Raiders

Raiders would buck a trend by drafting ILB early

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AP

Raiders would buck a trend by drafting ILB early

The Raiders are, once again, searching for help at middle linebacker. That position’s been a black hole, lacking stability or talent save a few brief periods.

Perry Riley anchored that spot well most of the 2016 season, and NaVorro Bowman did the same last year after the 49ers cut him. The Raiders want Bowman back, but the veteran didn’t like contract offers and consequently remains a free agent.

The Raiders would still like him back, at the right price. That might not hold true after the draft, if they ignore tradition and select an inside linebacker early.

Reggie McKenzie hasn’t taken one above the fourth round since becoming Raiders general manager in 2012. The Bengals never took one high when Paul Guenther was Cincinnati defensive coordinator.

First-round premiums generally fall to other positions. This year might be an exception.

The Raiders are in desperate need of linebacker help -- Tahir Whitehead’s the only established starter, and is expected to play the weak side – and there are two elite prospects worthy of a top 10 pick.

The Raiders have 2017 fifth-rounder Marquel Lee and sub-package coverage linebacker Nicholas Morrow in the mix right now. It could be time to alter strategy and select a three-down linebacker who can anchor the middle of Guenther’s defense.

The Raiders should have options at No. 10 overall, if they trade down in the first round and again at No. 41. If they take a linebacker early, Bowman likely won’t come back. If linebacker remains a need as rounds go by, it might be time to get Bowman signed or stick with a Lee and Morrow platoon.

Here’s a look at their prospects in this year’s draft.

Roquan Smith, Georgia
-- The former Bulldog’s a true sideline-to-sideline playmaker, a picture of the modern-day NFL linebacker. He’s only 6 feet, 236 pounds, but packs a punch while playing smart, aggressive football. He has great speed and pursuit, and is a smart on-field leader of a defense. Smith’s a plug-and-play prospect at this point, seemingly ideal for what the Raiders need at inside linebacker. It’s possible, however, Smith doesn’t make it to No. 10 overall. He could be gone before the Raiders pick, which might constitute a bummer for Silver and Black.
Projected round (per NFL.com): 1

Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
-- Edmunds has prototypical linebacker size (6-5, 253) and can play all three spots. He could function as a pass-rusher in certain alignments, with the speed and smarts to cover well in space. Analysts say Edmunds has All-Pro potential, but a lower floor than Smith. The former Hokie has some development work to do, expected considering the kid’s only 19 years old. He, like Smith, may be gone before the Raiders pick. If he’s there and some other top talents are gone, Edmunds could well end up a Raider.
Projected round (per NFL.com): 1

Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
-- The former Bronco is another inside linebacker with the speed and sure tackling to play from sideline to sideline, with huge range against the run and in coverage. He was a team captain at Boise State and committed to his craft. He is capable of making an early impact the Raiders need at the position. Vander Esch, however, might only be available as a trade-down candidate. The same goes for Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, another inside linebacker (with versatility to play anywhere) set to go late in the first-round.
Projected round (per NFL.com): 1

Darius Leonard, South Carolina State
-- Leonard is considered one of this draft’s best coverage linebackers, with a chance to be a quality NFL starter inside. He’s 6-2, 234, a bit smaller than ideal for a 4-3 middle linebacker, but he processes information quickly and has great closing speed as a tackler and in coverage. He needs to increase play strength, but could be an asset on a team needing agility inside.
Projected rounds (per NFL.com): 2-3

Malik Jefferson, Texas
-- Jefferson was a top high-school recruit who plays significant time during his Texas career. He has tremendous athleticism and coverage ability on the inside, though analysts believe he might be a 4-3 WILL linebacker. That would move Whitehead to the middle, a spot he’s capable of playing. He might need to be taught more about mental aspects of the game, and doing so would unlock great physical ability. He may go higher than his projected rounds suggest.
Projected rounds (per NFL.com): 3-4

Raiders give Conley green light, Melifonwu 'doesn't look close at all'

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USATSI

Raiders give Conley green light, Melifonwu 'doesn't look close at all'

The Raiders have been cautious with Gareon Conley’s return from shin surgery. The cornerback’s clearance turned from red to yellow earlier in the offseason program, but finally went green in time to start the OTAs.

Last year’s first-round pick was reportedly a first-team cover man during the Raiders first OTA session on Tuesday. It was one of three open to the media.

The Raiders plan for him to be there throughout the regular season, and believe he has the makings of a No. 1 cornerback.

Head coach Jon Gruden has been excited to see the Ohio State product in action, as part of cornerback corps also featuring Rashaan Melvin and Daryl Worley.

“Yeah, it’s great to see Conley out there,” Gruden said after Tuesday’s OTA session. “We’re counting on him. We need him. But to see Rashaan Melvin and Conley and [Daryl] Worley competing is really exciting.

Conley was impressive during his first offseason program, until he hurt his shin during the team’s June 2017 minicamp. Conley barely played after that, with two games action and a handful of limited practices. He had surgery to repair his shin in Nov. 2017, and was eased back into action somewhat.

Conley doesn’t have an injury history save last year’s mishap, and could have a real impact if he remains healthy and continues to progress.

“Conley is special,” Gruden said. “He’s a top pick in this draft for a reason. I think from a confidence standpoint, he needs to get some work in out here.”

The player Oakland selected after Conley last year still hasn’t been cleared to work. Safety Obi Melifonwu wasn’t able to participate in Tuesday’s team drills, the first time this offseason offense and defense can play against each other.

The UConn product missed last season’s first half recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, and then needed hip surgery after the season. He still isn’t ready for a return.

“It doesn’t look close at all,” Gruden said. “I’ll leave it at that. He doesn’t look close, to me, at all.”

Physical issues are problematic for a player looking to earn a role on the team. The team is stocked at safety, with Karl Joseph, Reggie Nelson and Marcus Gilchrist leading the way.

“He doesn’t look ready to roll yet,” Gruden said. “So, I don’t let anybody practice without being able to go physically. He doesn’t look like he’s 100 percent. I haven’t seen much of Obi except in the training room.”

NOTES

-- Khalil Mack was not present for the start of voluntary OTAs, as expected. The elite edge rusher has missed the entire offseason program to this point, withholding services while waiting for a big-money contract extension the the Raiders have budgeted to give him. 

-- Gruden said receiver Amari Cooper is dealing with a hamstring injury.

-- Left tackle Donald Penn is working his way back from foot surgery, and participated in individual drills on Tuesday. He was held back during team sessions, leaving David Sharpe to take first-team reps at left tackle. Breno Giacomini manned the first-team right tackle spot.

-- Rookies Kolton Miller (left tackle) and Brandon Parker (right tackle) worked with reserve units at this stage. Gruden was impressed with how both players absorbed the offense.

-- Fourth-round cornerback Nick Nelson remains out recovering from meniscus surgery. As previously reported, he’s expected back for training camp.

-- The Raiders are planning to have training camp practices against another team, but Gruden didn’t want to reveal the opponent until arrangements are finalized.

Raiders acquire 2016 second-round QB from Jets

Raiders acquire 2016 second-round QB from Jets

The Raiders added a fourth quarterback to the roster, trading a conditional 2019 seventh-round pick to the New York Jets for Christian Hackenberg.

Jets head coach Todd Bowles announced the transaction during a Tuesday meeting with local media.

Hackenberg joins a quarterback room that already contains starter Derek Carr and reserves EJ Manuel and Connor Cook.

Hackenberg was a second-round draft choice in 2016, but never played a regular-season NFL snap. He dressed for just five games.

He’ll be competing for a roster spot in Oakland, as the Raiders will keep a maximum of three quarterbacks.

The Jets were clearly looking for new signal callers this offseason and got them, signing Teddy Bridgewater in free agency before drafting USC’s Sam Darnold third overall in the NFL draft.

Hackenberg took a thinly veiled shot at the Jets Tuesday morning, questioning why a throwing motion overhauled by private coaches wasn't done earlier by the Jets. He was traded later that day

Hackenberg was taken two rounds before Cook in the 2016 draft – the Raiders traded up to get Cook in the fourth -- and both guys have failed to find footing on an NFL roster. Cook has been the No. 3 quarterback in two professional seasons, save an emergency playoff start in the 2016 season.

Manuel is older, though fared well in limited action last year.

Hackenberg has plenty of arm strength but has struggled with accuracy, and couldn’t secure the Jets’ starting spot that was most always up for grabs.

"I'm 23 and I got a lot of ball ahead of me," Hackenberg said Tuesday per the New York Daily News. "Hell, my career hasn't even started yet. So I'm excited about what the future holds."

News of the trade broke after Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s Tuesday media session, meaning he was not immediately available to comment on the transaction.