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Raiders have questions, we’ve got answers: Dline

In the last installment, the focus was on the answers for the Oline — so it only stands to reason that this week we focus on the Dline. We have all heard time and time again through the years that “games are won and lost in the trenches.” It is no coincidence that, every year, that is the area where the Raiders need the most help.

While Superbowl teams continue to prove that a good pass rush and stopping the run are the keys to winning consistently, Al Davis never seems to get that message. All I see happening is overpaying for mediocrity, picking up busts from the scrapheap, and thinking, “I’m so much smarter than the other NFL minds that I can find a good lineman in the lower rounds or as an undrafted free agent.” It seems to me that if you can’t find a low risk, high reward player in free agency then don’t bother spending the money. The draft would be a better way to go. So let’s tackle this problem head on.

BJ Raji, DT, Boston College

B.J. Raji will easily be the most coveted nose tackle in this draft and is a legitimate first round selection. If the Raiders don’t take him, the Chargers very well could. Which means that two years in a row, AFC West rivals will have acquired the best DT in the draft while the Raiders continue to be one of the worst run defenses in the league year after year. In fact, while our division foes have been bulking up their lines every year in the draft, the Raiders just continue to go with the sexy pick. I don’t think they can afford to let that happen again. Raji is a nose tackle which is not sexy and is just what this team needs.

The Raiders need someone who can be a presence in the middle, which is why Raji would be a great fit. He can clog running lanes but also slip through and apply pressure (as evidenced by his 7 sacks last season).

Raji played himself into the rotation as a freshman, playing a key reserve role for the Eagles. As a sophomore, he had 27 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Raji continued to improve as a junior, this time finishing the season with 23 tackles, 8.5 for loss, and two sacks. Big things were expected in 2007, but Raji was academically ineligible and missed the season. As a senior he had a huge season, tallying career highs across the board with 37 tackles, 13 for loss, and seven sacks.

Raji is a wide body that is very tough to move off the line of scrimmage. He is built low to the ground but very wide and is excellent at clogging running lanes. He holds his ground at the point of attack and closing the gap when the back comes in his area. There is some surprising quickness in his game despite tipping the scales at 320 lbs. He comes off the snap extremely quick and has the ability to get into the backfield to disrupt the action.

In the Senior Bowl, there wasn’t a day of practice where Raji didn’t impress. He used leverage and his incredible lower body strength to dominate one-on-one drills with offensive linemen and translated that to the team portion of practice. Using a variety of rips, dips, and bull rushes, he managed to push his way into the pocket creating disruption on pass plays and forcing running backs to change direction early in the play. His marvelous week of practice didn’t translate into a disruptive game, but in the heavily emphasized practices, he came away the winner.

This is a weak year at the defensive tackle position and Raji is the top senior available and could hear his name called early in the first round when all is said and done. And let us not forget that Tom Cable was on the coaching staff for the Senior bowl and you can bet that what Raji did, did not go unnoticed. I think there is a good chance his next uniform could be Silver and Black and I would have no argument with that whatsoever.

Brian Orakpo, DE (OLB in 3-4) Texas

One of the top tier OT’s would have to be attractive to the Raiders, but they could opt for the pass rusher. Orakpo had a fine post season which could put him near the top of Al Davis’ wish list. 

He provides a boost to the defensive line with his ability to consistently apply pressure off the edge. “O-Sack-Po” is the consensus top-rated end, and his blend of speed, size, and athleticism earned him both the Lombardi Award (nation’s best lineman) and the Nagurski Trophy (nation’s top defensive player).

Backing up two NFL draft picks at defensive end limits your playing time, but Orakpo still managed to be a factor as a freshman for the Longhorns in 2005. He earned Freshman All America honors after finishing the season with 27 tackles, four for loss, and half a sack. He was again a reserve as a sophomore, but he still made his share of plays, tallying 26 tackles, six for loss, and 4.5 sacks in 2006. Orakpo finally got his chance to be a full time starter and he had a solid season. He missed four games with a knee injury, but had 37 tackles, nine for loss, and 5.5 sacks in eight starts. Orakpo had a tremendous senior season, totaling 40 tackles, 18 for loss, and 10.5 sacks despite missing a game due to a knee injury.

Orakpo has the talent to be a pass rushing force in the NFL. His natural athleticism is obvious immediately when you watch him play. He is fluid on the field, and has the quickness and speed to apply pressure consistently off the edge. Orakpo may bring the ability to provide an impact in either the 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.

Orakpo had a great season and helped his stock as much as any defender in the draft. He entered the year as a possible second rounder, but his dominant season off the edge has made him a legitimate Top 10 prospect. He is the premier senior pass rusher in this draft.  

And a guy like this better end up being good because if he isn’t, it would be just too easy to end up being branded as “O-krap-o”. Unless of course, that is what the QB is saying as Orakpo is tackling him.

Ron Brace, DT, Boston College

No, I am not a Boston College homer or anything like that. They just happen to have two of the best DTs in the draft this year. At 6′3″ and 324 lbs, Brace is what you could call an immovable object. He showed his potential as a run clogger as a freshman reserve in 2005, and his numbers improved every season. As a junior, Brace really started to become a force. He had 27 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks on the year. Then he closed out his career with his best season, finishing with 27 tackles, 11 for loss, and three sacks.

Brace has tremendous size and is an immovable force on the interior defensive line. He uses his size and natural strength to hold his ground at the point of attack and to clog running lanes up the middle. He plays with power and can push the lineman back and collapse the pocket. Brace would be a perfect fit at nose tackle.

Ron Brace is a true nose tackle and could carry a very high grade for 3-4 teams looking for a wide body to anchor their interior line.  He could go in the 2nd round. He would improve anyone’s run defense immediately.

As I mentioned, this is a weak year for Defensive Tackles so it is possible that Brace could slip even as far as the 3rd round and if that happens, he would be a steal for a team like the Raiders who are desperate for help in stopping the run.

Rocky Bernard, DT, UFA, Seattle Seahawks

Bernard had an off the field incident prior to the ‘08 season, but returned from a one-game suspension to have another quality season while playing for a struggling Seattle team. He has had as many as eight and a half sacks in a season and closed this season with four sacks. He also had a career high of 55 tackles this year, with 43 of them being solo tackles — which means that Bernard had more solo tackles than Gerard Warren had TOTAL tackles (Warren had 39). Bernard may not be at the top of a lot of free agent wish lists, but if the Seahawks don’t keep him around, the Raiders would have a chance to get a reliable defensive tackle. And doesn’t the word “reliable” sound so refreshing in regards to the DT position for the Raiders? It seems like such a simple word and yet reliability is not something the Raiders have had at DT for a while.

Tank Johnson, DT, UFA, Dallas Cowboys

With Jay Ratliff getting all the starts at NT for the Cowboys over Johnson, the Cowboys will have no problem letting Tank make tracks. And oh how nice it would be to see Tank in a silver helmet with a shield on it rather than a star. With the fact that he has only started two games in the last two seasons coupled with his eight game suspension in 07, he shouldn’t be expensive to sign. Especially with the fact that he would be promised a legitimate shot to start for the Raiders and resurrect his career. Up until he got into trouble, he had become one of the most coveted Defensive Tackles in the league. He’d been in the league three seasons and was one of the key pieces in the Bears’ stingy 06 run defense that helped take them to the Superbowl.

When you think about what Al Davis has always looked for in players, Tank is the ideal candidate.

Mean streak: check

Superbowl: check

Past legal troubles: check

Eagerness to resurrect career: check

Now, whether that formula has actually worked in the last 25 years is another question. In this case, I think it is worth a shot. My guess is Al Davis will think so too.

Kedric Golston, DT, RFA, Redskins 

In his 13 career starts, Golston has totaled 53 tackles (31 solo), 0.5 sacks, and four passes defensed. He was a rotational nose tackle for the Redskins and would probably start consistently for the Raiders. He just had ankle surgery but it’s not much of a concern. He is a restricted free agent but the fact that he was drafted in the 6th round plus the Redskins needing to use their tender on DT Anthony Montgomery, means that Golston would be a great value pickup.

By getting any one of these players it would instantly upgrade the Raiders defensive line and run defense. A lot more research will be done between now and the draft to decide who will come out of the woodwork and become a late round steal. But until that shakes out, there should be some attempts at getting a free agent or spending a higher pick on more of a sure thing for the Dline who could come in and contribute immediately.