Did the NFL Combine Change the Oakland Raiders' Target at No. 4?

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystFebruary 24, 2015

Is Amari Cooper still the No. 1 wide receiver option for the Raiders?
Is Amari Cooper still the No. 1 wide receiver option for the Raiders?David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Oakland Raiders have yet another important draft in 2015. General manager Reggie McKenzie and new head coach Jack Del Rio have the fourth overall selection, so they should be able to find another impact player like linebacker Khalil Mack from a year ago.

Did all the information they gleaned from the combine change their target?

Now that teams have just about all the data they could ask for on the top prospects thanks to the combine, the Raiders can go about settling on their top few targets. The Raiders can go in one of many directions, and if their 2013 draft is any indication, then it may even shock us.

The Raiders settled on cornerback D.J. Hayden in 2013 and were mere moments away from selecting him No. 3 overall until the Miami Dolphins dangled a second-round pick to move down to No. 12. The ordeal proved that McKenzie’s board might not look anything like what we are expecting.

 

Position Parsing

NFL teams can align their needs with the best player available drafting model for the first few rounds utilizing free agency. That’s why what NFL teams accomplish in free agency can drastically affect what we believe teams will do in the draft.

If a team needs and signs a No. 1 wide receiver, it’s probably safe to say they won’t be drafting one in the first couple of rounds. This is obviously a general rule, and there are always exceptions.

The Raiders need a playmaking wide receiver, an edge-rusher, an inside linebacker, a defensive tackle, a guard, a center and a running back. Ideally, the Raiders can address all of those needs in the draft and free agency.

In theory, the Raiders can address all of those needs in free agency. They have the salary cap space to sign one of the top players at each position if they choose to do so and can entice them to sign with a team still trying to rebuild.

The strength of the top of the draft happens to be edge-rusher and wide receiver; two of the Raiders’ biggest needs. Both also happen to be the weakness in free agency.

Raiders Position of Need
PositionFA Options
Edge PlayerBrian Orakpo, Jason Pierre-Paul
Inside LinebackerRey Maualuga, Lance Briggs
Wide ReceiverJeremy Maclin, Randall Cobb
GuardMike Iupati, Davin Joseph, Orlando Franklin
CenterRodney Hudson, Stefen Wisniewski
Running BackC.J. Spiller, Frank Gore, Ryan Mathews
Overthecap.com

The Raiders can more easily address defensive tackle, guard, center and running back in free agency and later in the draft. Other than Leonard Williams, there isn’t another highly-rated defensive tackle. Unless he falls, the Raiders will have to look elsewhere. Don’t rule out McKenzie parting with the herd on Williams, either.

Guard and center are non-premium positions and it’s not an exciting class of either, so drafting one early doesn’t make any sense. The Raiders will likely have to bring in a free agent or two and try to find a gem later in the draft.

The top-rated inside linebackers are Eric Kendricks, Denzel Perryman and Bendarick McKinney, but almost no one expects them to go high in the first round. The Raiders will have to dip into free agency to find one. A player like Rey Maualuga, who played for new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. at USC, makes sense.

Running back is a secondary need, as the Raiders are looking for competition for Latavius Murray. It’s also rare for running backs to go in the first round. Even though a couple could sneak into the first round this year, it’s highly unlikely the Raiders will be looking at them with the No. 4 pick.

That leaves us with wide receiver and an edge-rusher. Of the two, the need for wide receiver to make plays trumps an edge-rusher right now, but free agency could change all that. For now, we have to work on the assumption that the Raiders will be targeting a pass-rusher or receiver at No. 4.

The combine didn’t dramatically shift our perceptions of the draft, so it makes sense that the perceptions of which way the Raiders will go at No. 4 haven’t changed either. What may have changed is which players the Raiders will target.

 

Edge-Rusher

Dante Fowler Jr., Randy Gregory, Shane Ray, Alvin “Bud” Dupree and Vic Beasley are the top edge-rushers in this class, but not all of them fit in a 4-3 defense. Gregory is probably a 3-4 outside linebacker only. Vic Beasley is likely a 3-4 outside linebacker unless a team decides to use him like Von Miller, which Del Rio is used to doing after three years in Denver.

Since the Raiders are primarily a 4-3 team, Gregory is not a natural fit. He didn’t do the agility drills at the combine, but he didn’t do anything to hurt his draft stock. Gregory has massive potential, and the Raiders are at least doing their due diligence on him.

Beasley is interesting, but finding a position for him could be tough. He had the best combine performance, as he was a top performer in every event, proving he is one of the top athletes among the edge players.

You make room for good football players if they are the best, but the Raiders would have to get creative with how they use him, Mack, linebacker Sio Moore and defensive end Justin Tuck. Beasley may be a rising prospect, but all the way to No. 4 seems like a long way to go from his late first-round projection before the combine, per NFL Network's Mike Mayock (h/t ESPN.com).

Fowler may not slip past the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 3, but it also seems likely that the Jaguars will be prime candidates to trade down with a team looking to draft quarterback Marcus Mariota. That would leave him available to the Raiders.

NFL.com compared Fowler to Mack, who the Raiders were very pleased to get last year and had a great rookie season. Having two players who can set the edge and get after the quarterback a little bit would be great, but the Raiders really need a player who can get to the quarterback regularly.

That leaves Dupree and Ray. The Raiders will have to wait to see how Ray tests, as he was only able to do the bench press due to a toe injury at the combine. Ray is certainly the kind of tightly wound pass-rusher they should be looking for, but if he’s the target, the Raiders will have to wait to check all the boxes off on him.

Top Edge Rushers
StatFowler JrGregoryDupreeBeasleyRay
Height6'3"6'5"6'4"6'3"6'3"
Weight261235269246245
Arm33 3/4"34"32 5/8"32 1/2"33 1/8"
404.604.644.564.53DNP
Broad9'4"10'5"11'6"10"10"DNP
3 Cone7.40DNPDNP6.91DNP
NFL.com

Dupree was a top performer in the only three events he participated. At 269 pounds, Dupree ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, had the third-best broad jump of any player and fifth-best vertical jump. For his size, Dupree’s performance was spectacular.

Dupree’s has a reputation as a freak athlete that was confirmed by his combine numbers, so it’s unlikely the Raiders or any other team moved him up based on his performance. If he was the top target before, he most definitely is now. He’s explosive, but he still needs to run agility drills.

Did the combine change anything? At least at this stage, not much has changed.  

Beasley may have moved himself into consideration if the Raiders liked him more than most draft experts liked him coming into the combine. Gregory’s interview with the team may have helped him separate himself, but his lack of a natural 4-3 position could hurt his chances.

Ray and Dupree’s status remains unchanged at this point based off the available data. Of all the edge-rushers, Fowler is the only one who could have separated himself as a clear target at No. 4 over the other options.

 

Wide Receiver

There are two receivers vying for the top spot in this year’s draft—Amari Cooper and Kevin White. If the Raiders decide to fill their biggest need at No. 4, one of Cooper or White will be wearing silver and black next season.

Both players did well at the combine, but White helped himself where Cooper merely did what was expected. The biggest question with White was his speed, but he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds, which was the third-fastest time. It also bested Cooper’s 4.42, but by an insignificant .07 seconds.

Top Wide Receiver Combine Comparison
StatsAmari CooperKevin White
Height6'1"6'3"
Weight211215
Hand10"9 1/4"
404.424.35
Broad10'10'3"
3 Cone6.927.4
NFL.com

Cooper had the biggest hands of any top wide receiver prospect at 10”, ran the fastest short shuttle of all receivers and was one of the five fastest wide receivers in the three-cone drill. White had slightly better numbers in the broad and vertical jumps and, unlike Cooper, participated in the bench press where he tied for the most with 23.

New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave may prefer the speed and agility of Cooper to White. Musgrave got the most out of Percy Harvin in Minnesota by utilizing him in the short passing game, and he can use Cooper in the same way, as well as let him run traditional routes.

If the Raiders liked Cooper more to start, that probably hasn’t changed. If they were undecided, it’s still a tough call, but White may now have a slight edge. If they were leaning White, he did enough to cement his status over Cooper with his performance.

The depth at both edge-rusher and wide receiver gives the Raiders freedom to go in either direction, but the combine didn’t likely change much for them. A few players may have edged in front of others, but the rankings are still gelatinous until after private workouts and pro days are complete.