Three's company: Raiders relying on trio of rookie defensive linemen


Three's company: Raiders relying on trio of rookie defensive linemen

NAPA – The Raiders drafted offensive tackle Kolton Miller in this year’s first round. Three of the next four rounds reaped defensive linemen.

Tackle P.J. Hall went in the second round. Edge rusher Arden Key was taken in the third. Tackle Maurice Hurst somehow slid to the fifth.

Coincidence? Certainly not.

Maybe those guys were sitting atop on the draft board when. Maybe a defensive lineman was the best available player in each instance.

No matter. They also filled a major need.

The Raiders needed to help Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin up front. Head coach Jon Gruden said so whenever a microphone came near.

They needed interior pass rushers most of all. They got two of them. They needed depth off the edge. Check.

One issue: Draft picks can’t always be counted on to contribute right away. Development sometimes takes time.

The Raiders need D-line help right away. There’s a growing belief, however, that Hall, Key and Hurst can make an instant impact.

“The rookies in our room are really going to help us,” Irvin said. “They really have no choice, we need them. Those guys are picking it up good and learning. They’re coming out here and working their butts off. They’re doing really good with their rookie duties. We need them and those guys are doing good.”

Key has shown unique athleticism, bend and an arsenal of pass-rush moves. Hall’s pectoral strain kept him out a week of camp, but is proving tough to block. Hurst was a first-round talent who slipped with health concerns – an irregular heartbeat scared several teams off -- but was thrown into the mix after being cleared by the Raiders.

Hurst was widely considered a late first-round pick before his heart condition became common knowledge at the combine. Key was a top edge rusher before his senior year at LSU went awry. Those two know they’re first-round talents who fell into the Raiders’ lap. That has placed a proverbial chip on two shoulders, which could help the Raiders out.

“I don’t know if it ever goes away,” Hurst said. “It’s something you’ll always carry with you, and that’s okay if it pushes you to work harder. You want to prove your team right and other teams wrong.”

Coaches and scouts expect big things from this trio, especially after seeing them early in camp.

Hurst could be a regular three technique in the base defense and on passing downs. His first step and burst was unmatched at the college level, and should help him adapt in the NFL.

Hall is just getting into the mix after starting on PUP, but could join the interior rotation with a solid preseason. Gruden says Hall’s “hard to block,” and had record-setting production at small-school Sam Houston State.

The rookie defensive linemen have embraced high expectations, and come armed with the confidence required to compete with established vets.

“They don’t want us to be rookies,” Hurst said. “They want us to come out and play right away and play effectively. They want us to dominate. They expect us to be a vital part of this defense.”

Key, Hall and Hurst want to be a long-term solution along the Raiders defensive front. That has been a discussion point, something addressed after rookies reported to training camp, before the veterans showed up.

“We plan on staying together,” Key said. “We all had a meeting when we first got here and talked about how we could grow together and make each other better and stay together for our careers. Each guy is working under a veteran right now, learning their tools and tricks. We all come together when we have to do our rookie duties (like carrying pads, getting snacks) but it’s fun. We all like each other.”

Raiders camp battles: Several combinations possible at safety

Raiders camp battles: Several combinations possible at safety

Editor’s note: We’ll take a look at several Raiders training camp battles leading up to the first full-squad practice on Saturday, and then we’ll update their progress throughout the preseason. Let’s get into the second one, focusing on safeties.

The Raiders have taken a safety in the first round of the NFL draft two of the last four years. They still paid a veteran top dollar to join the mix as a safety and slot corner. They extended a special teams player with some starts to his credit, too.

In short: the Raiders have options at safety, lots of them good.

That position will shake out in training camp, which starts this week in Napa.

This year’s No. 27 overall draft pick is already there. Johnathan Abram reported to camp Tuesday with the Raiders rookies, already in good position to snag a starting spot. Coaches love the Mississippi State alum, who joined the first unit later in the offseason program. He carries unshakable confidence and skill into his work as a do-everything safety that seems pro ready.

He paired with 2016 first-rounder Karl Joseph during the offseason program, who should still be a factor despite the team declining his fifth-year option. The team came away impressed by his recovery from injury and a slow start, when he found his footing in a role tailored to his strengths.

Erik Harris evolved into a defensive role last season, with the size and length to play free safety. He clearly has assumed a vocal leadership role in the back, and will fight for a job either on every down or obvious passing situations. He might end up being a super sub capable of playing anywhere, a valuable commodity in the secondary.

Lamarcus Joyner is the x-factor in all this. He’s clearly the team’s best free safety, but the high-priced free-agent signing has focused on slot cornerback to this point. That could change during training camp. Time will tell on that front. Coaches could split his focus -- he’s fully capable of switching between free safety and slot corner -- right away or bring him back to safety at times should one of the aforementioned contenders flop.

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Curtis Riley and Jordan Richards are also veterans in the mix, though they’re firmly on the roster bubble.

Early edge: Abram and Joseph at safety, with Joyner primarily at slot CB.

Raiders camp questions: Can Vontaze Burfict provide stability at MLB?

Raiders camp questions: Can Vontaze Burfict provide stability at MLB?

The Raiders have searched long and hard for stability at middle linebacker. They haven’t had much luck recently, no matter who has been picking players.

Let’s call it the curse of Rolando McClain, a wasted first-round pick that exemplifies the team’s issues filling an important position. Only Perry Riley and NaVorro Bowman offered partial-season respites during this middle linebacker drought, and neither player re-signed with the club.

Nick Roach, Curtis Lofton, Ben Heeney, Miles Burris and Derrick Johnson all have tried and failed to stabilize the position. Still-developing Marquel Lee, a rare linebacker drafted to play the middle, was thrust into a starting role but didn't stick and has been used on the strong side. The Raiders haven’t selected a middle linebacker before the fourth round since McClain, choosing largely to go the veteran route inside.

Vontaze Burfict enters as this year’s attempt to get the middle linebacker spot right. Brandon Marshall also is in town and capable of playing inside and out, as the Raiders hope to establish veteran leadership running Paul Guenther’s defense.

Burfict has spent most of his career as Guenther’s field general, and having him here should open previously closed chapters of an extensive playbook. Burfict was helpful running practice reps and meetings during the offseason program, already proving to be a valuable resource to his new team.

He must remain available and productive to stay that way. Burfict has struggled with injuries in recent seasons, which has hampered his effectiveness. Will he be a three-down player inside? Even two would be helpful, considering Tahir Whitehead’s lineup regularity and comfort with the defense.

Marshall also can fill the middle, proving a solid Plan B if Burfict struggles. Having veteran options playing in front of a developing corps including Jason Cabinda, Lee and Nicholas Morrow should be better than previous seasons, where the Raiders never seemed to have a backup plan.

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Burfict has been impactful already, but we haven’t seen much of Marshall. The former Bronco missed most offseason practices with an undisclosed injury.

These older veterans have been producers in the league but skepticism is fair until they show old form during the regular season. Can Burfict and/or Marshall succeed where previous players have struggled?

It’s worth keeping a keen eye on the middle linebacker spot and the position group as a whole, which must improve for the Raiders' defense to run well this regular season.