'Limiting explosives,’ consistency key to improved Raiders defense

'Limiting explosives,’ consistency key to improved Raiders defense

ALAMEDA – The Raiders defense ranks among the NFL’s worst in yards allowed after eight games. There are, however, signs of life.

Their yardage totals went down in four consecutive weeks, with a season-best 270 over essentially five quarters in a 30-24 overtime victory at Tampa Bay. That’s only 23 yards less than the Denver Broncos average, but defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. sees it as a step in the right direction.

Not great, but better.

The Raiders have gotten by thanks to solid third-down defense and frequent, timely takeaways. They’ve been plagued in other areas where Norton saw improvement against Tampa Bay -- consistency and preventing the big play.

The Raiders only allowed two “explosive” plays – passes of 20-plus yards, runs of 10-plus – and were steadier against the Buccaneers.

“It’s a matter of really limiting those explosives, playing and executing ball for the entire game,” Norton said Thursday. “Not having times where we kind of let up a little bit, but at the same time, really seeing them execute for the entire five quarters. They’ve really set a high standard. Now it’s about being consistently playing at that high standard.”

Norton’s defense is premised on making things simple to play fast and not giving up the big play.

The Raiders defense had to hunt and peck at positives early on. Now there are broader strokes to be proud of during a continued work in progress.

“We’ve been seeing some good things on film, but only in segments,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “Now we’re starting to see things we’re practicing well show up more consistently on game day.”

Look, the defense knows too many flags are flying their way, including two for having 12 men on the field against Tampa Bay, on third down no less. Those pre-snap penalties and substitution errors won’t fly, and the coaches won’t dwell much on them after initial corrections.

At 6-2, they’d rather focus on positives.

The Raiders are executing better, and the yardage totals have dropped. If those totals improve and the defense’s third-down defense continues, this unit should improve.

“It’s kind of what we’ve expected, you know?” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “Doing some good things and there’s still some things to clean up there as well. But, yeah, coverage is tighter. We’re much more sound, not letting anything get behind us.”

The Raiders still stepped up in the clutch against Tampa Bay, with three straight three-and-outs to close the win and a yardage total finally deemed respectable.

“When I heard 270, it was very pleasing,” edge rusher Bruce Irvin said. “We’ve been averaging a lot more than that. It just shows that we have the guys we need to compete at a high level. As long as guys do their assignment and we leave it out on the field for each other, you see the results.”

Raiders receiver quest may continue in NFL Draft

Raiders receiver quest may continue in NFL Draft

Go ahead and put receivers Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson into the Raiders starting lineup. Use a pen. Only injury would be cause to reach for the White Out.

New Raiders head coach Jon Gruden loves both guys. He said Cooper will be the passing game’s main attraction. He imported Nelson for his on-field production and locker-room leadership.

The Raiders are looking to upgrade receiver depth, a point made clear in free agency. They went after Ryan Grant, who eventually signed with Indianapolis. They brought Eric Decker in for a visit, though he left without a deal.

The NFL Draft could provide an upgrade. The Raiders could use some help in the slot, and with a sure-handed speed demon to take the top off a defense.

This draft class doesn’t feature a pass catcher worthy of the No. 10 overall pick, with few considered first-round talents. Help can be found down the draft, with early contributors seemingly available in the early and middle rounds. Here are a few options that could help the Raiders passing game:

Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
-- The former Aggie is a strong, target well suited for the slot. He can handle physical play at the line of scrimmage, has good hands and analysts say he’s adept at finding soft spots in zone coverage. He doesn’t have a huge catch radius, and doesn’t have burner speed to thrive on the outside, but he could be effective taking the smaller chunks offered in Gruden’s offense. He’s also a solid return man, and could help on special teams.
Projected rounds (per 2-3

James Washington, Oklahoma State
The former Cowboy doesn’t have D.J. Chark’s raw speed, but has plenty of big-play ability the Raiders need offensively. He uses solid positioning, hands and high-point ability to make important catches down the field. Analysts say he has great build-up speed and avoids physicality at the line. He can work inside and out, but could create space inside for Cooper and Nelson to work in favorable matchups. He isn’t built like a typical NFL receiver, but finds ways to make plays.
Projected rounds (per 2-3

Dante Pettis, Washington
-- Gruden likes precise route running, a trait Pettis has in spades. He could be a weapon from the slot, and can create separation quickly. Analysts also say he’s good finding open space during scramble drills, and has reliable hands. Physical corners can be bothersome, and he doesn’t have top-end speed. He could be an impactful member of an offense, and could help return punts as well.
Projected rounds (per 3-4

Deontay Burnett, USC
-- Burnett is built like a slot receiver, with plenty of experience playing inside. CBS Sports considers him a solid sleeper prospect among slot receivers, and analysts say he’s good making catches in traffic. He’s good in scramble drills, and can take big hits without losing possession. He isn’t great on deep passes and scouts say he doesn’t have room to add significant muscle mass to his relatively thin frame. He could be an asset in Gruden’s scheme, and available later than aforementioned receivers.
Projected rounds (per 4-5

Damion Ratley, Texas A&M
-- NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah tweeted about Kirk's teammate on Saturday morning as an intriguing prospect with size, speed and solid route running. He could be available late, a viable option if the Raiders look toward other positions earlier in the draft. He averaged 23.1 yards per catch, with an ability to make plays after the catch. His draft profile suggests he needs help battling physical corners, and may need better focus each play to compete steadily at the NFL. 
Projected rounds (per 6-7

Why Raiders players should pay close attention to NFL Draft this year

Why Raiders players should pay close attention to NFL Draft this year

ALAMEDA – Raiders players should keep a close eye on who gets drafted next week. Pros typically follow the NFL’s amateur selection to see where their team gets help, or whether competition’s coming to their position group.

Some Raiders, however, might see their roster spot given away.

The Raiders have 76 guys on the roster already, a high sum created by a hyperactive free-agent signing stretch. They have 11 draft picks coming. If each one gets used, that leaves three open spots on the 90-man offseason roster.

GM Reggie McKenzie will sign more undrafted free agents than that. The Raiders have a penchant for finding diamonds in the rough, and will target several after the draft concludes.

“What we’re going to do is we will evaluate all of those free agents after the draft and if we feel like we can upgrade, we will,” McKenzie said Friday in his annual, required pre-draft press conference. “So, that’s not going to hinder us from trying to sign some players. We’re just going to have to compare, you know, to what we have. We’re going to bring in the best 90. We only have X amount of spots. We may have to create some.”

That last line means some guys on the Raiders roster won’t stay long. They won’t get a chance to impress Jon Gruden’s coaching staff over an offseason program. They’ll get two weeks of offseason workouts and next week’s voluntary minicamp. That’s about it.

It’s fair to say fringe players signed before Gruden came aboard should be worried, considering the influence Gruden has on the roster. That includes players last year’s practice squad and maybe some recent draft picks who haven’t established themselves yet.

There are plenty on reserve/futures contracts who can be filtered out to create the roster space required to add preferred members of this year’s amateur class.

A well-known name may be among them, considering the Raiders must free some cap space to sign their rookie class. Per the NFLPA, the Raiders have $1.8 million in cap space. Their rookie pool is $9.454 million. The space required to sign the class isn’t found with simple subtraction – we won’t bore you with the details – but the Raiders will have to create a little bit of space to get everybody signed under the cap. Such maneuvering could include cuts or restructures or 2018 space created by a contract extension given to a certain elite edge rusher. The Raiders have options in that regard.

Roster space, however, is a bit more cut and dry. Only 90 spots exist. They’ll have to shuffle folks out to bring others in, and it’s going to happen soon.