Raiders

Raiders hope to help Arden Key prove he's a first-round talent

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AP

Raiders hope to help Arden Key prove he's a first-round talent

Arden Key’s draft stock took a tumble. The former Louisiana State edge rusher knows why. Off-field troubles, some weight gain and a few injuries hindered his production, leading some to raise red flags about his professional future.

That’s why he was available at No. 87 overall, when the Raiders’ second third-round pick stopped his slide.

“I’m a first-round talent, top five,” Key said last week in a conference call. “I went through some situations that caused me to be a third-round pick. I’ve learned from those things and this is the consequence of me going through what I went through. I’m a better person now than I was prior to it. I’m just happy to be at the right place. I feel the Oakland Raiders is the right place for me.”

Key’s happy to be a Raider for a few reasons. He wants to learn behind two of the best, studying under Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.

Lamonte Winston also made a good impression. The director of player engagement met with Key during his official pre-draft visit with the Raiders, and set out a life plan should Key become a Raider.

“He is off the chart. We had a long talk,” Key said. “We talked about things outside of football, what I want to do as far as business and career, things of that sort. We wrote a plan out and we stuck with that plan. It was saying I was going to be a Raider. We spoke it into existence, now look where I’m at.”

Key must stay out of trouble and focused on football now. The Raiders offer a fresh start, a clean slate for someone who went through some troubled times at Louisiana State. He was away from the program during the 2017 offseason for publicly undisclosed reasons – Key says he was an open book during NFL interviews – a time when he also had shoulder surgery. He played a bit heavier in 2017, and struggled, relatively speaking, when compared to 2016’s game tape.

Key had 56 tackles, 12 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles in 2016. He had just four sacks an a forced fumble in 2017, looking at times like a different version of himself.

“Two years ago, his tape was unbelievable,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said last week after Key’s selection. “He was a heck of a football player. He gained 25 or 26 pounds – he bulked up. I think he tried to add a different dimension to his game size-wise. Perhaps it backfired, he got hurt and there were issues there. He underachieved his year, but I go back to the film two years ago – the kid is special – and I know the man that’s been training him.

"I’ve got a lot of confidence in (defensive coordinator) Paul Guenther and (defensive line coach) Mike Trgovac. They’ve done this a long time, they’ve developed players like this.”

Key can develop behind Mack and Irvin, without the pressure of being a full-time starter. He should be the rotational reserve the Raiders have missed the past few years, when starters played nearly every snap off the edge.

The Raiders are confident Winston’s department can help him stay on a proper path, giving Key a chance to prove he’s a top talent. There’s some work to do, but the Raiders are ready to dig in.

“He’s not a finished product,” Gruden said. “He’s made some mistakes. He’s had some difficult times in his young life, and I know where he’s been for the last several months, and I know what he’s been through in his career. We’ve done a lot of research on him and he has a lot to prove. We have a lot to prove.

"But at the end of the third round, we feel like it’s a gamble worth taking and this young man has some qualities that are rare. We do think he’s a very good kid so I’m not going to get much more into it than that. I realize we have our skeptics, and rightfully so, but this is a young person that needs some help right now and we’re going to help him.”

Key knows he has much to prove, and is ready to start his next chapter.

“That I’m not the guy that the media portrays me to be,” he said. “The only thing. On the field? Football things? Football is not the question. Everybody knows, talent-wise, if we’re just talking talent, (I’m a) top-five pick, automatic.”

Ranking top five Raiders needs heading into the 2019 NFL Draft

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USA TODAY SPORTS IMAGES

Ranking top five Raiders needs heading into the 2019 NFL Draft

The Raiders' roster needs a lot of help. That’s no secret, a fact Mike Mayock has acknowledged since becoming Raiders general manager.

That is common at this stage of a roster reset where the Raiders have exchanged top talent for draft capital and let several veterans walk during last season or right after.

Free agency has quelled some concerns, importing major upgrades to positions on the Raiders' needs list a few months ago. Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Trent Brown, Lamarcus Joyner have changed things some. Linebackers Brandon Marshall and Vontaze Burfict and running back Isaiah Crowell and backup quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Landry Jones have removed urgency from their respective spots, though they don’t eliminate draft selections within those position groups.

In fact, some still remain high on the priority list. Let’s break down the top five Raiders needs heading into this NFL draft. That doesn’t mean they’ll address these positions in order and could deviate from Gruden’s list by adding the best possible player available. With eight draft picks and four in the top 35 to Raiders need to improve the roster because, more than any particular spot, the Raiders need upgrades almost everywhere.

We all know, however, which position belongs in the No. 1 slot:

1. Edge rusher

The Raiders can at least fill out a two-deep after late free-agency signings, but they won’t head into the regular season with Arden Key, Benson Mayowa, Alex Barrett and Josh Mauro. That crew won’t intimidate many. Adding one of the early draft picks could add a fear factor, especially if one comes at No. 4, in a small trade down from there or trade up from two picks in the 20s. Let’s be honest here -- the Raiders could use two edge rushers ready to contribute right away. That’s how big an issue this is right now.

Montez Sweat becomes one to watch on draft day, with news some teams are scared off by a heart condition that didn’t prohibit participation at the NFL Scouting Combine or halt his excellent 2018 season at Mississippi State. NFL Network reports he has an enlarged heart that has taken him off some draft boards. He would offer great value in the 20s if he falls on draft day, assuming the Raiders are comfortable with his medical evaluation.

Josh Allen, Brian Burns, Clelin Ferrell and Rashan Gary – the Michigan man’s an excellent scheme fit – are first-round options. Jaylon Ferguson, L.J. Collier and Chase Winovich could be options at No. 35 overall.

2. Cornerback

The Raiders have a solid corps on the roster, but Gareon Conley’s the only true cornerback under contract beyond next season. Daryl Worley and Nevin Lawson are also in the mix, but another cornerback should join the group in the draft as the Raiders figure out long-term solutions at this premium position. The Raiders could well look for a cover man late in the first round, which could be a solid spot to select one from a class that shouldn’t thin out during the draft’s early picks. Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin, Georgia’s Deandre Baker and Washington’s Byron Murphy could fit there, and the Raiders might go for Michigan State’s Justin Layne as a Day 2 pick.

3. Tight end

The Raiders have some quality depth here, with receiving tight end Darren Waller, blocker Lee Smith and versatile tight ends Luke Willson and Derek Carrier. Gruden’s still on the hunt for a front-line tight end who could contribute heavily in the passing game. That could come early in the draft, especially if Iowa’s Noah Fant lasts into the mid-20s. There are other options to be had later as well to upgrade the tight end group and create some serious position battles this summer.

4. Running back

Here’s another case of the Raiders having plenty at the position but still looking for a featured player. That’s why an early selection is possible here to join Crowell, Jalen Richard, Chris Warren III and DeAndre Washington in the mix. Position coach Kirby Wilson was at Alabama’s Pro Day, checking out do-everything backs Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris. Those guys should be the first two runners off the board, with other quality options behind them.

[RELATED: Why Raiders could be looking to move up and draft Kyler Murray]

5. Guard

The Raiders traded Kelechi Osemele and his eight-figure cap number to the New York Jets, leaving some uncertainty at one of two guard spots. Gabe Jackson will fill one and Denzelle Good is an option on the other. Gruden has mentioned the prospect of getting a guard in the draft to further solidify all positions of the offensive line. A good line makes everything else easier, and the Raiders are pretty close to being pretty darn good up front.

NFL draft: Could Raiders be trying to trade up for Kyler Murray?

NFL draft: Could Raiders be trying to trade up for Kyler Murray?

With six days to go until the 2019 NFL Draft,  Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock reportedly closed their ranks, sending all of their lower-tier scouts home due to a lack of trust. 

It makes sense for the Raiders to send people home for a few reasons, mainly the fact that they have all the information they need and now it's up to Gruden and Mayock to make the decisions.

But, what if the Silver and Black want secrecy for a different reason? What if there's a prospect who likely will be selected before the Raiders are on the clock at No. 4, that Gruden and Mayock want to try and maneuver a trade to go up and get? An electric quarterback who dazzled during his lone season as a college starter and has all the tools to be successful in the modern NFL.

Kyler Murray.

Of course, the prevailing thought is that the Arizona Cardinals will select Murray with the No. 1 overall pick and jettison quarterback Josh Rosen to parts unknown. But reports leaked Thursday that the Raiders could make a "big move" for Murray, and now it makes a little more sense that Mayock and Gruden shuttered themselves in with only the trusted surrounding them. 

After an underwhelming first season in Gruden's offense, many have wondered how long Derek Carr would remain the quarterback in Oakland. While Mayock and Gruden have offered some support for the 28-year-old signal-caller, it hasn't been overwhelming, at all. 

In fact, despite Mayock and Gruden claiming Carr is their guy, the Raiders met with Murray and worked him out in Dallas earlier this month.

It's actually pretty well known that both Mayock and Gruden love Murray.

To be fair, what's not to love?

During his lone season as the starter at Oklahoma, Murray captivated the college football world, throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.

Plain and simple, Murray would be the perfect quarterback for the Raiders' revamped offense.

After adding Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, J.J. Nelson and offensive tackle Trent Brown, the Raiders are in need of a dynamic quarterback who can extend plays with his legs and utilize the team's new field-stretching weapons by taking down-field shots.

Last season at Oklahoma, Murray averaged 11.6 yards per pass and a ridiculous 16.8 yards per competition. He was the very definition of a stretch-the-field passer.

Compare that to Carr, who averaged 7.3 yards per pass and 10.6 yards per completion last season, and it's easy to see why the Raiders might be looking to make a splash. Sure, Carr's numbers could be the result of lesser down-field weapons, or perhaps the Fresno State product just isn't as confident in going downfield as he needs to be in the modern NFL.

Carr, 28, was an MVP candidate in 2016, but he has failed to take the next step in his progression over the past two seasons. During that time, Carr has completed 66 percent of his passes while accumulating a 41-to-23 touchdown to interception ratio. Carr is a solid NFL quarterback, but he doesn't have the upside and playmaking ability that Murray does and perhaps a fresh start would do him good.

In today's wide-open NFL, a mobile, playmaking quarterback and a star receiver can take you a long way. Just ask Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the Kansas City Chiefs. The very thing a number of NFL teams are trying to replicate now.

If Gruden and Mayock really are as in love with Murray as it appears, perhaps they closed ranks in order to try and work out a trade with the Cardinals, knowing that should it fall through, they can deny and throw their weight back behind Carr.

[RELATED: Boom or bust? Some options for Raiders in first round of NFL draft]

With four picks in the top 35, the Raiders have enough ammunition to move around in a number of ways. Until recently, it's been believed they would focus on rebuilding their defense early in the draft, but perhaps Gruden has his eyes on a bigger prize than Quinnen Williams or Nick Bosa. Perhaps he has his eyes on the star who was supposed to be patrolling center field at the same Coliseum the Raiders will call home for one more season.

Murray has all the tools a quarterback needs in the modern NFL, and there's no doubt Gruden has thought about the 5-foot-10 signal-caller tossing long touchdowns to Brown for the foreseeable future.

If the infatuation is real, only one question remains: Can the Raiders do what is needed to go get Kyler Murray?