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.
“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.”