Taking Stock of Oakland Raiders' 2018 NFL Draft Picks
As the offseason rapidly approaches, it's time to take an in-depth dive into 2018 draft talk. The spring comes with hope and optimism for every NFL team, as front offices retool their rosters. Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has earned mixed reviews on his past three incoming classes.
What should fans expect, hope for and watch in April?
Typically, front office executives want to hit on at least half of their selections to ensure improvement in the following season.
It's fair to criticize McKenzie for picking up high-potential players who have yet to see significant snaps in regular-season action. However, it falls on the coaching staff to develop the talent through preparation during practices.
Unfortunately, McKenzie's top two 2017 draft picks, Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, have played just 126 combined snaps. Injuries slowed development in both cases. The rookie defensive backs will experience a full first year next season.
With Conley and Melifonwu potentially taking larger roles during the upcoming campaign, McKenzie may have several young players looking to solidify starting spots when considering incoming rookie talent.
We'll go through an early preview of the Raiders' 2018 draft profile with questions, pending decisions and a look at a few prospects.
2018 Draft Picks
Round 1, Pick 17
Round 2, Pick 48
Round 3, Pick 79
Round 4, Pick 116
Round 6, Pick 197
Round 6, Pick 202
Round 6, Pick 213
Round 6, Pick 214
Round 6, Pick 217
Round 6, Pick 219
Round 7, Pick 237
Note: Includes four projected compensatory sixth-round picks.
Prepare for lengthy Raiders mock drafts in the upcoming offseason. Barring a trade, the Silver and Black could have 11 selections thanks to the Marshawn Lynch trade and compensatory picks.
According to Over the Cap, cornerback D.J. Hayden, running back Latavius Murray, linebacker Malcolm Smith and safety Nate Allen project as departures that return compensatory sixth-round picks for April's draft.
With that ammo, there's no reason to lack depth on defense for the 2018 campaign. But we shouldn't rule out a trade. The front office could package picks or pair them with players for a must-have talent in the middle rounds.
At this point, Oakland falls outside the top 15 in the draft order. Despite taking a step backward in the win-loss column, there's a still a shot at the playoffs and a winning record, which would drop their placement into the 20s.
Critical Pre-Draft Questions
Before tackling the draft needs or targets. It's important to address roster questions that will influence decisions in April.
Is It Time to Restock the Offensive Tackle Position?
Offensive tackle Donald Penn isn't the same player from the previous year. He signed an extension in August, but it's possible we saw the best of him in 2016. The 34-year-old's contract runs through the 2019 season, per Spotrac. However, it's time to prepare his eventual replacement in David Sharpe or a high pick in the draft.
Will the Front Office Continue to Bury Jihad Ward in the Defensive Line Rotation?
After starting 13 contests during his rookie season, 2016, defensive lineman Jihad Ward has played 35 snaps on defense this year. It's an alarming drop off for a second-round pick. Rookie Treyvon Hester and Eddie Vanderdoes have supplanted the Illinois product in the rotation up front. If McKenzie acquires another early-round pick at Ward's position, he will sit on the roster bubble during training camp.
Should McKenzie Move Forward with Youth at Cornerback?
Sean Smith has been inconsistent in a silver-and-black uniform. After a solid 2016 campaign, David Amerson has struggled on the field and with injuries, which include multiple concussions, in 2017. T.J. Carrie will become an unrestricted free agent.
Among the three veteran defensive backs, how many will McKenzie hold for the long term? Will we see a repeat of the 2015 campaign, with three inexperienced players competing for two starting spots at cornerback?
How Long Does McKenzie Wait Before Drafting a Linebacker?
It's deja vu in the needs department for Oakland's defense. There's still a void at inside linebacker, even with NaVorro Bowman playing with vigor in the middle. Many thought Perry Riley Jr. would re-sign after a solid 2016 showing, but the two sides never came to a new agreement. It's not a guarantee the 29-year-old returns for his age-30 season.
Impending Free Agents Who Affect Draft Decisions
Notable Unrestricted Free Agents
DT Justin Ellis
CB T.J. Carrie
FS Reggie Nelson
DL Denico Autry
LB NaVorro Bowman
McKenzie has five notable players on expiring contracts. Over the past few weeks, defensive lineman Denico Autry has made a strong case for an extension. Since John Pagano took over defensive play-calling duties in November, the fourth-year pro erupted with three sacks.
Before head coach Jack Del Rio decided to fire defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. on Nov. 21, Autry saw significant time on the field. He played more than 680 snaps in the previous two seasons. His impact as an interior pass-rusher flashes like a light bulb. The Raiders have been looking for that type of asset to pair with Mario Edwards Jr. and to complement Khalil Mack.
Defensive tackle Justin Ellis doesn't provide enough impact on the defensive line to warrant a new deal. He's logged a career high in solo tackles (22) this year, but it's likely too little too late with cheaper assets on the roster.
As mentioned, Bowman isn't a lock to re-sign despite his decent support in run defense. Yes, he secured the team's first interception, but the ball found him—not the other way around. He's still a liability in pass coverage who is replaceable. We can say the same for safety Reggie Nelson.
McKenzie will have a tough decision with Carrie's expiring contract. The front office could pursue a playmaking cornerback who forces turnovers or select a preferable player in the draft at a cheaper price.
Positions to Address with Top Picks
In no specific order, Oakland's front office should address at least two of these positions, if not all three, early in the draft. It's subject to change based on free-agent pickups and prospect availability.
It's a realistic to think McKenzie expunges Smith or Amerson's contract off the books and that Carrie signs a good offer elsewhere.
Conley played 92 snaps in his rookie year. He's coming off a shin injury that remains a bit of mystery. There's hope he returns at full strength, but it's not a given. The front office should add a talent with high potential and an established collegiate resume at cornerback.
We already discussed Penn's play regressing toward average. He's turning 35 in April, and the pass-rushers in the division continue to improve. The 11th-year veteran will likely line up on quarterback Derek Carr's blind side for another season, but who's the future at the position?
The Raiders signed offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse to a two-year, $3.5 million deal, per Spotrac. The 29-year-old experienced his fair share of hiccups in pass protection on the perimeter as well. He's the most vulnerable on the offensive line. A young long-term upgrade would allow the coaching staff to rip off the Band-Aid on the right side.
We could talk ad nauseam about the need for a versatile inside linebacker who can line up the defense, chase down ball-carriers and drop back into coverage. If McKenzie sticks to his previous draft trends, he'll stick with Marquel Lee, Nicholas Morrow and a late-round pick to fill the position.
McKenzie may re-sign Bowman to hold the starting spot in his latter years. Nonetheless, it's still a position that needs a player who can consistently defend the short-passing attack.
Early Projections on Players to Target
In correspondence to the pressing roster needs noted above, we'll provide a prospect to watch for each position.
ILB, Oren Burks, Vanderbilt
It's become apparent NFL defenses need to shift from the old-school bulky inside linebackers to more athletic defenders—that's where McKenzie shortchanges his defense.
Vanderbilt's Oren Burks has played the hybrid linebacker-safety position during his four years on the collegiate level.
Burks played safety as a freshman and sophomore. Then he transitioned to the hybrid "star" position and, finally, started 11 games at inside linebacker in 2017. He's not a stiff and moves fluidly in space.
The Vanderbilt product's skill set as a defensive back will help him excel in coverage as a linebacker on the professional level. He's logged five interceptions over the past three seasons.
CB, Quenton Meeks, Stanford
Stanford cornerback Quenton Meeks doesn't have the numbers to make you squint at your computer screen. He logged seven interceptions and 16 pass breakups in three seasons.
However, the Cardinal defensive back flashes quality coverage skills on film. Furthermore, he's a lanky, 6'2", 197-pound prospect who is not easily pushed around.
After watching speedy receivers burn Amerson and Smith, fans may cringe at a bigger perimeter defender in the secondary. Nonetheless, he's quick enough to keep stride with agile pass-catchers on the outside. Meeks would also come into the league as a reliable tackler.
As the draft process progresses, prospects with gaudy stats may sway attention away from Meeks, but the eye test suggests he will develop into a decent pro cornerback.
OT, Jamarco Jones, Ohio State
It's unknown whether Sharpe takes over for Penn on the blind side. The rookie fourth-rounder has suited up for just two games this year, in Weeks 7 and 13. He's played three snaps.
Until there's clear-cut evidence that indicates Sharpe will start long term, the Raiders should stockpile talent at a position that's helped propel the offense. Rookie seventh-rounder Jylan Ware is still in the developmental stages.
The Raiders could select a solid Day 2 prospect in Ohio State offensive lineman Jamarco Jones. He's not a surefire starting left tackle as a rookie, but he could push Newhouse on the right side. Worst-case scenario, he would take a year to develop behind Penn as competition for Sharpe on the blind side.
Jones started at left tackle for the Buckeyes in the past two seasons. Under offensive line coach Mike Tice's tutelage, there's room for growth at either perimeter position.
Identifying Past Trends to Predict Future Selections
We've watched McKenzie break down and rebuild a financially bloated roster with shrewd free-agent signings, a strong 2014 class and several late-round hits. Based on his track record, it's reasonable to lean on a few clues in his draft tendencies.
Draft High and Heavy on Defense
Despite the subpar play on defense, the front office has at least tried to field a competitive unit. In reality, the coaching staff should bear a heavy responsibility when it comes to player development.
McKenzie utilized seven of nine selections on defenders between Rounds 1 and 3 over the past three years. Among those picks, Edwards and safety Karl Joseph show the most promise. It's unfair to blame the Raiders executive for injuries plaguing Conley and Melifonwu. Neither prospect came into the league on the mend.
The decision to switch coordinators hurt the offense, but it's not due to insufficient talent. Expect McKenzie to focus on defensive assets at the top of the 2018 draft.
No Early Picks on an Inside Linebacker or Running Back
In 2017, analysts and fans failed to grasp Oakland's plan at inside linebacker because it made little sense. If the San Francisco 49ers didn't release Bowman, there is a strong possibility Lee would've been thrust into the starting spot and expected to learn on the fly after splitting first-team reps during training camp.
We can all dream about an inside linebacker going to the Raiders in the early rounds, but it's unlikely. As the No. 140 overall pick, Ben Heeney lists as the highest draft selection at the position under McKenzie. Miles Burris entered the league as the No. 129 pick, but the coaching staff moved the outside linebacker inside out of necessity.
For those who look at Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon and Alvin Kamara as early-round hits at running back, don't expect McKenzie to copy that strategy. He acquired Murray in the sixth round (2013), DeAndre Washington in the fifth round (2016), Jalen Richard as an undrafted free agent (2016) and Elijah Hood in the seventh round (2017).
As running back Marshawn Lynch goes into a contract year, we could see more of Hood in the preseason or as a contributor on the 53-man roster in 2018.
High Premium on Interior Defensive Lineman
Similar to the offensive line, the Raiders front office places a high premium on defensive line talent. Edwards, Ward and Vanderdoes joined the Silver and Black on Day 2 of the draft in three consecutive years.
If Oakland doesn't retain Autry and Ellis and remains ultra-conservative with Ward's time on the field, a rookie defensive lineman may join the rotation. In McKenzie's case, he doesn't see a limit to depth in the trenches. He's rebuilt this roster inside out with a primary focus on the big guys at the line of scrimmage.
Almost immediately, Pagano illustrated his ability to get the Raiders generating pressure up front, albeit against poor offensive lines. However, a continuation of that trend would warrant more manpower to shrink the pocket as quickly as possible while the secondary develops and gains valuable experience.