After managing just four wins in Jon Gruden’s first year back on the sidelines, the Raiders have spent the first few months of the offseason addressing some of their biggest needs. Antonio Brown, even at 30 years old, is a game-changing talent. He’ll be joined by former Chargers wideout Tyrell Williams. And left tackle Trent Brown is coming off a strong season for the Patriots, who just won their sixth Lombardi Trophy. And former Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner, who faced Brown in the Super Bowl, adds depth to the secondary.
But when you’re the worst team in your division, and the second-worst team in the AFC, there’s still plenty to do. Luckily, the Raiders have four of the first 35 picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, including three first rounders (No. 4, No. 24, No. 27). So what combination of talent would give them the best chance to go from laughingstock to .500 or better in one season? Let’s take a look.
Start with pass rusher
We all know the story by now. The Raiders didn’t want to pay Khalil Mack a year ago and ended up sending him to the Bears for two first-round picks. Then Gruden spent the first month of the season lamenting the lack of a pass rush. About a month later, Oakland released Bruce Irvin, who at the time led the team with three sacks.
Arden Key, their 2018 third-round pick, showed promise at times last season but he managed just one sack despite playing 350 games. The expectation is that he’ll improve in 2019 but that doesn’t change the fact that the Raiders desperately need pass rushers. With the No. 4 pick, they could target Kentucky’s Josh Allen, or should he already be off the board, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, who had a great senior season (14.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks) and blew up both the Senior Bowl and the combine. Another option could be Rashan Gary, one of the best athletes in the entire draft class. Then there’s Brian Burns, who played at around 235 pounds last season for Florida State, but showed up at the combine weighing 249 and still ran a 4.53 40-yard time. He reminds us of Aldon Smith, the No. 7 pick in 2011, who racked up 14 sacks as a situational pass rusher during his rookie campaign.
For all the talk about how deep the defensive line is in ’19, things start to dry up quickly. There are seven edge rushers who could go in Round 1: Nick Bosa, Allen, Sweat, Gary, Burns, Clelin Ferrell and Jachai Polite. And most of those names could be off the board by pick No. 20 or so. Which means that if the Raiders wait until they’re back on the clock at No. 24, all the top-tier edge rushers could be gone.
Start with best player available
In our latest two-round mock draft, which came out hours before the free agency frenzy, we had the Raiders taking Quinnen Williams fourth overall. He’s one of the best players in this draft; he just happens to play interior defensive line. But just because he’s not a position of need doesn’t mean the Raiders should overlook him for possibly lesser talent. There’s also this: Williams is just about unblockable, and if that pressure’s coming up the middle, all the better.
Remember the constant conversations about how to beat Tom Brady? “You have to pressure him up the middle!” That’s what Williams does best! Oakland could take Williams early and either use later picks to move back up in Round 1 to get an edge rusher, or wait to see how the board unfolds in front of them. There’s a chance that Jachai Polite, who had 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season at Florida, could still be available, mostly because he reportedly had a horrendous combine and, fair or not, it could cause his draft stock to drop. But if Gruden can make Antonio Brown work in Oakland, why not take a flier on Polite, who could be a special talent?
With their final first-round pick, the Raiders could continue to rebuild the secondary. In our last mock draft, we had them selecting Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne. A former wide receiver, Layne has fantastic ball skills. He’s also 6-foot-3, physical at the line of scrimmage, and is coming off a really good season for the Spartans. Put another way: Oakland will have gotten one of the draft’s top players in Williams, and filled two huge needs — edge rusher and cornerback — with Polite and Layne, and all in the first round and after landing Antonio Brown, Williams, Trent Brown and Joyner.
Get crazy and add more offensive weapons
The Raiders could also decide to go all in on the offense with several of these early picks and try to find hidden defensive gems on Day 2 and Day 3. It’s risky but this is Gruden we’re talking about.
First things first: We can’t discount the possibility that Oakland could trade up for Kyler Murray. It shouldn’t happen, but again … this is Gruden we’re talking about. Such a move could require two first-rounders, which seems like a steep asking price given all this team needs. It’s also all the more reason to stick with Carr who, after a rocky start, seemed to get comfortable in Gruden’s offense. (In fact, Carr finished with a career-high 68.9 completion percentage.) Plus, after Brown’s introductory press conference, he had an HGTV moment, surprising Carr at his home:
Maybe this is an indication that Carr is all but certain to lead the Raiders in 2019. And if we’re willing to concede as much, who are some of the other offensive targets the team could focus on?
Assuming the Raiders still go defense with the No. 4 pick, here’s how the rest of the first round could play out:
No. 24: Noah Fant. The Iowa tight end reminds us of Evan Engram and he would be an obvious replacement for 32-year-old Jared Cook, who is a free agent. Cook, it’s worth noting, led the Raiders in targets (101) last season and was tied for the team lead in receptions (68).
No. 27: Joshua Jacobs. The Alabama running back has drawn comparisons to Alvin Kamara but he has a bigger frame while still having Kamara’s elusiveness. Jacobs is also a good blocking back who excels at catching passes coming out of the backfield.
And there’s still a chance Polite might be on the board at No. 35, when the Raiders would be back on the clock.
To summarize, Oakland’s offseason haul could look something like this:
- WR: Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams
- OT: Trent Brown
- S: Lamarcus Joyner
Possible draft picks
- DT: Quinnen Williams
- TE: Noah Fant
- RB: Josh Jacobs
EDGE: Jachai Polite
That — on paper, anyway — does not look like a four-win outfit.