Oakland Raiders: Defense Wins Rings Philosophy Guiding Team’s Draft Picks

Nov 22, 2014; Champaign, IL, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Bell Belton (1) is tackled by Illinois Fighitng Illini defensive end Jihad Ward (17) at Memorial Stadium. Illinois beat Penn State 16 to 14. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 22, 2014; Champaign, IL, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Bell Belton (1) is tackled by Illinois Fighitng Illini defensive end Jihad Ward (17) at Memorial Stadium. Illinois beat Penn State 16 to 14. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders used their second and third round draft picks on pass rushers, continuing their trend of building a defensive bully.

With the Oakland Raiders‘ General Manager and Head Coach both having a defensive background, it would seem to make sense that their overriding philosophy would be that defenses win championships. Certainly, we’ve seen it enough in Super Bowl history to know that old axiom holds true. Look no further than last year’s Super Bowl as evidence – the league’s best defense manhandled the league’s best offense. Given that template, it’s not entirely surprising to see Reggie McKenzie and Jack Del Rio building their defense into an absolute bully.

The Raiders surprised many when they used the fourteenth overall pick on safety Karl Joseph. They continued to raise eyebrows around when they used their second round pick (forty-fourth overall) on Illinois pass rusher Jihad Ward and then turned around and used their third round pick (seventy-fifth overall) on Michigan State pass rusher Shilique Calhoun.

It’s the first time since 2005 that the Raiders have used their first three picks on defensive players. In that year, the Raiders chose cornerbacks Stanford Routt and Fabian Washington, as well as linebacker Kirk Morrison – an additional third round pick that year netted them quarterback Andrew Walter.

McKenzie, Del Rio and the Raiders though, are hoping that the three defensive players selected this year, turn out to be a far better crop of talent than the 2005 selections turned out to be. But more importantly, it shows that the Raiders are committed to building a championship caliber defense that can help lead this team to a title a la, the Broncos, Seahawks, Ravens, et al.

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In Ward, they are getting a player with a ton of raw talent and tremendous upside. At 6’6”, 297 pounds, and with an enormous wingspan, he has potential coming out of his ears. But he’s a player who is going to need a little time and a lot of work to develop into what they believe he can be. Coming into Illinois as a JUCO transfer – where he was a defensive back – Ward was installed as a defensive end where he was solid enough, though far from spectacular.

Speaking to the media about what drew them to Ward, Del Rio said he has,“big upside, a big, athletic defensive lineman that can play multiple positions . . . he’s relatively young at the position and was more an athlete-type guy that is fairly young at that position. He stays on his feet, chases the ball, plays hard.”

The selection of Ward certainly drew a lot of criticism throughout the media and the Raider Nation, but then again, so did the selection of Mario Edwards Jr. – a player with a number of red flags as well – in the second round last season, and that seemed to have turned out pretty darn well given the fact that he was developing into a very fine pass rusher in DC Ken Norton Jr.’s defense.

With the selection of Calhoun, the Raiders are getting a more established, more refined pass rusher. Calhoun was a part of one of the best defenses in the country at Michigan State last year and helped lead them to the National Championship game.

As a senior at Michigan State last year, Calhoun notched 49 tackles – 15 for a loss – 10.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and three passes defensed. Over the course of his career at MSU, Calhoun had 44 tackles for a loss and 27 sacks, an interception, four forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries.

Calhoun’s versatility and athleticism are what attracted Del Rio in the first place. At 6’5”, 250 lbs., is being projected as a defensive end/outside linebacker in Norton’s defensive scheme. And he believes that he’s up for the challenge.

"“I can play multiple positions. I definitely do believe that the Sam works for me. If you want to put my hands in the dirt, that also works. I think that I can play multiple roles and that I can contribute to the team in many different ways. If he wants to put me at tailback, I can also play a little tailback as well.”"

Though some have panned the Raiders’ second and third round selections – Pro Football Focus ranked the selection of Ward as the fourth worst of Round Two – they added depth to a defensive line that needed it. And they have quite possibly even made that unit even more dynamic than it was last season.

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They have also helped guard themselves against the possibility that Mario Edwards’ neck injury does not get better and he misses some – or even all – of the 2016 season. We don’t know his status yet as the team has insisted on keeping the matter under wraps. When asked if Edwards’ status was the reason for Oakland going with two defensive linemen on the draft’s second day, his answer was a simple and terse “no.”

If they do get Edwards back healthy and at one hundred percent, that can only help this unit – a unit that is suddenly looking incredibly fierce. A front seven that includes Khalil Mack, Justin Ellis, Dan Williams, Bruce Irvin, Aldon Smith – when he returns from suspension – Shelby Harris, Edwards Jr. – assuming he’s healthy – and now Ward and Calhoun is going to be one of the most intimidating units in the league.

With pass rushers coming from all directions and angles, opposing quarterbacks will be running for their lives and opposing offensive coordinators will be pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to stop them all.

Del Rio said, “We feel good about fortifying the front. That’s what we were able to do today — add strength and depth and competition to the front.”

The Raiders are all in on building a ferocious, championship caliber defense. A defense that can take it to the opponents, put their foot on their throats, and never let up. We’ve seen defenses carry teams to a championship and given the way the Raiders have beefed theirs up this offseason, they could very well be one of the league’s elite units this season.

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Throw in an offense that is explosive and can put up a ton of points to go along with a defense that has the ability to dominate an opponent, and the Raiders might not be competing just for an AFC West title, but perhaps even for a Lombardi Trophy.

The Raiders are most definitely building a defensive bully and it’s one that is going to give opposing offenses absolute fits.