Raiders, Paul Guenther optimistic defense will see significant upgrades

Raiders, Paul Guenther optimistic defense will see significant upgrades

MOBILE, Ala. – Paul Guenther ran a talent-deficient Raiders defense last season. The respected coordinator lost Khalil Mack to a trade before the season started, and Bruce Irvin was less-than. dominant, then phased out and then cut.

Several veteran free-agent signings didn’t pan out at linebacker, safety and cornerback. The Raiders got really, really young as the year went on, which produced some unsightly statistics near the bottom of most important categories.

Leading that charge wasn’t terribly fun. Guenther has a spring in his step here at the Senior Bowl.

The Raiders roster tear down is over. The rebuild is underway, with plenty of tools to expedite the process.

The Silver and Black have four picks in the top 35 NFL draft selections, including the fourth overall. They also have roughly $71 million in salary cap space without a major extension coming on the horizon.

That has brought optimism back to the Silver and Black.

[RELATED: How Raiders Mike Mayock's experience, relationships can assist draft]

“We have draft capital now, and we have the ability to go out and get guys in free agency,” Guenther said on Wednesday night. “We were hamstrung a little bit last offseason with the Khalil (Mack holdout, and then trade), in terms of bringing free agents in with the salary-cap situation then. We obviously didn’t have as many picks back the as we do now.

“It’s an exciting time for us, but we really have to do our homework. We’ll be going across the country, turning over every rock to find guys who fit us.”

The Raiders can stay put here in Mobile, Ala. and really evaluate players invited to the Senior Bowl. Jon Gruden, Guenther and the Raiders staff are coaching the North squad this week, and will have a day’s access to the 49ers-run South team on Friday.

That will allow coaches to get a firm grasp on draft prospects – a select few will be taken high – largely available on the NFL draft’s second or third day.

“When you go to the combine, you don’t really know the guy walking into the interview room,” Guenther said. “We have a real advantage coaching here, getting a feel for how guys are in the meeting room and how they transfer what they’re learning to the practice field. You get so much more time with these guys that you’re so much farther along in your evaluation than you typically would be.

“Some of these guys may not go until the fourth or fifth round but, to me, you can really make your team in rounds 4-7 and (undrafted) free agency,” Guenther said. “If you can hit on one or two guys there and they can become a really good team.”

The Raiders are expected to go defense heavy in the draft, especially early in the selection process. That side of the ball needs upgrades at every level, especially edge rusher, middle linebacker and safety.

Gruden has final say and general manager Mike Mayock will have significant input, but Guenther will have a loud voice in talent acquisition. He wants players who fits the scheme, or top talents he can fit a scheme to accentuate.

Edge rushers get most of the attention at the Senior and throughout the pre-draft process considering how many top talents should go early in the first round, but Guenther believes the defensive class is deep. The Raiders have prioritized needs but won’t reach for a particular position at a particular spot.

That won’t be a huge problem considering the depth of this year’s draft well.

“It’s a deep class for defensive players across the board,” Guenther said. “There are quite a few rushers. It seems like there are more and more every year that come out. There are some good cornerbacks in this draft. We have to do a good job of stacking (the draft board) and deciding which guys fit us best and where they should be taken.”

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Raiders need instant impact from Clelin Ferrell right away as rookie

Raiders need instant impact from Clelin Ferrell right away as rookie

The Raiders are trying to rebound from a disatrous 4-12 season, and need strong showings from many members of their NFL draft class. That's especially true on defense, where general manager Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden loaded up on young talent.

Clelin Ferrell was the marquee selection, a defensive end taken fourth overall out of Clemson to fill a position of great need.

We'll take a look at the best-case scenario for Ferrell's rookie season, the worst possible outcome and what's realistic for a do-it-all scheme fit expected to play right away. We'll put different Raiders draft picks through the same paces each day, so check back Thursday morning for our Josh Jacobs breakdown.

Right now, let's dive into what the Raiders need from Ferrell:

Clelin Ferrell

Draft slot:No. 4 overall (First round)
Position: Defensive end
Height: 6-foot-4
Weight: 264 pounds
School: Clemson

Skill set

Let’s say it simply. Ferrell is a complete defensive end. He can set an edge and rush the passer. He’s technically sound, tough and tenacious, with strong leadership skill. He may not be as flashy as other top-5 edge rushers of this draft class or any other, but he was a highly productive college player who could well be a highly productive pro despite missing elite measurable athleticism.

Ferrell’s exactly what the Raiders need up front, as defensive coordinator Paul Guenther puts it, a stable three-down defender who will show up and work hard every day.

Training camp proving ground

Coaches were impressed with his tenacity and a real grinder’s work ethic. It’s hard to evaluate a new player just learning the system seeing him once a week during open OTA practices, especially when they weren’t in pads, so training camp will provide a clearer picture of where Ferrell is as a rookie.

It’s always difficult to expect an immediate impact from rookies, even those drafted so high, but Ferrell needs to be steady and flash in practice, especially when the L.A. Rams come to Napa on Aug. 7-8. Battles with Kolton Miller and Trent Brown will also be key in his development, when he cracks the first unit.

Going up against massive size (Brown) and solid athleticism from a big frame (Miller) in pads should help prepare him for the difficulties of facing NFL tackles each week.

Best-case scenario

It was hard to find analysts with bad things to say about Ferrell’s game. The element of surprise came from his draft position, something he wasn’t in charge of. The Raiders are so thin off the edge that they need Ferrell to step in and play three downs right away. They’re certainly hoping he’s not just occupying space, and can produce at his Clemson level.

He had 27 sacks in three seasons as a starter, and getting to nine as a first-year pro would be huge for the Raiders and his long-term future. Comparing Ferrell to Khalil Mack is ultimately unfair, but they’ll come his way nonetheless. Let’s not forget that Mack had just four sacks as a rookie, often generating pressure but rarely getting home.

Working nine sacks out of the season would be huge for the Raiders, and double digits with solid run play would send Ferrell jerseys flying off the shelves.

Worst-case scenario

The Raiders need a three-down end. They likely won’t have one on the other side, splitting run/pass duties between Josh Mauro and Arden Key, respectively. They need someone capable against the run and pass, a stable and productive force to pick this defensive line up off the mat after a disastrous 2018 season where the Raiders were outmanned regularly during a year with just 13 sacks (as a team!!) and gave up 140 rushing yards per game.

Let’s be honest: This defensive line is in huge trouble if Ferrell can’t make an immediate impact. That would spell disaster for the Raiders' defense if he doesn’t show well, and lower-round pick Maxx Crosby doesn’t make up for that by playing out of his mind.

Realistic expectations

Ferrell’s a rookie. Let’s not forget that when evaluating his season this winter. Again, he didn’t control his draft slot. He plays for the team that took him, and seven sacks and realtively steady run play is a respectable season.

[RELATED: Key dates for Raiders' 'Hard Knocks'-centric preseason]

Ferrell’s going to work hard every day. He doesn’t have a large injury history. He should be reliable. He should get into the backfield; whether he can get home is another matter. Mack didn’t do it much his first year.

Expect an adjustment period as he moves to the NFL, but his presence should be felt in all facets of this Raiders defense. He seems qualified to shut out noise and outside expectation from being the No. 4 overall pick. That should help him produce a solid, rookie year with hope for better down the line.

Key Raiders preseason dates, including HBO's 'Hard Knocks' episodes


Key Raiders preseason dates, including HBO's 'Hard Knocks' episodes

The Raiders have an interesting preseason ahead. They have three exhibition games on the road, including one in Canada. They’re headed to Napa for camp, which is possibly, though ultimately uncertain, the last time they will train in Wine Country, with their Las Vegas relocation scheduled for next year.

They have personalities to spare on this unit, which must bond to improve on last year’s 4-12 disappointment. They’ll do so under NFL Films’ watchful eye, with cameras everywhere filming this season’s HBO documentary series “Hard Knocks.”

[RELATED: Raiders mailbag: Defense still clearly behind offense]

Their training camp schedule hasn’t been made official, but Monday’s announcement of report dates gives the preseason some shape.

Here are key dates for the Raiders' summer plans:

As a note, Raiders training camp practices are only open to season-ticket holders and guests by invite only.

Tuesday, July 23: Rookies, first-year players, recently rehabilitating veterans and quarterbacks report for training camp in Napa.
Friday, July 26: Veterans report for training camp in Napa
Saturday, July 27: First full-squad training camp practice.
Monday, July 29: First padded practice in training camp
Tuesday, Aug. 6: “Hard Knocks” with the Raiders premieres at 10 p.m. on HBO
Wednesday, Aug. 7-8: Raiders host joint training camp practices with Los Angeles Rams in Napa
Saturday, Aug. 10: Exhibition opener vs. LA Rams at Oakland Coliseum
Tuesday, Aug. 13: Second episode of “Hard Knocks” airs at 10 p.m. on HBO
Thursday, Aug. 15: Exhibition No. 2 at Arizona Cardinals, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, Aug. 20: Third episode of “Hard Knocks” airs at 10 p.m. on HBO
Thursday, Aug. 22: Exhibition No. 3 vs. Green Bay Packers at IG Field in Winnipeg, 5 p.m. (Bay: KTVU; Vegas KVVU)
Thursday, Aug. 27: Fourth episode of “Hard Knocks” airs at 10 p.m. on HBO
Thursday, Aug. 29: Exhibition No. 4: Aug. 29: Exhibition No. 4 at Seattle Seahawks, 7 p.m. (Bay: KTVU; Vegas KVVU)
Saturday, Aug. 31: Rosters must be decreased from 90 players to the 53-man limit by 1 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 1: Claiming period ends for waived roster cuts at 9 a.m.
Sunday, Sept. 1: Teams may formally sign a 10-man practice squad
Tuesday Sept. 3: Final episode of “Hard Knocks” airs at 10 p.m. on HBO