The Raiders need instant impact from their rookie class. Equally important, however, is a significant improvement from last year’s newbies. That crew was thrown into the fire in 2018, especially after a veteran exodus in the season’s second half.
Head coach Jon Gruden has said he needs his second-year pros to make a significant jump in performance in 2019, a common event after players get a full offseason without the pre-draft process deterring from their long-term goals.
“I want to see our second-year players play better,” Gruden said in March. “They got to play a lot last year. Big deal. I want to see them play great this year.”
Here’s a look at five second-year players who must show well to strengthen this team and take some burden off the rookie class:
DE Arden Key
The LSU product only had one sack last year despite significant playing time. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther believes he could’ve had eight with better finishing.
“I’m going to look back and think, 'I should have had more sacks,'" Key said late last year. “I could have had more, but it’s just a matter of inches at this level and when look back on film I can see where and why I missed them.”
Key doesn’t have great size at 238 pounds, but he has excellent bend and length and agility to get around blockers. He was asked to play most downs after Khalil Mack was traded and Bruce Irvin was cut, despite entering his rookie year expecting to be a situational pass rusher. That might suit his strengths in Year 2, and he could thrive coming in fresh on obvious passing downs. Key has an array of pass-rush moves, but must further hone his skills and finish plays strong.
The Raiders need production from the defensive end spot, where the No. 4 overall pick, Clelin Ferrell, will occupy one spot. Key and run defender Josh Mauro could split time on the other side, though 2019 fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby is a wild card in this equation. It can’t be assumed Crosby will contribute right away, leaving Key to create pressure opposite Ferrell and form a young, formidable pass-rush combo.
LT Kolton Miller
The Raiders were hell-bent on taking a first-round offensive tackle in 2018, and ended up with the UCLA product at No. 15 overall. Miller has athleticism to spare, which was on display at times last season. A balky knee made those times rare. He suffered partial knee ligament tears early in the year, battled through the chronic issue and was consequently overmatched on a regular basis.
Miller allowed 16 sacks last season, several in tight bunches, and had some run-blocking issues. He continued to play – the Raiders didn’t have any other legitimate options – showing great toughness and resolve despite some disappointing results.
Nobody needed this offseason more than Miller, who has regained health and reportedly gained significant lean mass and bulk. That will help him weather a second season and provide stability on the offense’s left flank.
The Raiders have chosen to leave Miller on the left – he has experience on the right, but struggled some there in college – even after adding high-priced signing Trent Brown.
Having Miller on the left and Brown on the right is the preferred alignment, though there are backup plans. The Raiders anticipate a big jump from Miller in 2019, where he can live up to his potential after a difficult rookie year.
DT P.J. Hall
The Sam Houston State product was drafted ahead of position-mate Maurice Hurst, but played second fiddle to him last season. Hall was hurt early in the year and, certainly needed development coming from a small school, but his interior pass rush ability will be required for improved defensive line play in 2019. He could work alongside Hurst on passing downs, to use his power and low center of gravity to break pockets down from the inside.
Hall can be a solid run defender as well. The Raiders didn’t add a defensive tackle this season, so they need better from the guys they have. There’s great optimism surrounding Hurst’s prospects. Having Hall take a step up as well will help a defensive front that has struggled to create pressure from anywhere recently.
P Johnny Townsend
The Raiders used a fifth-round pick to secure Townsend’s services, and got a punter who took some rookie lumps. His 38.3-yard net average ranked 30th last year, and he didn’t show the pinpoint accuracy he was known for at the University of Florida.
Townsend was given the job last year, but he’ll have some competition this year. The Raiders signed experienced punter Drew Kaser but have cut him already in favor of N.C. State rookie A.J. Cole, who will battle for the job this offseason and in training camp.
Townsend could well be a productive NFL punter, but he must show improvement and consistency to keep his gig.
LB Jason Cabinda
The Raiders are hoping Vontaze Burfict can resurrect his career reuniting with Paul Guenther in Oakland following an injury-riddled 2018 campaign. He will start if healthy and will run the defense from the middle linebacker spot.
Burfict hasn’t played a full season since 2013 and hasn’t played more than 11 games during that stretch, hindered by injuries and suspensions.
That means Cabinda will likely be called upon to play an important role at some point. He’d better be ready for it, anyway. An undrafted rookie last year who started on the practice squad, Cabinda worked his way into the defensive rotation later in the season.
Development is required, and Cabinda must do so while learning the system from Burfict and prepping for when his time comes.