With NFL free agency nearly over and the NFL draft squarely in the rear-view mirror for the Oakland Raiders, the time to look forward is now.
Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has done a commendable job at stockpiling talent at key positions while not overplaying his hand this offseason, but the team still has some vital questions to answer this season.
Here are the four biggest causes for concern heading into 2017 for Oakland.
No. 4, No help in the middle of the defense
McKenzie didn’t do a lot this offseason to address the team’s concern at inside linebacker, only signing former Miami Dolphins inside linebacker Jelani Jenkins and drafting Marquel Lee in the fifth round.
This is somewhat confusing after McKenzie allowed team leader in tackles Malcolm Smith to walk in free agency and has still not entertained re-signing Perry Riley at the time of publication despite his posting a top-20 season at his position in 2016.
Unfortunately, Jenkins posted the worst Pro Football Focus grade of all qualifying linebackers in the NFL last year (31.3), and Lee is expected to struggle in coverage as he’s known as a downhill linebacker primarily.
McKenzie also cut the team’s healthiest and most productive defensive tackle last season in Dan Williams, leaving yet another cavernous void to fill in the center of the team’s defense. The move was made to make salary cap room for Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, but the replacements McKenzie have brought in again are suspect.
After leaping much higher than they had to in order to draft a fifth-round prospect in Raiders rookie defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, McKenzie did snare a good value selection in the seventh round in DT Treyvon Hester.
However, relying on two rookies and the services of players such as Raiders defensive tackles Darius Latham and Justin Ellis (each of whom struggled mightily last season) seems risky at best.
When that fact is partnered with the massive question marks at middle linebacker, Oakland may find themselves in quite the conundrum up the middle of their defense in 2017.
Los Angeles Chargers: Interior of offensive and defensive line
The Chargers are terrible at tackle and guard on the defensive line. Their defensive tackles, Corey Liuget and Damion Square, have PFF player grades of 49.3 and 61.4, respectively. Liuget’s rating is considered poor, and Square’s is below average.
The guard position is as bad or worse, with Orlando Franklin (47.5) and Spencer Pulley (45.8). There might not be a worse combination in the NFL.
The Chargers need to look for help via the draft and free agency.
Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is still available on the free-agent market; he’s a dominant player on the inside, as long as he can stay healthy. It’s late in free agency, and he’s still looking for a team, so the Chargers should be able to get him for pennies on the dollar. He’d go well with defensive end Joey Bosa and linebacker Melvin Ingram.
On offense, the Chargers should look to the draft. They could use their number seven pick on a guard, but it’d make sense to take one later in the draft.
Guard Isaac Asiata, from Utah, would be a great fit. He has flown under the radar, so he should be available early in the third round. He has a big frame, is athletic, and has the ability to move the line of scrimmage. He’d be a good addition to help running back Melvin Gordon improve on his impressive 2016 campaign.
These moves won’t completely solve the Chargers problems, but they’ll definitely help.
Oakland Raiders: Help Inside
There’s not much the Oakland Raiders can do in free agency to make an impact. The dream is to land cornerback Richard Sherman in a trade with the Seahawks, but that’s unlikely, despite what the odds say.
The Raiders need to resign MLB Perry Riley Jr. (84.8 PFF grade). His grade might be a little inflated, but he’s a solid player at a very weak position for Oakland. They don’t have much choice but to re-sign him.
The Raiders still need a lot of help in the middle of the defensive line, too. Oakland, like Los Angeles, could use Johnathan Hankins at defensive tackle. Hankins might be out of general manager Reggie McKenzie’s price range, though, so the Raiders should look to the draft.
With a big frame and elite athleticism, Malik McDowell from Michigan State would be a great fit for Oakland. He’s great against the run and an even better pass rusher. With DT Mario Edwards Jr. getting healthy, adding McDowell would give the Raiders one of the top pass-rushing duos in the league. The inside push from Edwards Jr. and McDowell would do wonders for linebackers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
Denver Broncos: Protect the QB
The Denver Broncos need help at the quarterback position. QB Trevor Siemian isn’t going to propel Denver to a bunch of wins himself, but he’s not a liability either. With a strong defense, like the 2015 Broncos’, there’s a chance for them to go deep in the playoffs.
Quarterback Paxton Lynch has potential, but he won’t realize it this season. A dream scenario would be signing Tony Romo, but that looks pretty unlikely at this point. Without a lot of outside options at QB, the Broncos need to look elsewhere for help.
Too build for the future once they find an elite quarterback, the Broncos are going to need to protect whoever’s calling the plays; Denver lacked talent at both tackle positions last season. They just signed former Oakland Raiders tackle Menelik Watson, a solid addition to the right side. There’s still a major need on the left side, though.
Their projected starting left tackle, Donald Stephenson, had a PFF grade of 28 last season, close to the lowest in the league. Denver should look to take a left tackle in the first round of the draft. A lot of media analysts like tackle Garret Bolles from Utah. His frame lacks a little at the moment, which could hurt in the run game, but he’s expected to fill out as his career in the NFL progresses.
Bolles would solidify the left tackle position and help whoever is under center.
Kansas City Chiefs: Help for Alex Smith
Quarterback Alex Smith is a good, but not elite player. For the Kansas City Chiefs to go further in the playoffs, they need to provide as many weapons for Smith as possible.
They have a game changer and deep threat in WR Tyreek Hill, and another deep threat in WR Jeremy Maclin. They need a bigger target, though, who can consistently move the chains and score touchdowns. Tight end Travis Kelce is great, but having a chain mover at wide receiver is important.
The Chiefs pick late at no. 27 in the first round, but WR Corey Davis should be available when they pick. He has a big frame at 6-3, 209 pounds, and, according to his NFL network draft profile, is considered a “touchdown juggernaut”. His size and skilled route running will make him a reliable target for the future.
Kansas City has always struggled to throw touchdowns and to complete passes to their wide receivers in general.
Davis would be the perfect complement to Maclin and Hill.