As NFL training camps begin to ramp up and with the Oakland Raiders’ less than one week away, 90 players become 53 in one fell swoop in 2017.
While it’s likely that Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie still has a couple more moves up his sleeve before this roster is fully fleshed out, a final 53-man roster projection before camp seemed in order.
QB (3): Derek Carr, EJ Manuel, Connor Cook
Here come’s the spoiler alert — Derek Carr is going to be the starting quarterback for Oakland in 2017.
The Oakland Raiders won 12 games last season, but it was not thanks to their No. 26 ranked defense. They took the bend don’t break mantra seriously often waiting for Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack to save the day by forcing a turnover.
However, they will need to improve mightily on defense this season if they want to build on last year’s success.
Here are the 11 most important Raiders on defense for 2017.
No. 11 – DT Eddie Vanderdoes
Oakland struggled last season getting any interior pressure on opposing quarterbacks as they racked up just three sacks from the defensive tackle position.
Now, the two players who had those three sacks, former Raiders defensive tackles Dan Williams and Stacy McGee, are now gone.
With that being said, Raiders defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who has shown to have an inside push, will need to be effective to help improve upon last year’s weakness in the middle.
One must not look at the PFF grade and think the position is under lock, however, Smith was not as bad as people thought last season.
As long as Oakland can find a productive nickel corner to matchup with the smaller and quicker players, then Smith will be just fine serving a significant role in the defense.
No. 9 – DE Mario Edwards Jr.
Without Raiders linebacker Aldon Smith, Oakland doesn’t have an elite pass rusher to compliment Mack. Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin is solid, but he isn’t a dominant pass rushing force.
Therefore, Oakland would benefit mightily if Raiders defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. has a bounceback season. He can help stop the run early, but, most importantly, can assist the pass rush by sliding inside to free the outside up for Mack and Irvin.
No. 8 – S Reggie Nelson
Raiders safety Reggie Nelson had another impressive season hauling in five interceptions.
With Oakland’s defense expected to be improved, but not elite, Nelson’s presence will tell me very important. They will need him to continue to force turnovers and also be a veteran presence with a large number of defensive rookies coming into the fold in 2017.
No. 7 – LB Bruce Irvin
Currently, Irvin is the second best pass rusher on the team behind Mack and is vital to the team’s success.
The more pressure he creates, the harder it is for teams to double and triple-team Mack. The less double teams Mack has to face, the easier it will be for Mack to wreak havoc.
No. 6 – S Karl Joseph
Oakland’s defense struggled against the run last year ranking No. 23 in the NFL.
With no middle linebacker replacement in sight, there could be a lot of free running backs hitting the second level in 2017. Therefore, it is essential for Raiders safety Karl Joseph to be the hard hitting and sure-tackling safety that he is known to be.
If he isn’t, then a lot of running backs will be taken their second-level runs to the end zone.
The Oakland Raiders ranked No. 23 in rushing yards against last season and had the No. 26 ranked defense overall. A primary reason for the lack of success was the porous play in the middle of Oakland’s defense.
Surprisingly, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie did not draft or sign any starting-caliber middle linebackers leaving a wide open position battle between Raiders linebackers Marquel Lee, Ben Heeney, Jelani Jenkins and Cory James.
LB Cory James
James played in all 16 games last season and started in five, but his play was often sub-par. He graded out as the No. 77 best linebacker with a Pro Football Focus player grade of 44.3, not too much to be excited about.
However, James has great speed for a linebacker and can cover sideline to sideline, but is very small at just 6-foot-1, 221 pounds.
Currently, he is projected to be the starting linebacker, but he will need to live in the weight room this offseason for him to make a notable impact this fall.
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LB Jelani Jenkins
Jenkins was brought in this offseason after having a horrible season in Miami racking up the second worst PFF player grade amongst any linebacker (31.4).
It was definitely a down season for Jenkins, but the numbers are so weak that is hard to imagine him making any real push for a starting position.
He will have to find his niche playing special teams and rotationally on defense.
Lee was just drafted by Oakland in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft and has immediately been thrown into this competition.
The former Demon Deacon has the prototypical size at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds and has great college production with 105 tackles (20 for loss) and 7.5 sacks in his last season at Wake Forest.
He has everything one would look for, but it is hard to win the starting middle linebacker position without having an in-depth understanding of the defense, which is strenuous for any rookie.
Therefore, Lee will most likely not be the starter Day 1 but will earn more playing time as the year progresses.
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LB Ben Heeney
Heeney had a productive rookie season (71.4 PFF player grade) totaling 38 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Unfortunately, Heeney missed most of last season making it hard to gauge if he has improved since his rookie year.
Nonetheless, he is a smaller linebacker at only 6-feet, 230 pounds and lacks top-end speed making it hard to ever picture him as a starting linebacker even with the lack of talent currently in Oakland.
Heeney might push James or Lee for the starting position, but his physical tools may inhibit him from ever becoming the every down starter.
The real grind of the NFL season began Tuesday with the arrival of mandatory minicamp, as Oakland Raiders coaches got their first chance to truly assess their players.
Here is a look at the three Raiders with the most to prove at 2017 minicamp.
No. 3, Clive Walford
Raiders tight end Clive Walford has been a disappointment since his ATV crash last year.
Walford had a rookie season filled with promise, but plateaued in year two amassing only 30 more receiving yards while notching the same number of touchdowns (3) than the year prior.
It is not known whether or not Walford’s woes were related to his injury, but given his age he should still have the ability to develop into an elite red-zone weapon for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
This is a pivotal minicamp for Walford to demonstrate that he has improved in areas of need. Should he fail to impress, he could fall from the No. 1 TE in Oakland, all the way down to No. 3 behind new Raiders tight end Jared Cook and Lee Smith.
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No. 2, Marquel Lee
Raiders rookie linebacker Marquel Lee is expected to be given the task of filling Oakland’s biggest positional need this season. Lee will be expected to compete for the starting inside linebacker position that was previously occupied by former Raiders linebacker Perry Riley Jr.
Despite the Raiders publicly proclaiming LB as a weakness, they waited until the fifth round to address the void.
Lee is expected to battle Raiders linebacker Cory James for the starting position, but James lacks the prototypical size to be a starting inside linebacker.
Therefore, Lee is logically the best choice to play the position.
However, inside linebacker is the quarterback of the defense and requires strong knowledge and instincts, usually tough for a rookie player to acquire. With that being said, Lee must take full advantage of the offseason activities to prepare himself to take over the role.
If he doesn’t prove he is capable, then Raiders coach Jack Del Rio will never feel comfortable turning the defense over to Lee.
[irp posts=”10932″ name=”Raiders’ Khalil Mack continues to shatter PFF’s marks”]
No. 1, Sean Smith
Raiders cornerback Sean Smith might have been the most criticized Oakland player last season.
He signed a monster four-year $38 million deal last offseason, yet seemed to get burned deep at least once a week in 2016.
The Raiders understood that the corner position was a major weakness and drafted Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley. If Conley transitions nicely and can play on the outside, then Smith could easily be expendable if his worth isn’t shown.
Oakland already has reliable nickel corner TJ Carrie and outside cornerback David Amerson.
Therefore, Smith will need to show the staff that he is worth the millions of dollars that they paid him last year. If he doesn’t, he could easily be cut in the near future.
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Just one day into rookie minicamp, Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquel Lee already has to be feeling some pressure that most fifth round selections aren’t accustom to.
Lee is expected to work at the middle linebacker position for a defense that ranked No. 26 overall in the NFL last year. Though Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie did not sign anyone via free agency before selecting Lee, coach Jack Del Rio has already been on record that the team is still looking for linebackers.
Interestingly, Lee will also be wearing the same number that Raiders coach Jack Del Rio sported during his NFL playing days, and did admit to the pressure he will face during camp.
After whiffing on all of his mock drafts for the Silver and Black, ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. gave Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie a ‘C’ draft grade for his efforts in Philadelphia this weekend.
To begin his dissent from McKenzie’s draft class, Kiper began in on Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley.
“This is obviously a really difficult class to be assessing, given all that was swirling around Gareon Conley going into the draft, and without much time to gather information. I really just need to remove him from the equation here. On ability, he’s a top-15 player, and the Raiders obviously feel comfortable with what they know of his off-field situation. But that situation really transcends a discussion of player value. I do think the Raiders could have taken a few other players in that spot and felt good about it.”
Conley has no charges filed against him, multiple witness statements which back his position that he did not assault the alleged female victim and a passed polygraph test that he astutely sent to the Raiders (along with all other NFL teams) on draft day.
Shortly thereafter, Kiper goes on to critique Oakland’s second and third round selections, stating that former Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu’s tape “doesn’t quite live up” to his combine marks and calling former UCLA nose tackle Eddie Vanderdoes a “puzzler” in the third round.
What’s confusing about the first part of Kiper’s analysis is the fact that if Melifonwu “lived up to his combine marks” on tape, he would arguably be the best draft prospect in the past decade.
In respect to Kiper’s position on Vanderdoes, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio thinks his best football is still ahead of him. Moreover, Vanderdoes’ freshman tape was some of the best in the country prior to his ACL tear in 2015.
Kiper wraps up his analysis of McKenzie’s later selections saying former Florida offensive tackle David Sharpe will provide depth along the offensive line, calling former Wake Forest linebacker Marquel Lee “a bit of a reach,” stating that former Washington State safety Shalom Luani has “a chance to stick” before circling back to Conley.
“The Conley situation clouds this, and I would have liked for them to get an inside linebacker,” Kiper concluded.
It did come down to a middle linebacker in former Vanderbilt standout Zach Cunningham and Melifonwu at pick No. 56, however, Kiper completely misunderstood the point of the draft — which was to stop a defense that gave up 60 explosive plays one year ago from being exposed again.
As such, Melifonwu gives Oakland a true tight-end stopper, Lee offers a very rangy and athletic interior linebacker presence and McKenzie keenly attacked this draft by stacking a secondary and both lines at vital positions.
Given that Kiper has so many draft classes to analyze, perhaps he wasn’t afforded the time to understand the context of McKenzie’s selections. A fact that means we give his draft grade of C for the Raiders, a big fat F.