, save $4.5 million in cap space (per overthecap.com) and draft a pass-rushing interior lineman. Williams never possessed the skill set to rush the quarterback. Furthermore, Justin Ellis, who also lacks the ability to rush the pocket, supplanted his fellow defensive tackle as a starter this season.
Unfortunately, Williams hasn’t duplicated his first year with the Raiders as a viable run-stopper. The Raiders could upgrade the position with a cheaper alternative in Michigan defensive lineman Chris Wormley, who can play inside and rush the quarterback. Through four years at the collegiate level, he’s racked up 15.5 sacks.
Wormley would also provide more versatility than Ellis on the inside. His skill set compares to Edwards, and he’s more polished at the position than Ward, who played safety and receiver in his early collegiate years. Just imagine Wormley, Ward and Edwards barreling through offensive lines and taking attention away from Mack off the edge for the next few seasons.
Jan 1, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Anthony Walker (18) celebrates as he made a sack against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first half in the 2016 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
It’s still inconclusive whether or the not the Raiders linebacker corps survive the season with rookie Cory James and newly-signed free agent Perry Riley in the middle. Based on linebacker Malcolm Smith’s struggles in pass defense and his propensity to whiff on tackles, the front office must upgrade at this particular starting position.
Northwestern product Anthony Walker Jr. would step in as a prototypical inside linebacker due to his size and replace the oft-injured Neiron Ball, who’s on injured reserve, as the best cover linebacker on the roster.
The ball-skills developed while playing wide receiver and safety (as well as linebacker) show up in pass coverage, where Walker has intercepted three passes, including one he returned 49 yards for a touchdown against Christian Hackenberg and Penn State in his first career start.
Based on his coverage skills, size and fluidity in space, Walker could also play weak-side linebacker in certain formations. McKenzie passed on the position during the previous draft; he can’t ignore the glaring hole on the defense any further. The Northwestern product could start Week 1 of the 2017 season due to Smith’s likely departure.
Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins offensive lineman Conor McDermott against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. The Sun Devils defeated the Bruins 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Raiders have to maintain their Carr Insurance payments.
Currently, Donald Penn holds his end of the bargain on the blindside, but he’ll enter a contract year in the following season. The Raiders must also make a decision on right tackle Menelik Watson, who’s set to hit the free-agent market in the offseason. Despite showing bright spots in his career, he’s battled injuries and listed as active for only 19 games.
McKenzie should consider drafting the heir to Penn’s position or Watson’s immediate replacement. At 6-9, 315 pounds, UCLA offensive tackle Conor McDermott would enter the NFL with a body type that the Raiders can use within their physical play style up front.
According to ESPN writer Chris Low, you can add solid footwork and an athletic background to McDermott’s football credentials:
McDermott also had an ideal frame, and his basketball background helped foster the kind of footwork that’s invaluable for an offensive tackle. And even more important, McDermott began to fill out physically and blossomed in the UCLA strength and conditioning program. He’s now listed at 6-9 and plans to play this season at 315 pounds.
The size and athleticism would help the Raiders running backs bounce designed carries toward the outside in space.
Sep 3, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; LSU Tigers linebacker Kendell Beckwith (52) celebrates following a play during the third quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Despite a good start, there’s no guarantee that Riley stays with the team beyond the current season. James isn’t a lock to maintain his starting position despite his encouraging start. Right now, that may surprise some people, but Ben Heeney flashed potential and hope as the future at the position. Then, he struggled in his second year.
The Raiders need depth and an influx of young talent to strengthen the core of their defense. McKenzie should stack Walker in the second round with a downhill bruiser to support the run defense. Louisiana State linebacker Kendell Beckwith adds power and punch to a weak linebacker corps. He also brings four years of collegiate experience and leadership qualities, per CBS Sports draft analyst Dane Brugler:
Beckwith has the power and physical mentality to take on linemen at the second level, acting as a hammer between the tackles vs. the run game. A three-year starter, Beckwith is viewed as one of the veteran leaders in the locker room.
The decision to add a second linebacker also creates offseason competition, which allows the best talent to earn his playing time as opposed to taking the reins as the default choice at a thin position.
Nov 22, 2014; Eugene, OR, USA; Colorado Buffaloes linebacker Ryan Severson (30) chases Oregon Ducks tight end Pharaoh Brown (85) at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
After a modest start for tight end Clive Walford in his second season, anxieties about his potential to become a breakout component within the offense could lead to competition.
Even though we’re only halfway through the season, many expected Walford to have more than 19 catches for 186 yards and a touchdown. Fellow tight end Mychal Rivera will likely hit the free-agent market in the offseason. Meanwhile, the Raiders need another receiving option at the position to pair with Lee Smith’s strengths as an inline blocker.
It was only a year and a half ago that he faced partial amputation of his right leg following an injury that occurred during the Ducks’ game against Utah. He had stepped on a teammate’s foot, tearing two ligaments, but more substantially, he had also injured an artery in his leg that had cut off blood flow below his shin.
Nonetheless, Brown returned for a fifth year to finish his collegiate career. His return shows a passion for football. The senior tight end’s 22 catches for 303 yards and four touchdowns illustrate his fit as a viable pass-catcher within the Raiders offense. He’s notched 10 touchdowns between his junior and senior seasons.
Sep 17, 2016; Laramie, WY, USA; Wyoming Cowboys running back Brian Hill (5) carries the ball as UC Davis Aggies defensive lineman Anthony Baumgart (92) defends during the fourth quarter at War Memorial Stadium. The Cowboys won 45-22. Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports
McKenzie should do everything in his power to keep the trio at running back together. However, with Carr, Mack and offensive guard Gabe Jackson nearing negotiation time, the Raiders must consider cheaper assets at certain positions.
Due to pressing needs within the front seven, Oakland will miss the boat on the flashy headline running backs within the draft class. Based on McKenzie’s draft trends, he’s not going to select a player for the backfield with an early-round pick.
If Murray signs a lucrative deal with another squad, the Raiders will move forward with DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard. The two running backs carry similar statures and play styles. The backfield would need a hammerhead who can handle carries in a higher volume than fullback Jamize Olawale.
Don’t allow Wyoming running back Brian Hill’s ordinary name outside a powerhouse conference fool you. In the right offensive system, he can become a special asset. Between his junior and senior seasons, he’s logged 2,787 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. His nose for the end zone sets him apart from other late-round draft prospects at the position and increases his value to the Raiders backfield.
When Murray missed two games with turf toe, the Raiders rushing offense struggled to notch first downs or push the ball past the goal line on the ground. Hill would serve as the finisher within the new trio at running back.
Oct 8, 2016; Winston-Salem, NC, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons linebacker Thomas Brown (26) celebrates with defensive back Brad Watson (25) after a stop in the first quarter against the Syracuse Orange at BB&T Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
CB, Wake Forest
The Raiders have set up the cornerback position for the future. David Amerson signed a four-year extension in July. The front office also locked Sean Smith into a four-year deal via free agency, per spotrac.com. Despite the early struggles against potent passing offenses, Oakland isn’t going to bail on its physical duo on the perimeter after one season.
Cornerback D.J. Hayden will likely find work elsewhere after two and a half disappointing seasons in silver and black. Since shaking off the injury bug, he’s played well in the slot. However, the team won’t think twice about letting him walk with a higher price tag and T.J. Carrie right behind him on the depth chart. Expect Dexter McDonald to see an uptick in his snap count for the following season. He’ll probably compete with Carrie during training camp in the slot.
Wake Forest cornerback Brad Watson would add solid competition at the position for the next few years. He swatted 16 passes during his junior campaign. The senior cornerback doesn’t have as many pass breakups in the current season, but he’s already matched his two interceptions from the previous year.
At times, slot cornerbacks have to play downhill and wrap up tight ends in the short passing game or running backs breaking free into the second level. Watson has logged 135 tackles and forced two fumbles as a collegian. He’s certainly not afraid to step up and take down a receiver or ball-carrier.