Ideal 1st-Round Fits for Oakland Raiders in 2017 NFL Draft
As the Oakland Raiders' regular-season records improve, their draft placements drop, which adds more uncertainty on who's going to be available when they're on the clock.
As the NFL world chirps about the Raiders and Las Vegas, general manager Reggie McKenzie has a Super Bowl roster to build for the upcoming season. The front office didn't sign any clear-cut starters through free agency. The voids at starting linebacker and defensive tackle remain.
Despite the positive spin on linebacker Jelani Jenkins, there is a reason the team is still connected to Zach Brown, who also plays the position, per Miami Herald reporter Armando Salguero. Oakland needs to find a proven commodity or a young budding talent to fill Malcolm Smith's former spot.
Veterans Justin Ellis and Dan Williams paired with 2016 second-round pick Jihad Ward left gaps on the defensive line. Opposing running backs had nothing to fear when moving the ball at 4.5 yards per carry against a soft run defense.
In a passing league, McKenzie may opt to load up on defensive backs. During his tenure, he's picked up a mixed bag to boost the secondary. Cornerbacks D.J. Hayden and Keith McGill have disappointed while T.J. Carrie has produced and Karl Joseph looks like a safety with a bright future.
Ahead of April's draft, we've listed and ranked eight ideal first-round picks for the Raiders.
No. 8: Haason Reddick, OLB, Temple
Over the past month, linebacker Haason Reddick has gained steam as an ideal pick for the Silver and Black. However, it's all based on optimism. He played defensive end on the collegiate level. In the NFL, the Temple product wouldn't be able to rush off the edge at 6'1" and 237 pounds.
One notable showing during the Senior Bowl and an impressive NFL Scouting Combine workout shouldn't convince anyone that Reddick will experience a smooth transition against live competition. It's not that easy.
It would not be impossible for Reddick to blossom into a starting inside or weak-side linebacker, but there's more risk in selecting him in the first round to play a new role on defense.
The other prospects on the list have excelled at their projected positions on the collegiate level. For that reason alone, Reddick drops to No. 8 among ideal first-round choices. Nonetheless, his attributes as a sure tackler with speed provide decent upside.
No. 7: Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
The Raiders have left tackle Donald Penn under contract for another season, per Spotrac. Four offensive linemen will compete for the starting right tackle spot. How does Cam Robinson rank within the top eight ideal picks?
Because of off-field issues, Robinson's projected ranking has slipped, per CBSSports.com. Once viewed as an early first-round choice, he's mocked for the Seattle Seahawks, who have acquired prospects with some baggage in the past.
The Seahawks pick two spots behind the Raiders at No. 26. McKenzie should consider Robinson as an eventual replacement for Penn or a starting right tackle. Ideally, general managers prefer first-rounders to make an immediate impact.
However, there's great value in securing quarterback Derek Carr's blind side after Penn’s contract expires. If the Alabama offensive tackle lacks the quickness to line up against the best edge-rushers on the left, he'd quickly climb through the ranks as a top right tackle in the league. The Raiders love size on the offensive line, and Robinson brings raw power at 6'6" and 322 pounds.
No. 6: Tre'Davious White, CB, LSU
Slot cornerback could easily become a weak spot on defense. Offensive coordinators have embraced spread offenses, allowing the quarterback to target options at various spots across the field. Slot receivers have reached a value unforeseeable decades ago.
As a result, defenses must adjust with quality defensive backs to limit quick wideouts, starting receivers who can play in the slot, tight ends and running backs in these spread offensive schemes.
T.J. Carrie projects as the slot cornerback for the upcoming season. However, the overall secondary should be subject to change. The Raiders secondary has underperformed for two seasons under defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. The decision to hire John Pagano as the assistant head coach on defense may signal new wrinkles for the 2017 season.
Despite his size, 5'11" and 192 pounds, LSU's Tre'Davious White has the tools to play on the outside. White would have to earn his snaps on special teams as a rookie. For his second year, he'd fill Carrie's spot—if the veteran signs elsewhere—or replace a slower Sean Smith on the perimeter.
Smith shouldn’t be on the hot seat to lose his starting role, but it's worth noting the team doesn't owe him any dead money after the 2017 season, per Spotrac. If he underperforms, McKenzie can cut ties with him without any strings attached, leaving the coaching staff free to slide White into the starting lineup.
No. 5: Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
For those who watched the combine, Jabrill Peppers flashed as the ultimate athlete. A creative defensive mind should be able to effectively use him in a variety of ways. His unique gifts would certainly challenge the Raiders coaching staff.
At his core, Peppers tackles cleanly in the open field and shows short-area pass-coverage ability. He's the type of player who can line up in man coverage against tight ends or chase running backs after the catch. Though he hasn't played free safety, there's no doubt his speed and hands would allow him to perform the role on the professional level. However, his field discipline may come into question.
Peppers and Joseph playing on the back end at safety would be a sight to see for the Raiders. Head coach Jack Del Rio would rarely have to bark at either player about his tackling and leverage. The quick-footed defensive backs would be appropriate complements to David Amerson and Smith on the perimeter.
No. 4: Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
Colorado cornerback Chidobe Awuzie has surged up the CBSSports.com rankings. He started as a third-round prospect. Now he projects as a late first-round or early second-round pick. He may not be available late in the second round, which means the Raiders could trade back a few spots to acquire more draft picks or take him at No. 24.
Cornerback doesn't seem like a glaring need until opposing wide receivers burn the defender repeatedly. Again, Smith isn't in danger of losing his job right away. However, after two subpar seasons for the secondary, changes may start with the coaching staff, which trickle down to roster personnel decisions. Maybe it’s not a good idea to field two big-body starting cornerbacks who lack recovery speed.
Awuzie ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and tackles like a safety at 6' and 202 pounds. Unlike LSU's White, Awuzie's tackling ability would allow him to step into the slot position as a rookie. His size and ball skills provide upside as a perimeter defender. With clear starting potential, the Colorado product could eventually lead the Raiders' cornerback depth chart.
No. 3: Zach Cunningham, OLB, Vanderbilt
Oakland needs to acquire one Zach this offseason.
If Brown signs, Zach Cunningham should come off the Raiders' draft board. He ranks No. 3 on this list as an immediate starter with extensive experience at his position.
Cunningham's film shows some missed assignments, but it also displays 125 tackles and 16.5 for a loss during his senior season. The coaching staff would certainly work on his technique, but he's solid in pass coverage.
The Raiders can't afford to allow tight ends to gash their pass coverage for another season. In 2016, opposing tight ends averaged 7.6 receptions and 65.5 yards against the defense, per Football Outsiders. Cunningham would address the blind spot in short pass coverage and limit running backs catching out of the backfield.
Cunningham lists as the safest selection among the eight ideal prospects. In terms of potential, he doesn't have the highest ceiling, but his floor doesn't sink as low as a huge-bust candidate.
No. 2: Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama (Trade Up)
Here's where McKenzie can shock his fanbase. Last year, he joked about trading up for quarterback Connor Cook in the fourth round. He should seriously consider moving up for inside linebacker Reuben Foster if the Alabama prospect falls outside the top 10.
We all know McKenzie treats his draft picks like precious baseball cards still wrapped in gold seals, but he could acquire a long-term centerpiece who changes the defense.
At linebacker, Foster brings the mindset, dedication and playing style to elevate the defense as soon as Week 1 of the 2017 season, per NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein:
Alpha mentality with ferocious hitting style that puts offensive skill positions on alert. Outstanding athlete with springy, reactive feet. Lost 15 pounds in off-season, which gave him more speed and explosiveness. Loose hips and long stride allows him to open and chase immediately. Has elite sideline-to-sideline range.
There's too much upside to pass up, especially when the player fills a priority position of need. The incident at the combine may frighten some general managers, but Foster apologized in a letter to all 32 NFL teams and seems ready to move on, per NFL Media's Chase Goodbread.
Prior to the incident, Foster generated buzz as a potential San Francisco 49ers target at the No. 2 overall spot, per Buffalo News reporter Vic Carucci. If that type of player falls past No. 10, McKenzie should work the phones to add a long-term fixture to his defense, which lacks nastiness within the front seven.
No. 1: Caleb Brantley, DT, Florida
Defensive tackle Caleb Brantley's sack numbers don't look impressive, but his film displays a player who constantly pressures the pocket. On the professional level, he can influence several throws, which may turn into interceptions or incompletions just because the quarterback felt the need to throw earlier than expected.
Similar to Cunningham, there's less bust potential in Brantley than other ideal picks. If he doesn't develop as a pass-rusher, the Raiders would still acquire a decent run defender who can play within a four-man front or fill two gaps.
Zierlein compared Brantley to Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, which sets the bar unreasonably high. Nonetheless, a player who's 75 percent of the three-time Pro Bowler would help the Raiders' leaky defensive line in the upcoming season.
With a late pick in order, the Raiders can't count on early second-round picks remaining available after their first selection. Some teams may have a Day 2 grade on Brantley, but Oakland could certainly use an upgrade at defensive tackle.
Last year, Joseph graded as a second-round prospect, but McKenzie opted to pick him up in the opening round to address a need at safety. The same scenario could play out for Brantley on April 27.