Denzel Ward

Raiders could complete secondary makeover in NFL draft

Raiders could complete secondary makeover in NFL draft

The Raiders have used significant draft capital on defensive backs. Karl Joseph was their 2016 first-round pick. Gareon Conley was last year’s first-rounder, followed by safety Obi Melifonwu in the second round.

DJ Hayden got drafted No. 12 overall in 2013, but didn’t stick. Neither did Sean Smith or David Amerson, who were cut during the life of big-money contracts.

That has led to yet another secondary overhaul. Safety Marcus Gilchrist and cornerback Rashaan Melvin signed one-year deals in free agency, and will join Conley and Joseph in the starting lineup.

That doesn’t mean another secondary makeover is complete. The Raiders need a solid No. 3 cornerback and a starter for the future. A safety isn’t out of the question, even with Gilchrist and Joseph atop a depth chart that includes Melifonwu and veteran Reggie Nelson.

Top options could be available with the No. 10 overall pick, guys who could help right away. Let’s take a look at some possible impact players in the secondary:

CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
-- Ward is the best cover man in this draft. It’s hard to find anyone able to argue that. He isn’t that big (5-11, 183), but is agile and quick, technically savvy and an excellent route reader. He can make plays on the ball, and is rarely out of position. He doesn’t have great length and won’t jam receivers up at the line, but is a top talent in this draft, regardless of position. The Raiders drafted an Ohio State cornerback first last year (Conley), but that will have zero bearing on this year’s pick. Ward would join Conley and Melvin to form the Raiders’ cornerback corps in the Reggie McKenzie era. He and Conley could be a long-term solution at a spot where the Raiders have struggled to find stability.
Projected round (per NFL.com): 1

DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
-- The former member of the Crimson Tide is a do-it-all defensive back expected to go early in this draft. The Raiders might not be on the clock long if he’s available at No. 10 overall. This dynamic playmaker can cover the slot, play deep safety or even a sub package linebacker, solving several points of weakness with one roster spot. He’s a tone-setter and an excellent chess piece for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther and secondary coach Derrick Ansley, who also coached him at Alabama last year and might be his champion in Alameda.
Projected round (per NFL.com): 1

CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville
-- The Raiders could use a slot cornerback. Conley could play there and has the talent to switch inside and out, but having someone comfortable playing inside would be of benefit with slot receivers so prominent in today’s game. The former Cardinal is solid playing inside, armed with excellent speed and short-area quickness. He’s also a solid tackler and run defender, and can handle the two-way go from the slot. He’s highly touted, yet still might last until the latter portions of the first round. He might be an option should the Raiders trade down, or trade back into the first. It’s highly unlikely, yet possible he makes it to the second if teams are wary of his relatively slight frame.
Projected rounds (per NFL.com): 1-2

CB Isaiah Oliver, Colorado
Oliver is built like an NFL outside cornerback, with the length and range to play physical at the line of scrimmage. He can play man or zone coverage, with solid ball skills and deep speed. Analysts say he could use some development time, and the Raiders could give him that with Conley and Melvin already in the fray.
Projected round (per NFL.com): 2

CB Holton Hill, Texas
-- Hill’s a big guy at 6-3, 200 pounds, but has decent speed for his size. He might fall down in the draft after getting suspended last year for violating Texas’ team rules, and he might be a steal because of that. The Raiders would have to be convinced maturity issues aren’t a concern anymore, because that stuff won’t fly in Jon Gruden’s locker room. Analysts say he must continue to develop technically, but could be a proper fit for the Raiders coverage scheme.
Projected rounds (per NFL.com): 4-5

CB Greg Stroman, Virginia Tech
-- Scouts seem to be scared off by his rail-thin frame and inability to add bulk, but the dude can cover. He can play well in off coverage, with solid closing speed to make plays on the ball. He’s sticky against receivers of all sizes, and regularly made plays on the ball. He could be an early contributor found late in this draft.
Projected round (per NFL.com): 7

Raiders have intriguing options with the No. 10 overall pick in 2018 Draft

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USATSI

Raiders have intriguing options with the No. 10 overall pick in 2018 Draft

The Raiders a lost a coin toss that dropped this year’s draft slot below the 49ers. We’ll ignore the overblown nature of the well-hyped non-event – it was broadcast live on NFL Network, for goodness sakes – and hone on one simple fact.

The Raiders still have a top 10 pick. While the 49ers share some needs with the Raiders, and could selected a coveted prospect, there’s a quality cluster of players general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Jon Gruden should snag without regret.

Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith, Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward and Washington’s Vita Vea could be available at No. 10. All three would fill a role of need with quality. They stood out at the NFL Scouting Combine, which supported excellent college game tape.

The Raiders could stay put and take someone right there, or trade down for a different tier player and more selections. That’s certainly possible if a quarterback run extends to the 10 slot.

All that guesswork is made for mock drafts. Let’s take a look at the aforementioned intriguing possibilities at No. 10 – we’re assuming elite options, like Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick are already gone – heading toward the NFL draft.

Smith is the coverage linebacker the Raiders have sorely missed in recent seasons. He has excellent speed. He’s an explosive tackler, a team leader and someone you could simply plug in and let him play.

“I feel like I’m very instinctual,” Smith said. “My IQ of the game and my sideline to sideline ability. My ability to strike guys. And make plays. I’m just a playmaker, if you ask me.”

Smith also stands a bit smaller than inside linebackers of old. He measured well at the combine, standing 6-foot-1 and was up 11 pounds over his college playing weight at 236. Smith looks and plays like the modern NFL linebacker required in a pass-heavy league.

He could fit in well even if NaVorro Bowman is re-signed. He would play on the weak side with Bowman in the middle, providing solid interior play the Raiders haven’t had in sometime. McKenzie hasn’t drafted a linebacker above the fifth round yet in his Raiders tenure, but Smith could buck that trend, and new voices in the draft room might help the cause.

There’s a real chance Smith is gone by then.

Ward could be, too, especially with the cornerback hungry 49ers sitting at No. 9. The Ohio State cover man ran the 40-yard dash in a combine-best 4.32 seconds. He’s more physical than you might think for his size (5-foot-10, 191 pounds) but isn’t afraid to hit.

“I would say my speed separates myself from other players,” Ward said. “Other than speed, my footwork at the line of scrimmage and my ability to be able to mirror receivers and stay in the hip pocket of receivers.”

He would pair with 2016 first-round selection and fellow Ohio State prospect Gareon Conley at cornerback. The Buckeyes could offer a solid solution in a problem spot with near-constantly rotating talent.

McKenzie has struggled drafting defensive backs to this point. Snagging one this high could be a sure thing. The Raiders could also add cover men in free agency – and possibly re-sign TJ Carrie – which would allow them to take a player like Vea.

Most analysts believe he’ll be available at No. 10, and could have an instant impact on the interior defensive line. Khalil Mack and Raiders edge rushers would benefit from him swallowing blockers on the inside.

The Milpitas native wants to play like former 49ers lineman Justin Smith. Raiders fans should want that type player, regardless of association with someone in red and gold. The kid’s an absolute freak. He stands 6-4, 347 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 5.10 seconds and bench pressed 225 a whopping 41 times.

He can play anywhere along the front, with rare versatility for someone his size. He wouldn’t mind playing close to home either.

“I guess anybody would say that would be awesome to play back home,” Vea said. “That would be a great start to anybody's career. That would be fun being around your family, especially being away from them for a while. You get to see them and be around them for a while. So, it would be cool if the opportunity came up.”

The Raiders will have an opportunity to shore up a weakness in the first round, with three quality options (and quite a few more) how have excellent tape and showed well at the combine.

49ers position-by-position watch list at NFL Scouting Combine

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usati

49ers position-by-position watch list at NFL Scouting Combine

Before Jimmy Garoppolo took over as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, the 49ers were right behind the Cleveland Browns in the projected order for the NFL draft.

Now, a coin toss on Friday in Indianapolis with the Raiders will determine whether the 49ers pick No. 9 or No. 10 in the first round. Both teams finished with a 6-10 record.

The 49ers’ drop in the draft is a small price to pay for the assurance the 49ers have filled their top priority. After acquiring Garoppolo in a trade with the New England Patriots for a second-round draft pick, the 49ers felt like they landed their quarterback of the future.

But watching Garoppolo play in five games convinced general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan that Garoppolo was worthy of locking up to the NFL’s richest contract.

Garoppolo is under contract through the 2022 season with a deal that averages $27.5 million per season. And, now, the 49ers head off to the NFL Scouting Combine this week with their focus on some intriguing prospects at other positions.

CORNERBACK
Ahkello Witherspoon made tremendous strides last season after a rough training camp and being declared inactive for the first four games of the season.

Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson opened the season as the starters. Robinson disappointed on and off the field, and was traded to the New York Jets at the trade deadline. Johnson lost confidence late in the season. Although he started every game, he was pulled off the field during a couple of difficult games.

So the 49ers head into the offseason with Witherspoon and nobody else. The other starting cornerback is not yet on the team.

Denzel Ward, Ohio State: What he lacks in size (5-10, 191) and strength, Ward makes up for in athleticism and cover skills. Ward is as good as it gets in coverage, and he can be expected to shine in all the on-field testing at the combine.

Josh Jackson, Iowa: Jackson showed tremendous play-making ability in just 14 career starts. He recorded eight interceptions and 27 passes defensed. Jackson (6-1) has prototypical size for the 49ers’ defensive scheme.

Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State: McFadden (6-2, 198) is adept at being physical at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing between quarterbacks and receivers. He is also good at an area that has been an issue with 49ers cornerbacks: Turning to find the football. He must prove he can run with top-flight receivers.

OFFENSIVE LINE
The play along the 49ers’ offensive line improved dramatically after quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and his quick release settled into the starting lineup. The biggest areas of need for this season are on the interior offensive line.

The 49ers re-signed center Daniel Kilgore to a three-year extension two weeks ago. Right guard Brandon Fusco, as 16-game starter, is not signed for 2018. Laken Tomlinson started 15 games after he arrived in a trade shortly before the start of the regular season. The 49ers are curious what he can do with a full offseason and training camp. Joshua Garnett will be given an opportunity to compete for a job after spending last season on injured reserve with a knee issue.

The tackle positions also might require some attention. Right tackle Trent Brown, who is rehabbing from shoulder surgery, enters the final year of his contract and his future with the club beyond this season is up in the air. Left tackle Joe Staley finished the season strong. But he turns 34 in August, and it’s unknown how many more seasons he can play.

Quentin Nelson, Notre Dame: The consensus top offensive lineman in the draft is a guard. It is rare that guards are selected within the top 10, and the bust rate seems to be high. But Nelson (6-5, 329) could be different. He is a mauler. But does he have the quickness and agility in space to fulfill the requirements of a lineman in Shanahan’s outside zone-blocking game? Nelson will be out to prove at the combine he has the feet to fit any scheme. For the 49ers, it probably does not matter, though. He is likely to already be off the board when their pick rolls around.

Connor Williams, Texas: The 49ers have an immediate need at guard. And they have a future need at tackle. Williams (6-6, 320) could potentially begin his career at guard before transitioning to a long-term home at one of the tackle positions.

Alex Cappa, Humboldt State: Cappa (6-7, 305) is likely to be available on the third day of the draft. He would compete for a starting job at guard as a rookie and, perhaps, move to right tackle in the future. His nastiness is not questioned. However, his agility and athleticism will be scrutinized during drills in Indianapolis.

EDGE RUSHER
Two different general managers and three separate head coaches have been behind the 49ers’ decisions to use their top pick over the past three years on defensive linemen Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas.

The 49ers have been lacking a dominant outside pass-rusher capable of contributing double-digit sacks. There has not been a 49ers player with more than 6.5 sacks since 2013, when Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks tied with 8.5 sacks apiece.

Brandon Chubb, North Carolina State: Chubb might be the most-perfect player for the 49ers in this entire draft. There is little question he is viewed as the top pass-rusher coming out of college. But the 49ers have no chance at adding him to their pass-rush starved defense because of their late-season surge.

Marcus Davenport, Texas-San Antonio: Davenport dominated against lower-level competition. His size and athletic measurables should compare favorably to others at this position.

Arden Key, LSU: There are plenty of questions about Key, who posted 11 sacks in 2016. Key (6-6, 265) left the LSU football team for about four months during last offseason for “personal reasons.” Each team will determine if he provides satisfactory explanations to those questions. He has all the physical tools. The interviews will be most important part of Key's combine experience.

WIDE RECEIVER
As was the case with nearly every position group on the 49ers, the wide receivers looked a lot better after Garoppolo took over as the starter. Still, the 49ers would like to add a young, big-bodied receiver to develop.

Marquise Goodwin turned into a great find as a free agent. Pierre Garçon was the team’s leading receiver before his season was cut short due to a neck injury. And rookie Trent Taylor showed plenty of promise in the slot.

The 49ers would like to add more depth and different skillsets at wide receiver, including a player who can be trusted as a target in the red zone. The 49ers got inside the opponents’ 20-yard line 24 times in the final five games with Garoppolo and came away with just 11 touchdowns.

Calvin Ridley, Alabama: In what looks like a weak crop of wide receivers, Ridley (6-1, 190) stands out as the likely top selection. However, he does not come without some questions, too. He’s a smooth athlete and a good route runner, but might struggle with press coverage and had too many drops in his college career.

Courtland Sutton, SMU: He could be the big, red-zone presence that the 49ers could use on the outside in Shanahan’s offense. Sutton (6-4, 218) is durable and plays wide receiver like a power forward boxing out for rebounds under the boards. The combine is huge for Sutton. He must show in the 40-yard dash that he has enough speed to threaten defensive backs. Shanahan looks for receivers who can get open. Sutton has the size to catch contested passes, but he must be able to generate some separation, too.

Equanimeous St. Brown, Notre Dame: St. Brown (6-5, 204) should run well at the combine. His speed coupled with his size is likely to lead some team to believe he can be molded into a big-play machine. Shanahan could find an immediate, specific role for him as a rookie while continuing to develop his overall game.

INSIDE LINEBACKER
The 49ers feel very good about how their projected starting inside linebackers fit together on the field.

The team was expecting big things from veteran Malcolm Smith before he sustained a season-ending torn pectoral in training camp. And a year ago, the club ranked Reuben Foster as the No. 3 prospect in the draft.

Smith is still projected as a starter at weakside linebacker. But Foster’s future is a lot more cloudy due to two offseason arrests – one in Alabama for possession of marijuana, and one on charges of domestic violence, threats and possession of an assault weapon in Los Gatos.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office is reviewing the case to determine whether to proceed with formal criminal charges. Foster remains with the 49ers, but he is also subject to potential NFL discipline. While the 49ers have not shown they are anywhere near ready to move on from Foster, they must prepare as if he will not be available.

Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech: Each team might have a different idea about how to use Edmunds (6-5, 250) within their scheme. Edmunds should excel during the drills at the combine, which could see him climb even further up draft boards. The 49ers could use him as any of their linebacker positions, as well as give him a shot as an edge rusher.

Roquan Smith, Georgia: Smith (6-1, 225) is an absurdly athletic player who studies the game and should have no problem stepping into an NFL to relay the calls. He is a strong candidate at a need position for the Raiders, too. So the coin flip could determine whether he is on the board when the 49ers go on the clock.

Jerome Baker, Ohio State: The 49ers would have to take Smith or Edmunds with their first pick. If they go in a different direction in the first round, Baker (6-1, 225) is an option in the second or third round. His strength in the bench press will be monitored, and he will have to impress during any interviews that he has the right mindset to handle the requirements of middle linebacker.