In what has been dubbed the most important offseason in franchise history, the Oakland Raiders have both a lot of holes to fill, as well as a lot of capital at their disposal (both cash and draft picks). While we’ve already looked at the team’s wish list offensively, this time we turn to the defensive side of the ball — a unit that was among the league’s worst in almost every category.
The good news on defense is that there might be some building blocks for the future. The hard part of evaluating a defense is that it’s more difficult for one player to dominate when surrounded by low-level players everywhere else. Even the best corner can’t cover for eight seconds and even the best interior lineman can’t disrupt an offense alone (okay, unless you’re Aaron Donald).
It’s this type of thinking that makes evaluating what Oakland has defensively so difficult. As the season wore on, two young guys established themselves as definitive building blocks: Karl Joseph and Gareon Conley. Both former first round draft picks, Joseph and Conley began living up to the hype last season — something heead coach Jon Gruden and Co. can only hope will continue as more talent is infused all around them.
Beyond Conley and Joseph, the Raiders are hoping Maurice Hurst, Arden Key and PJ Hall are all building blocks for a defensive line group that can become a disruptive force once reinforcements are added. Beyond those five names? It’s not pretty. Daryl Worley will likely be back (he’s a restricted free agent) — and he appears to be a nice piece — as will fourth round draft pick Nick Nelson, but that honestly might be it.
With that in mind, what should the team’s priorities be this spring?
This might have less to do with the value of the position and more with the franchise’s general lack of attention paid to it in previous seasons. The Raiders have been in desperate need of an anchor to the defense for YEARS, and so here’s to hoping they address it as a priority this year with new management.
As to where this player might come from, there are a couple guys worthy of a first round pick in this season’s draft (Devin Bush and Devin White), as well as one guy who should be available in free agency: CJ Mosley.
This is the team’s greatest need and it probably isn’t even close, although at least they have a start to something with guys like Key, Hall and Hurst — they just need help. If each of those guys had fewer expectations placed on them, I could see them making a big jump in year No. 2 — but not if they’re continually expected to carry the defense like they were last season.
The best news for the Raiders is that the draft is loaded with defensive line talent — meaning it wouldn’t be crazy to assume that they’d spend two of the top 35 picks on defensive lineman. At the top of the draft, you’ve got guys like Quinnen Williams and Josh Allen projected to be available for the Raiders (with Nick Bosa likely off the board already) — and picking one of them seems like a no-brainer.
In free agency, you almost never see pass-rushers come available, but guys like Demarcus Lawrence, Jadaveon Clowney, Dee Ford and Frank Clark are all scheduled to be out of contract this summer. Then again, expect most if not all of those guys to be tagged by their teams long before they reach the open market.
While Conley has begun to look like a borderline No. 1 cornerback, the Raiders would still love to add another playmaker to pair with. You’d feel a lot better about Conley as your No. 2, so if they can add some depth to the position, it would go a long way towards improving the defense as a whole.
Unfortunately, this is one position that is remarkably weak in free agency (at least for now) — which means help will probably have to come from the draft. Depending on where you look, there are between 2-4 corners in this year’s draft are projected as first rounders — most of whom would be available when the Raiders get on the clock for a second time on Night 1.