How the Raiders' 2017 draft class can improve
AN INAUSPICIOUS START
General manager Reggie McKenzie barely touched his defense last offseason during free agency. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins was his lone veteran signing, and he didn’t make the regular-season roster.
McKenzie still stockpiled defenders. He drafted six in nine selections, taking a defensive player in each of the first three rounds. They joined an incomplete defense needing immediate help, and weren’t able to provide it.
Undrafted linebacker Nicholas Morrow made the biggest impact, which speaks to the Raiders’ knack finding diamonds in the rough and, struggles mining production from higher-profile talent.
You won’t find a draft grade here. The jury’s still out on this crew, with plenty of time to develop into quality pros. But, if we’re being frank, the 2017 draft class didn’t do squat. Injury was a hindrance in some cases, ineffectiveness in others.
Let’s take a look at what went wrong, and what must improve in 2018.
CB Gareon Conley
What went wrong: Injuries decimated Conley’s rookie year. He suffered a shin injury in a June minicamp and never got right. He was eventually placed on injured reserve and had surgery to repair the ailment. He barely practiced or played, but flashed top talent in a Week 2 cameo against the New York Jets. He didn’t play well the following week, and was shelved after that.
What must improve: Conley must stay healthy – he had no significant injury history prior to last year – because the Raiders are counting on him. He’s slotted to start next year, and must be the top-15 talent most expected before a sexual assault allegation – he was never charged – hurt his draft stock.
Conley has the speed, confidence and natural instincts to be a quality NFL corner. The dude runs like a gazelle. He must realize vast potential right away. The Raiders need that from last year’s top pick.
S Obi Melifonwu
What went wrong: Melifonwu dealt with injury issues all year. He missed most of training camp with injury, then hurt his knee in his preseason debut. He was on short-term IR after having arthroscopic knee surgery, and played just three games – that included a desperate coaching staff’s decision to play him at cornerback against Tom Brady – before a hip injury took him out. He never got a chance to develop, and was out of sync all year in various roles.
What must improve: Melifonwu has excellent tangibles, especially size and speed. Put him at safety and let him develop. He can be an asset covering tight ends, playing deep and near the line of scrimmage if health sustains. It seems likely Reggie Nelson will leave in free agency, and he could assume a large role unless the Raiders add some veteran help. That seems like a smart course – one Conley won’t get – to alleviate pressure from a guy who didn’t do much as a rookie.
DT Eddie Vanderdoes
What went wrong: The UCLA grad started fast but quickly disappeared after opponents mapped his tendencies. He continued playing in a diminished capacity, but suffered an ACL tear in the season finale.
What must improve: His health, first of all. His injury’s timing isn’t great, nor is the fact he has torn a left ACL before. He’ll probably miss the entire offseason program at least. How well he recovers will determine if and when he’ll re-join the defensive line rotation.
OT David Sharpe
What went wrong: Sharpe wasn’t needed much as a reserve supporting a quality offensive line. He didn’t fare well in two games after left tackle Donald Penn suffered a foot injury, even when receiving help from tight ends and running backs.
What must improve: Sharpe is a career left tackle, though the Raiders planned to play him on the right. He must continue to develop and, in time, prove his a worthy heir to either tackle spot. He’ll have to do better if called to action as an injury replacement. There’s ability there. Coach Tom Cable must do well to extract it.
LB Marquel Lee
What went wrong: The Wake Forest alum was put in a tough spot. The Raiders didn’t add a middle linebacker to begin the season, thrusting the fifth-round pick into the starting role before he was ready. He was a liability, and the Silver and Black eventually added NaVorro Bowman midseason.
What must improve: Lee has the makings of a good run player and a quality reserve. He must continue to improve in coverage, using technique and football knowledge to make up for physical shortcomings in coverage. Lee can be effective if used properly, in the right role.
S Shalom Luani
What went wrong: Luani’s ball skills and football instincts quickly made him a fan favorite. He had a strong camp and played beyond his seventh-round draft status, but didn’t see much time in the regular season with Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph playing most every snap. He made one start and played extensive snaps twice, showing quality at times. He also registered a bit slow and made some rookie mistakes expected of a developmental prospect.
What must improve: Luani can be a quality special teams player and an effective backup who could push for more playing time down the road. Teams need players like this, and Luani should be effective with opportunities given.
OT Jylan Ware
What went wrong: Ware was inactive 15 times, behind Sharpe in the pecking order.
What must improve: Ware had to bulk up and improve technically after playing at FCS Alabama State. He believes he’s ready to contribute in his second season. He’ll have to fight for a spot on a still-excellent line.
RB Elijah Hood
What went wrong:Hood spent most of the year on the practice squad, no surprise after getting stashed during preseason games.
What must improve: He’ll need a quality offseason to get into the mix in 2018. He should be worried if a new coaching staff adds more rushers.
DT Treyvon Hester
What went wrong:Not much, honestly. The No. 244 overall pick spent time with the first unit during the offseason program and the preseason, flashing an interior pass-rush ability the Raiders generally lacked. He made positive contributions against the run and pass in 346 defensive snaps.
What must improve: Hester’s continued development will be key, even if he’s a rotational defensive tackle. There’s a chance he can earn more time. A quality offseason with a new staff will be vital in that development.