Karl Joseph

Why Raiders' young secondary excites defensive backs coach for 2019

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USATSI

Why Raiders' young secondary excites defensive backs coach for 2019

Derrick Ansley is a grinder, someone who appreciates working with similar personality types. That’s why the Raiders secondary coach is looking forward to molding a group of young defensive backs expected to play major roles next season.

Cornerback Gareon Conley and strong safety Karl Joseph seem set to start next season. Daryl Worley should formally join that crew at outside corner opposite Conley this spring, when he’s expected to re-sign with the Raiders as a restricted free agent.

Nick Nelson’s also in the mix there. So is free safety Erik Harris – he’s technically an exclusive rights free agent set to return -- who finished the season strong often as the last line of defense.

The common thread: All of those guys have three years NFL experience or less.

That’s a solid group to build on in the back.

“All those guys are young, but the most important thing is they have an ear and an eye to get better,” Ansley told NBC Sports Bay Area at the end of the Senior Bowl practice week. "If you have guys who lock in and pay attention to details, that helps them grow.

"Our young defensive backs have ability. The only thing they’re lacking is experience. Some have more that others, but I believe those guys are headed in the right direction.”

It wasn’t clear Joseph was doing that early on. The 2016 first-round pick was buried on the depth chart, as low as the fourth safety through three weeks.

A hamstring injury at Miami ruined his season’s first half, but the West Virginia came on strong once he got healthy and grew within a hybrid role that often had him attacking in the box. Joseph was both aggressive and effective, becoming a defensive tone setter the secondary sorely lacked.

Ansley knows why that happened.

“Football means a lot to Karl,” Ansley said. “He puts a lot of time into his craft and, whether it’s in the meeting room, film room or practice field, he’s always trying to find the next thing needs to get better. If football really matters you work and work and work, things start to turn around. We saw what towards the end of the season with Karl.”

[RELATED: Ranking the Raiders' top five needs heading into free agency, NFL Draft]

The Raiders must add to this secondary with cornerback depth and a presumptive starter at free safety. That could come in the draft.

Alabama’s Deionte Thompson is often considered the NFL draft’s best safety, though Delaware’s Nasir Adderley impressed many, including the Raiders, with college tape and a solid Senior Bowl week. Maryland’s Darnell Savage also showed well, with the versatility many teams crave.

Someone coached by the Raiders during Senior Bowl week, including the last two prospects mentioned above, could help complete a secondary that seems to be on the rise if Ansley can continue to develop young talent.

Ranking the Raiders' top five needs heading into free agency, NFL Draft

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AP

Ranking the Raiders' top five needs heading into free agency, NFL Draft

The Raiders season stunk. It was a throw away, in essence, used to acquire the NFL draft picks and salary cap flexibility to remake the roster as Jon Gruden sees fit.

Now is that time. The Raiders have roughly $78 million in cap space and 10 NFL draft picks, including four in the top 35 selections.

The Raiders are armed well to reload in a pivotal offseason where we could and should see significant roster turnover. Let’s rank the Raiders’ top five needs heading toward the 2019 season:

[RELATED: Mayock believes he, Gruden agree on how to build Raiders]

1. Edge rusher

The Raiders didn’t generate much pressure on the quarterback, especially from the flanks. Arden Key and Frostee Rucker were miscast as three-down players, forced into some roles that played away from their strengths.

They were forced into steady snaps after Khalil Mack got traded and a frustrated Bruce Irvin got cut, eliminating established threats off the edge.

The Raiders have to start over atop the depth chart. They could use more than one new impact edge rusher, with Key returning as the situational pass rusher he was expected to be as a rookie.

There’s enough salary cap space to sign someone in a loaded free-agent class that gets away from his team – several, including Jadeveon Clowney and Frank Clark, should re-sign with their current clubs – who can get a raise to lead the defense and provide some heat. Then the Raiders should still use their No. 4 overall pick on another edge rusher.

That could remake the defensive front, with Key in reserve and 2018 draftees Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall helping rush from the inside.

2. Receiver

Jordy Nelson is coming back in 2019. The Raiders should build a whole new position group around him. Nelson is a solid leader and a smart pass catcher who can still produce, but he doesn’t have the wheels to scare opponents anymore.

Seth Roberts is likely gone, Martavis Bryant is suspended again and Brandon LaFell won’t be back after suffering an Achilles tear. Marcell Ateman will remain, but needs more time to develop in a much smaller role.

The free-agent class is thin outside Golden Tate and a few others, but a free agent could still help the group and add experience. The Raiders should use a first-round pick on a receiver, and maybe another selection later in the draft to remake the group. Derek Carr needs dynamic threats, and didn’t have many after Amari Cooper was traded to Dallas near midseason.

3. Middle linebacker

The Raiders started the 2018 season with Marquel Lee in the middle spot, but moved him to the strong side as the year progressed. Jason Cabinda and Nick Morrow platooned at that spot after the Lee switch and were serviceable young players, but a new and dynamic presence is needed on the inside next to returning weakside linebacker Tahir Whitehead.

The Raiders haven’t devoted significant resources to this, but now might be the time to do so. A veteran makes the most sense, which would allow Cabinda and Morrow to continue developing underneath a more established player.

That guy must cover well if playing all three downs is required. Philadelphia’s Jordan Hicks seems like an affordable fit there.

4. Safety

Karl Joseph sure looked like the answer at strong safety and should be expected back next season, but his running mate is up in the air. Marcus Gilchrist was just okay as a one-year rental and Reggie Nelson won’t return, leaving the Raiders lacking at the free safety spot. Erik Harris had some good moments there, but could be a strong No. 3 who can play extensive snaps in a pinch.

There are plenty of good free agents and a few early-to-mid-round draft picks who could be the ballhawk an otherwise strong secondary could use roaming in the back.

5. Running back

Marshawn Lynch proved to be as physical and aggressive as ever early in the 2018 season, before a groin pull ended it after six weeks. Lynch’s contract expired and there’s no telling what he’ll do in 2019, though it sure seems unlikely he would come back unless the Raiders played within the Oakland city limits.

[RELATED: Raiders reportedly discussing San Diego as 2019 home]

Doug Martin finished strong after Lynch got hurt, but he’ll be 30 next season and there could be some questions about whether he could stand up to a full season as a feature back. Jalen Richard is expected back in restricted free agency and Chris Warren III will be ready to go after a rookie year spent on IR.

The Raiders could and probably should look for a young runner in the draft who can compete for or grow into a large role on first and second down. There’s always a possibility Le’Veon Bell could end up with the Raiders, but it seems are more likely they'll add versatile depth to the position group.

Raiders should add dynamic, ballhawk safety in free agency or NFL draft

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USATSI

Raiders should add dynamic, ballhawk safety in free agency or NFL draft

Editor's note: The Raiders season isn't over, but we'll keep one eye on the future with our weekly series on the team's biggest needs heading into 2019 and how voids can be filled best. This week's focus is on the secondary.

The Raiders are still trying to add to their secondary, even heading into Week 17.

Oakland recently tried to pick up embattled safety D.J. Swearinger up on waivers. Washington cut the talented, yet opinionated feather-ruffler after he criticized coaching after a loss to Tennessee on Dec. 22, but the Raiders’ high waiver priority still wasn’t good enough to get him.

The Arizona Cardinals have the top waiver spot in the NFL with their 3-12 record, and snatched up a Pro Bowl alternate with an affordable 2019 salary.

It’s also a sign that, despite improved safety play of late, the Raiders are still looking to upgrade the position.

While other stories in this series focusing on Raiders offseason needs have focused on complete overhauls, the Silver and Black could use one dynamic upgrade to compliment what they already have. A ball hawk, in particular, would help this group.

They didn’t seem to have much early in the year, but Karl Joseph’s emergence has changed that opinion. The team’s 2016 first-round pick has added aggressiveness in the box and on the back end, and has played well as a roving chess piece. He has become a three-down player, and has impressed a coaching staff unsure about him as this regular season began.

Erik Harris and Marcus Gilchrist have been solid and versatile, but another ball-hawking talent could upgrade a strong, young and promising Raiders secondary.

Let’s take a look at this Raiders need, and how it can be filled in 2019:

Players likely to stay in 2019

Karl Joseph: The Raiders were shopping the West Viriginia alum around the trade deadline, and they’re probably happy they didn’t deal him. Joseph has played far better in recent weeks, with physical play that was his trademark in college. He has been an impactful pass rusher, with an ability to play the run well without being a liability in coverage. He isn’t the tallest defensive back, but he’s serviceable in coverage and should step in at strong safety, allowing the Raiders to focus on solving more pressing problems.

Erik Harris: The third-year pro is a restricted free agent this offseason after getting his first opportunity to play extended defensive snaps. That total has gone up, and he has had some good moments in reserve or part of a rotation. He could be impactful in a similar role next season as well. Assuming, of course, his market remains low and the Raiders can retain him.

Dallin Leavitt: The undrafted rookie spent most of this season on the practice squad, before getting promoted last week. He should get a chance to compete for a roster spot next offseason.

Players likely to go

Marcus Gilchrist: The veteran defensive back pulled in roughly $4.5 million on a one-year deal, but will re-enter the open market next spring. He’s a solid field general and has good moments, but he might be allowed to leave for an draft pick or higher-priority free agent to take his spot. Gilchrist’s versatility is as asset, as we saw last week when he primarily played slot cornerback after manning the safety spots all year.

Reggie Nelson: The 35-year old played a lot early in the year, but struggled as the season wore on and ended up on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, and isn’t expect back for a third contract with the Raiders.

Raiders potential offseason plan

Free agency: There’s an intriguing free-agent class ready to hit the market. Rams safety LaMarcus Joyner and Seattle’s Early Thomas will headline the group, though Joyner could be too pricey and Thomas might cost a pretty penny in addition to having some injury concerns.

Tyrann Mathieu won’t be cheap, but could bring the versatility required to assist at several different spots. It seems likely he stays in Houston.

Ha Ha Clinton Dix is another quality option and only 26, though Washington gave Green Bay a fourth round pick to rent him. One would imagine Washington would want to keep him, but a pricey contract offer could pry him away if he reaches the market. He’s a guy the Raiders could go after if they’re willing to spend on a safety and provide a veteran’s presence in an otherwise young secondary and put a larger body back there with Joseph.

Draft: Alabama safety Deionte Thompson has ideal size and speed as a patroller on the back end, and is frequently considered the best safety available. He’s the ballhawk the Raiders are looking for, seemingly a perfect fit. He could be had in the 20s, with one of the team’s extra first-round picks. Florida’s Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is a versatile piece who can play deep or in the slot. The Raiders like guys like that, and could get him in the second round. Miami’s Jaquan Johnson is also a highly-touted safety who can play in the box.

Washington’s Taylor Rapp and Delaware’s Nasir Adderley are also options who could be found outside the first round.

Bottom line: The Raiders need volume at several spots, but have some safeties already in the mix who could stay there in 2019. Adding a solid free safety, a good communicator who can intercept passes, seems like a necessity this time around. The NFL draft might provide some better and cheaper options to add to a young safety. An established free agent could, however, add veteran leadership to the group.

Take a look at other positions the Raiders must upgrade this offseason, as examined in our weekly series: 

Edge rushers: https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/raiders/why-raiders-should-look-edge-rushers-free-agency-2019-nfl-draft

Recievers: https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/raiders/raiders-must-use-2019-nfl-draft-free-agency-overhaul-wide-receiver-corps

Middle linebackers: https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/raiders/raiders-must-find-long-term-middle-linebacker-2019-free-agency-nfl-draft