Raiders

NFL Draft 2020: Isaiah Simmons is answer to Raiders' linebacker problem

NFL Draft 2020: Isaiah Simmons is answer to Raiders' linebacker problem

In the age of wide-open, versatile offenses, the Raiders' defense is being left in the dust.

The lack of premiere talent at linebacker is a key reason why. The Raiders put all their eggs in the Vontaze Burfict basket last season. He played solid for four games before being jettisoned for the rest of the season by the NFL after a questionable hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle. 

Even with Burfict on the field, the Raiders had no one to match up with opposing tight ends. They tried moving cornerback Daryl Worley inside against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13, but he was bodied by Travis Kelce. The linebackers struggled in coverage no matter who it was against. Tahir Whitehead allowed a 150.5 passer rating when targeted, the worst number for an off-ball linebacker in the NFL.

In other words: The Raiders must address the linebacker position this offseason. They can't put it off any longer.

With two picks in the top 19, the Raiders will have a decision to make. Do they trade up to draft Clemson star Isaiah Simmons or do they lay back and choose between LSU's Patrick Queen and Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray at No. 19? Or do they elect to go to free agency to pick up a linebacker and fill other needs in the draft?

Let's take a look at their draft options.

Isaiah Simmons: The Athletic Mutant

Simply put, Simmons is the perfect linebacker for the modern NFL. 

He's 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and can play all over the field. During his junior season at Clemson, Simmons recorded 299 snaps at inside linebacker, 262 at slot cornerback, 132 at free safety, 116 at outside linebacker and 100 at strong safety. Simmons is of the Derwin James mold but in a bigger package. He's Brian Urlacher with an extra gear.

Now, it's one thing to play all over the field and it's another to be effective at it. Simmons was incredible no matter where he was, especially when in coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, Simmons earned an above-average coverage grade at every position he lined up at. During his career at Clemson, Simmons had a career coverage grade of 92.5 and only allowed 6 yards per target.

Perfect for the modern NFL, Simmons can cover tight ends, run sideline-to-sideline with running backs, blanket slot guys and make plays in the middle of the field as a safety.

He also was extremely effective at getting after the quarterback. Simmons pressured the passer on 32.9 percent of his rushes, the highest of any power-five defender.

Unreal athleticism. 

Great coverage instincts. 

The range. 

Closing speed. 

In order for the Raiders to make him the lynchpin of their defense, they likely will have to trade up. 

If there's any doubt they are thinking about it, Mayock gushed about Simmons and his versatility Tuesday.

"You start looking at guys on offense who can play in the slot, running back, be H-backs, there's really not a label for them," Mayock said Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "They are just either dynamic players or they are not. And then you start looking about trying to match up with those guys on defense and when you start looking in any division, particularly ours, and the tight ends that we have to play in our divisions. You kind of go, 'Who matches up? If we want to play man coverage who can match up with those type of guys? The big guys that run fast, who do we have?' 

"I think more and more defenses around the league are saying who are the guys you don't have to put a label on, but they are dynamic football players? Isaiah Simmons, he's played in the back end, he's played at linebacker, he's come off the edge and really the only limitations on him are whatever the defensive coordinator puts on him."

Patrick Queen: The Fast Riser

Queen was a star in his first season as a starter in Baton Rouge, La. Built more like a safety at 6-1, 227 pounds, Queen has the sideline-to-sideline range to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL.

Some teams might want to see more film from Queen, but he was a key cog in LSU's title run, making countless plays during the Tigers' historic run. He's physical, athletic, fluid and intelligent and has drawn comparisons to 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander.

He has the skill set to be an immediate starter as a rookie either as a MIKE or WILL and looks to be a dynamic playmaker who won't have to come off the field in nickel packages.

Kenneth Murray: Plug And Play

The third and final first-round option at linebacker for the Raiders is Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray.

Murray is most successful as an off-ball linebacker who is allowed to pursue and wreak havoc. He's an athletic freak, who was prone to missed tackles before cleaning his technique up this past season.

While Murray has incredible range and can wreck an offense with his gap-shooting ability, the Oklahoma product's turn-and-run coverage skills are a work in progress. The range, athleticism and explosiveness have teams hoping he can polish up the rest of his game and be an every-down MIKE linebacker. Even if that doesn't work out, he should be able to be a solid three-down WILL at the NFL level.

[RELATED: Why Raiders shouldn't trade up for Herbert or Tua?]

Verdict

Simmons is projected to be drafted somewhere between No. 3 and No. 9 overall. The Raiders currently holding the No. 12 and No. 19 picks will watch the first few picks of the draft closely. If teams move up to draft quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, Simmons could slip a touch, giving the Raiders an opening to make a move up and get the guy who has all the skills to be one of their defensive leaders for the foreseeable future.

If the Raiders can swap the No. 12 pick, one their third-round picks (No. 80) and a future pick for the right to move up and snag the Clemson linebacker, it should be a no-brainer for Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden. Simmons will give them the dynamic player the defense has been missing and he would fit in seamlessly with the Clemson-esque culture the Raiders are trying to create.

Due to the deep class of wide receivers, the Raiders still would be able to get an electric weapon like Henry Ruggs at No. 19 overall.

If a deal can be made to bring Simmons to Las Vegas, the move is a no-brainer. A player of his caliber and skill set rarely comes along. Drafting him will be well worth the price.

Raiders set to use rest of Khalil Mack trade assets in 2020 NFL Draft

Raiders set to use rest of Khalil Mack trade assets in 2020 NFL Draft

The Raiders traded Khalil Mack just before the 2018 regular season and didn’t get anything in return to help that year’s roster. That was a main reason why that season went up in smoke and put the Raiders’ decision under fire.

Jon Gruden in particular became a punching bag the trade's detractors, without evidence of the trade's return coming for a year or more. 

The Raiders head coach is about to get a fat dividend check. 

The Mack trade will start looking a bit different next month, because the bulk of assets exchanged will be used either to acquire NFL draftees or as trade chips.

As a reminder, the Raiders traded Mack, a 2020 second-round draft pick -- coughing up that selection remains an eybrow raiser, but it got the deal done -- and a conditional 2020 fifth-round draft pick that is now a seventh-round draft pick to Chicago for first-round draft picks in 2019 and 2020, with a 2020 third-round draft pick and a 2019 sixth-round draft pick.

The Raiders used the Bears’ 2019 first-round pick to acquire running back Josh Jacobs. That’s not a bad deal even as a straight swap, but there’s a lot more to account for when evaluating this deal.

Following where the 2019 sixth-round pick would require heading down a rabbit hole leading to Wonderland, so let’s just say it was traded to the Jets along with Kelechi Osemele for an asset that started a series of 2019 in-draft trades that helped acquire several members of an excellent draft class, including Trayvon Mullen and Hunter Renfrow.

Here’s what the Raiders have yet to use from the Mack trade:
2020 first-round draft pick (No. 19 overall)
2020 third-round draft pick (No. 81 overall)

Here’s what the Bears have yet to use from the Mack trade:
2020 second-round draft pick (No. 43 overall)
2020 seventh-round draft pick (No. 223 overall)

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Using those selections will give us a clearer picture of what the trade looks like, even though it’s imprudent to evaluate draft picks until they’ve played a few NFL seasons.

Raiders fans should have some level of confident coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock will do the right thing with extra assets considering how well last year’s draft went, the Jacobs pick in particular.

This year’s No. 19 overall draft pick is an important one, likely producing the other headline name in a deal that will be remembered alongside shipping Mack to Chicago and the Jacobs pick.

[RELATED: Mack makes All-Decade Team, largely for work with Raiders]

Our latest NBC Sports Bay Area mock draft has the Raiders taking Alabama safety Xavier McKinney at No. 19, while Gruden and Mayock could be looking for a cornerback or a defensive tackle at that spot. It’s also a trade chip that could get the Raiders into the second round, where they currently don’t have a selection.

The Jacobs pick made fans feel a lot better about the Mack trade, especially with 2019 fourth-round draft pick Maxx Crosby proving a formidable edge rusher with 10 sacks as a rookie. Using their assets correctly might even make the Raiders come out ahead, or darn close to it, with young players on the roster and money Mack would’ve demanded spread out among several other veteran free agents who are good but not at Mack’s elite level.

Khalil Mack, Shane Lechler among ex-Raiders on NFL's All-Decade Team

Khalil Mack, Shane Lechler among ex-Raiders on NFL's All-Decade Team

Khalil Mack was the Raiders best player over the past decade. It’s hard to argue that, even with Charles Woodson making Pro Bowls in his last 30s.

The Silver and Black drafted him No. 5 overall in 2014, and he thrived in the four seasons before being traded to the Chicago Bears. He had 41.5 sacks in that span and was one of the NFL’s elite edge run defenders.

He made the Pro Bowl three times and was a first-team All-Pro twice as a Raider, including one year where he earned the distinction at two positions. He also won the NFL’s defensive player of the year award in 2016, when the Raiders made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Mack was an obvious choice for the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2010s, which was released by the league on Monday morning.

Mack wasn’t the only former Raider on the list. Punter Shane Lechler was rightfully included, though he played just three years for the Silver and Black in that decade. The Raiders’ first-round pick in 2000 was a fixture in Oakland from that time through 2012, when the native Texan left to play for Houston.

Oakland icon and former Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch also made the list, largely for his exploits with the Seattle Seahawks. He was with his hometown Raiders in 2017 and 2018 after coming out of retirement and returned to Seattle last year for their playoff run.

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All-decade kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson spent a year with the Raiders in 2017.

Center Rodney Hudson is the only Raider with a strong argument for inclusion ultimately left out. He’s at least equal to Alex Mack and Maurkice Pouncey, possibly better in some eyes, and may be the NFL’s best pass-blocking center.

[RELATED: Raiders must do better with No. 12 draft pick]

While Woodson was well past his prime in the 2010s, the future Hall-of-Famer made three Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro in 2011. He was featured on the NFL’s All-2000s roster but could well have been included here. Eric Weddle, Eric Berry and Earl Thomas were the safeties named to the all-2010s team, and it’s hard to justify taking any of them off the list.

Here's the complete All-2010s team:  

OFFENSE
WR –
 Antonio Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones
TE – Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce
T – Jason Peters, Tyron Smith, Joe Staley, Joe Thomas
G – Jahri Evans, Logan Mankins, Zack Martin, Marshal Yanda
C – Alex Mack, Maurkice Pouncey
QB – Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers
RB – Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson
Flex – Darren Sproles

DEFENSE
DE –
 Calais Campbell, Cameron Jordan, Julius Peppers, J.J. Watt
DT – Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh
LB – Chandler Jones, Luke Kuechly, Khalil Mack, Von Miller, Bobby Wagner, Patrick Willis
CB – Patrick Peterson, Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman
S – Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Eric Weddle
DB – Chris Harris, Tyrann Mathieu

SPECIAL TEAMS
P –
 Johnny Hekker, Shane Lechler
K – Stephen Gostkowski, Justin Tucker
PR – Tyreek Hill, Darren Sproles
KR – Devin Hester, Cordarrelle Patterson

COACHES
Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll

NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco contributed to this report.