The Oakland Raiders are headed for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, like the other 32 franchises. What prospects will the team be looking closely at when the combine begins on Feb. 28?
After the top prospects showcase their athleticism for NFL scouts and executives at the combine, the Raiders front office will turn their sights towards free agency on March 7. Teams can open negotiations at that time, despite not making signings official until March 9. How will the Raiders spend their more than $43 million in cap space, per Over the Cap?
Both of the answers to these questions begin by looking at the team’s offseason needs. What areas can Oakland improve, after making the playoffs in 2016?
Check out the rankings below.
Over the past two seasons, the Raiders have passed on prominent defensive tackles like Leonard Williams (2015) and Robert Nkemdiche (2016) in the NFL Draft.
Granted, Oakland did have solid role players like Justin Ellis and Stacy McGee at the position. They also have 2015 free agency acquisition Dan Williams as the headliner at that position. Plus, they drafted Jihad Ward and Mario Edwards, Jr. in the past two drafts. Both defensive ends have the ability to slide inside to tackle.
None of the players mentioned above lived up to their potential last season. This is evident by their head coach saying the position group did not get enough push inside after the season’s conclusion, per The Mercury News.
Regardless, the Raiders need a game changer at that position. Oakland finished last in sacks. They also allowed 4.4 yards average on run plays.
This offseason, the Raiders must address the position via a high draft pick or marquee free agent. Getting penetration from that position helps out the entire defense.
Catching a trend here? The Raiders need improvement in the middle of their defense at the second level too.
The Raiders cycled through multiple starting insider linebackers last season. Cory James and Ben Heeney showed some glimpses of solid play, but both are too inconsistent to be starting linebackers for an NFL playoff team.
Additionally, Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley, Jr. also started games last season. Both players are seasoned veterans, but they took their lumps in 2016 too. Pro Football Focus gave Smith a 49.7 grade and Riley an 84.8 grade. Despite being on the right side of age 30, both players were also banged up last year. Not to mention, Riley and Smith are also slated to hit the open free agency market on March 8.
Either player could get re-signed to provide a stop-gap solution for Oakland. However, the Raiders could do well to sign or draft an impact middle linebacker that could secure the position for years to come. The team has not done that since they drafted Rolando McClain at No. 8 in 2010. McClain ended up only lasting a few seasons with the Raiders.
Nonetheless, McKenzie, Del Rio, and defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr. all played linebacker in the NFL. Thus, they know what playing the position entails. Expect them to finally place a premium on that position in free agency or the draft.
The 2013 second round pick, Menelik Watson, has only played in 27 games since being drafted, mostly due to injuries. Watson is slated to become a free agent in a few days.
Plus, 2014 free agency acquisition Austin Howard has been a mixed bag of injuries and inconsistencies at that position too.
This NFL draft class is low on premium offensive tackles. Hence, McKenzie and Del Rio should take a hard look at the position during the combine. They might find a gem in the late rounds.
Otherwise, they may be forced to sign a veteran option. However, this free agency tackle class is not much better. It is like buying a used car, because you’re really just buying someone else’s problems.
The Silver and Black could also elect to stick with Howard or try to develop rookie Vadal Alexander. Alexander proved his worth as a blocking tight end and reserve last season, despite being a late draft pick.
Other Team Needs
The Oakland Raiders could also afford some depth at the cornerback, quarterback, running back, and wide receiver position. Luckily, guys like quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Amari Cooper, corner Sean Smith and running back DeAndre Washington are returning for another season.
Behind those key players, the Raiders may need to replace some depth pieces like corner D.J. Hayden, running back Latavius Murray, quarterback Matt McGloin, and receiver Seth Roberts. They are all slated to test the open market on March 7.
It should also be mentioned that any of these team needs could change depending on the Raiders’ next steps. They could re-sign some of their pending free agents to shore up their position needs. The Raiders could also cut additional players to create more salary cap space, which creates more of a void at any given position.
Stay tuned to see what the Raiders do to address their team needs at the NFL combine and during free agency.
[Featured Image by Jack Dempsey/AP Images]