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Oakland Raiders training camp report on the defense

It’s far from a secret that the Oakland Raiders need to dramatically improve on defense this year. They were ranked No. 23 against the run, No. 24 against the pass and No. 26 overall last year. The Raiders defense gave up the second most running plays of 40 yards or more with five in 2016.

They gave up the most passing plays of 20 yards or more (61) and 40 yards or more (16). Being last in the league in sacks because they didn’t have a good interior pass rush sure didn’t help either. That combined with the play in the Raiders’ secondary led to all the bombs that were dropped on them.

Big, athletic TEs like Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs also did damage to that secondary. And using low draft picks on ILBs to help stop the run hasn’t worked for the Raiders so far. So we can easily to see that it’s not just one area but quite a few areas that defense needs to improve on.

They badly needed to put some parts around reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack this offseason. So GM Reggie McKenzie did just that in a deep defensive draft to choose from. For the Raiders to contend this year, a few of his draft picks need to come in and make huge, immediate impacts.

The Raiders also need players to come back healthy and a few others to come back from a bad 2016. Training camp is obviously Step 1 toward taking all these parts and putting them together. So I have kept my ear to the Raider Nation streets to see how these players on that defense look these days.

Interior D-line

Mack is going to be Mack but for the Raiders to have a decent pass rush, they need an interior push. Part of the remedy for that is the Raiders getting an absolute steal in Eddie Vanderdoes in the third round. He missed the offseason program because of school but it still looks like he’ll have an immediate impact.

Levi Damien reported via Twitter that Vanderdoes is already starting to run with the starters. DC Norton Jr. said at Monday’s press conference. “He’s been a student of the game. I think he understands how to get lined up. He understands the blocking schemes. He understands how to get on edges.”

Assistant HC John Pagano prefers explosive, penetrating NTs to space-eaters in his defense. So Vanderdoes could possibly play NT in the 3-4 and three-technique in the 4-3 and in sub-packages. He’s already showing his pass rush ability as he had a would-be sack of QB Derek Carr in practice Friday.

DE/DT Mario Edwards Jr. is a player the Raiders need to come back from injuries in 2016. Mack had more sacks in 2015 with Edwards than without him in 2016 because he saw one-on-one blocking. Edwards is a terror when healthy so he will often prevent teams from doubling and tripling Mack.

Tough against the run and pass, Edwards is a base DE in the 4-3, a DE in the 3-4 and a DT in sub-packages. He started camp with a hamstring strain but but made his way back unto the field on Thursday. So the Raiders interior D-line looks pretty good right now and their pass rush will be a big help to the secondary.

The Secondary

The better pass rush will help but they need to get better at covering big, athletic TE’s and fast WRs. It would be nice to see highly-paid 2016 free agent signee Sean Smith come back strong in 2017. But it doesn’t look good now as multiple reporters at training camp have reported that he’s getting beat deep.

Meanwhile, David Amerson has been solid with Damien reporting he intercepted QB Derek Carr Thursday.  It’s a good thing we now know first-round pick Gareon Conley won’t be charged with rape. This makes the top-10 talent that fell to No. 24 overall because of his situation officially a steal..

On 95.7 the Game, Raiders broadcaster Greg Papa opined that Conley is already the best Raiders CB. He has yet to show any of that as he has been out with shin splints in training camp so far. But Conley but could return to practice any day now and if Smith doesn’t improve, Conley could take his spot.

For the matchup nightmare TEs the Raiders picked SS Obi Melifonwu, another steal, in Round 2. At 6’4″, 225 pounds with CB skills, 4.4 speed and long arms, he was made to cover today’s TEs. Right now, he’s working in sub-packages as a hybrid Nickel-LB but should take over at SS at some point.

That way, 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph, who’s showing out now that he’s healthy, can move to FS. All reports out of training camp have him looking like the guy he was at West Virginia. At Monday’s press conference, Norton spoke of Joseph “making checks, disguising, blitzing, covering and hitting.”

ILB

Most of Raider Nation believes in what the Raiders have done this offseason about their D-line and secondary. But there are still plenty of doubts about what they’ve done about the ILB position. Jelani Jenkins is actually a good free agent pickup to play the WILL if he can stay healthy this season.

After not practicing the first few days if camp, Jenkins made his way to the practice field Friday. Much of Raider Nation also underestimates Marquel Lee at MIKE because he’s a fifth-round pick. But according to all the stats and analytics, he’s on par with the ILBs taken in the first two rounds.

Hassan Reddick, Reuben Foster, Jarrad Davis, Zach Cunningham and Raekwon McMillan went in the first two rounds. And according to Pro Football Focus, only Foster and Cunningham had better run-stop percentages. Lee, who doesn’t miss tackles often, also had better tackling efficiency than the early-drafted ILBs.

While Lee had seven sacks, great for an ILB, only Davis and McMillan had better pass rush analytics. So Lee could be have simply slipped through the cracks in this year’s deep defensive draft class. And it definitely looks that way a few days into camp as he is starting to look like the starter.

Lee has impressed the media, coaches and players in camp so far with Norton to call him “a natural.” It’s been a long time since the Raiders have had a regulator in the middle and Lee looks the part. If this continues, the Raiders have yet another steal in this draft and can finally stop the run among other things.

Bottom Line

Of course, many of the youngsters the Raiders need to play well have yet to prove themselves. Training camp is all we can go on right now and the youngsters that are participating look good. Hopefully, Raider Nation will get a chance to see Conley and more of Melifonwu in the coming days.

Smith getting demoted to second team is a sign that the Raiders really need Conley to perform well. Vanderdoes and Lee already look like clear upgrades over what was at their positions last year. This group of talented rookies just might have an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate among them.

It’s not likely that any of them make All-Pro this year but they really don’t have to do that. They just need to be upgrades over what the Raiders had at their respective positions last year. And the fact that so many of them taking starter’s reps to replace those guys indicates they’re doing that.

So all the Raiders need with this rookie class is for Jenkins and Edwards to stay healthy and they will improve.

And remember, that’s a 12-4 team from last year improving!