After a two-year “deconstruction phase,” Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie started rebuilding. And it all started with the 2014 draft class, one the best if not the best in the team’s history. They got dominant EDGE Khalil Mack in Round 1 and franchise QB Derek Carr in Round 2.
In Year 3, when you find out what draft picks are, Mack was the DPOY and Carr was an MVP candidate. Finding two players of that caliber in the first two rounds of the same draft is amazing enough. Then there’s, Gabe Jackson, (Round 3) an emerging dominant OG and starting NT Justin Ellis (Round 4).
A team does well to find two to three starters in a class and the Raiders found four that year. So we can obviously see that today’s Oakland Raiders are built around their draft class of 2014. The Raiders drafted pretty well in the ensuing years too and have since become a free agent destination.
So they have built one of the most if not the most explosive offenses in the NFL around Carr. So in the deepest defensive draft in recent memory, the Raiders built a solid defense around Mack. The 2017 draft class looks the best since 2014 and could be the class the puts the team over the top.
It all starts with CB Gareon Conley, a top-10 talent that was there for the Raiders at No. 24 overall. The teams that picked before them refrained because of the uncertainty of his rape accusations. He officially became a steal last week when a grand jury decided not to turn those accusations into charges.
The Raiders signed Sean Smith in 2016 to be a shutdown CB but he struggled with fast, shifty WRs. So he gave up a lot of deep balls, leading to the Raiders giving up the most completions over 20 and 40 yards. Smith’s struggles have continued into camp this year as he has been demoted to second team.
So Conley, who has the fluid hips, feet and speed to stay with such WRs, is what the doctor ordered. He was a shutdown CB at Ohio State last year, allowing a QB rating of just 14 into his coverage. He also has the size and length at 6’1″, 200 pounds with 33-inch long arms as well as the instincts for zone.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to show his versatility in training camp yet because of shin-splints. There are reports out of camp say that Conley should be able to start practicing any day. When he does, he’ll eventually join David Amerson, who’s rebounding from an average 2016 after a great 2015, as a starter.
The Raiders have also had plenty of trouble in recent years with the big, tall, athletic TEs of today. Guys like 6’6″, 255-pound Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs have given them problems. They’re way too fast to try to cover them with a LB and way too big to try to cover them with a CB.
But at 6’4″, 225 pounds, 4.4 40 speed and CB coverage skills, second-round SS Obi Melifonwu is perfect for it. Melifonwu started to get noticed after showing he could cover WRs at the Senior Bowl. He was projected to go in the first round shortly after but being an unknown before that cost him.
So he was available to the Raiders at the bottom of the second round, which was an absolute steal. Many compare him to Kam Chancellor, who has the same skill set but has different strengths. They both play in the box well and cover TEs bot Chancellor is more physical while Melifonwu is more athletic.
The most exciting of the player of this draft class so far has been third-round pick Eddie Vanderdoes. That’s not hard to be when most everyone drafted ahead of him has been out with injuries. But at the same time, Vanderdoes has looked like a top-10 pick with the way he’s balling in camp.
The top-5 high school recruit actually should have been a top-10 draft pick but injuries derailed that. So the Raiders were able to snatch him up in the third round for another draft steal. And he’s showing it right away as he has gotten to QB Derek Carr on the likes of OG Kelechi Osemele.
The Raiders are badly in need of interior pass rushing to help EDGEs Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin out. They also need more stoutness against the run inside and it looks like Vanderdoes will provide that. Raider Nation will be happy to have him as a 4-3 three-technique and a 3-4 DE in 2017.
The Raiders defense hasn’t been able to stop the run long time and ILB has been a problem for them. Ever since Rolando McClain turned out to be Rolando McClain, the Raiders have had no luck. They’ve tried every year with late-round picks to address the position but have gotten late-round results.
But since the draft was so deep on defense this year, the Raiders were able to strike gold in the later rounds. Fifth-round pick Marquel Lee performed just as well against the run as the LBs picked in the first two rounds in college. The questions were about his coverage skills since he didn’t do much of that in his Cover-1 robber defense.
The Raiders run plenty of that Cover-1 Robber too but they were able to see he had coverage skills at the combine. So they picked him and he has come in and taken over the defensive huddle. He’s having a solid training camp to get his starting spot, giving the Raiders another steal at a position of need.
The Raiders have built the team around the 2014 draft class and the 2017 class could be the finisher. As of right now, most of the media has them as the biggest threat to the New England Patriots. And with the draft class they just added, you can make a case that the Raiders are built to beat them.
If you look at the players they drafted on the defensive side of the ball, they were all underdrafted. Either an injury here, an unknown there or being plain underrated cost these guys in the draft. But it was natural for all the above to happen in this year’s draft because of all the defensive players in it.
The Raiders were fortunate to go into such a draft with a great offense, needing to improve the defense. The only problem now is health as Conley has yet to practice and Melifonwu was out awhile. But they aren’t serious injuries while Vanderdoes and Lee have already taken starting spots.
Once the whole defense comes together, the unit will be and the Raiders will have the class of 2017 to thank for it!