3 draft needs for the Oakland Raiders
Were it not for the late-season injury to quarterback Derek Carr that ruined their season, we would perhaps be talking about the Oakland Raiders as the defending Super Bowl champions right now. With rookie Connor Cook at the helm, they lost to the Houston Texans on Wild Card weekend though, so the focus is on what they need to do to get back to the playoffs and go further in 2017. Their roster doesn’t have a lot of holes left to fill, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have some work to do if they want to make themselves a serious Super Bowl contender this coming year.
Need: Running back
The Raiders lost their top running back in free agency, with Latavius Murray joining the Minnesota Vikings as a replacement for Adrian Peterson. Thankfully, this is an impressive running back class, and they will have options available to them both early and not-so-early on draft weekend. With a wide variety of skill sets available at the position, the Raiders could look to grab an every-down back, or just a runner who can dominate on first and second down.
Early-round target: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
If the Raiders are looking for that do-it-all running back, they should be focussed on Stanford’s McCaffrey. A player who can dominate on all four downs, he would be a receiving option, both out of the backfield and when moved into the slot, straight away in the NFL. On top of that he was impressive as a runner, forcing a missed tackle once every 5.1 carries over the past two seasons. Topping it all off, he is an elite punt returner, averaging 11.9 yards per punt return over the past three seasons.
Mid- or late-round target: James Conner, Pittsburgh
One of the feel-good stories in college football in 2016, Conner was back on the field last year after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015. Something that’s being somewhat forgotten though is just how good Conner was before a torn MCL ended his 2015 season and the subsequent discovery of his illness. Back in 2014, Conner averaged a missed tackle forced once every 3.7 carries and, looking close to being back to his best, from Week 7 of the 2016 season onward he averaged a missed tackle forced once every 4.3 carries.
Need: Interior defender
While Dan Williams is a solid nose tackle, with a PFF grade of 74.4 last year, the Raiders are still lacking in overall quality on the interior of their defensive line. Mario Edwards Jr. was not at the level we saw him at as a rookie in 2015 when he returned from a hip injury for the final three games of the 2016 season, while rookie Jihad Ward (37.7) didn’t impress in his first year in the NFL.
Early-round target: Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA
Previous injuries may wind up pushing Vanderdoes down the draft board for a lot of teams in 2017, but when healthy he is absolutely a top-two-round talent. His quick hands help him to defeat blocks, allowing him to be an effective run defender, with 16 tackles resulting in a defensive stop last year. He was a solid contributor as a pass rusher too, with three sacks, three hits and 18 hurries on 332 pass rushing attempts last season, and his versatility along the defensive line makes him an attractive option in the draft.
Mid- or late-round target: Tanzel Smart, Tulane
The fact that he is somewhat undersized at 6-feet-1 means that Smart is being a bit overlooked during the draft process, but that fact that he impressed as much as he did in 2016, and then again both during the Senior Bowl game, and during drills at practice through the week, makes him an attractive option in the draft. With 47 total pressures in 2016, he could be an ideal addition to the Raiders interior defensive line rotation.
Need: Inside linebacker
With a PFF grade of 84.8, Perry Riley had the highest-graded season of his career in his first year in Oakland, finishing the year as the 15th-highest-graded linebacker in the NFL. He struggled in the three years previous however, so excitement should be somewhat tempered until he can repeat that form this year. Regardless, with Cory James (44.3) next to him, the Raiders need to improve at the position this offseason.
Early round target: Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt
If they opted to use their first-round pick on a linebacker, it’s likely that Cunningham would be the guy. He has the size and athleticism to be a big contributor against the run and in coverage, and ranked fourth among all FBS inside linebackers with a 14.7 run stop percentage mark in 2016. He still needs to improve as a tackler, with 21 missed tackles last year, but his overall ability and his combination of size and athleticism will make teams believe that they can improve him as a tackler and get a complete linebacker.
Mid- or late-round target: Blair Brown, Ohio
Brown had a 15.5-percent-run stop mark in 2016, which ranked third among FBS inside linebackers who played at least 275 snaps in run defense. He played 766 snaps last year, after playing no more than 476 in each of the previous two seasons, and has improved every season at Ohio. The biggest improvement to his game was in coverage with his yards per catch allowed dropping from 7.6 in 2015 to 6.2 in 2016. While he might not be considered the most exciting prospect in the draft this year, as a player who can be picked up on the third day of the draft, he could wind up being a steal.