Oakland Raiders: Draft Class Reveals McKenzie’s Thoughts On Team’s Faults

Sep 10, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee (8) celebrates after a sack during the third quarter against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium. Wake defeated Duke 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee (8) celebrates after a sack during the third quarter against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium. Wake defeated Duke 24-14. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports /

Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie‘s 2017 draft class is earning some mixed reviews – but a closer look reveals his thinking about the team’s biggest shortcomings.

On the surface, it can be said that Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie played his board, stuck to it, and took the best players available when they were on the clock. And to be sure, he picked up some outstanding talent to help flesh out this roster.

But a closer look at the players he chose, sort of showcases where he thought the team’s biggest shortcomings were last season, and where the blame lies for the defense’s struggles.

Clearly, the Raiders struggled against the run and the pass in 2016. With a pass defense that ranked twenty-fourth in the league, and a run defense that ranked twenty-third (and a defense that ranked twenty-sixth overall), there certainly is plenty of blame to go around.

With some premier front seven players – and in the secondary – it seemed to be a given that McKenzie would be focusing on the defensive side of the ball in the Draft. Especially after focusing on offense, adding notables like Jared Cook and Cordarrelle Patterson, during free agency.

The 2017 Draft boasted a deep, deep class of defensive talent. And many believed that given the fact that Oakland failed to generate a solid and consistent pass rush in 2017, struggled against the run, and was routinely torched by opposing tight ends, McKenzie would be looking to add some beef to the interior of the defensive line as well as some playmaking linebackers.

And amazingly enough, the pieces started coming together as Alabama’s Reuben Foster started to slide down the draft board. Foster, the consensus top linebacker in this year’s Draft, is a force on the field, plays both the run and the pass well, and would have upgraded Oakland’s defense instantly.

Except – McKenzie passed on Foster. He passed on Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham – twice. In fact, McKenzie didn’t add a linebacker until the fifth round when he took Wake Forest’s Marquel Lee – who is aggressive and physical, but lacks speed and has coverage skills that may make him a liability on passing downs.

Oakland Raiders
Oct 8, 2016; Tempe, AZ, USA; UCLA Bruins defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes (47) in the second quarter against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Some project Lee to be – at best – a two-down, rotational piece, rather than a solid solution to Oakland’s problems in the middle of the defense.

As for the problem up front, McKenzie passed on some of the bigger names still on the board and waited until the third round to take UCLA’s Eddie Vanderdoes. At 6’3”, 325 pounds, Vanderdoes takes up a ton of space along that interior but has plenty of question marks of his own.

So, what does it mean that McKenzie waited until the third and fifth rounds – and took players who might only be part-timers at best – to address what was arguably, the team’s biggest weakness in 2016?

Well, given that McKenzie used the team’s first two picks on a cornerback (Gareon Conley) and a safety (Obi Melifonwu), it would seem that McKenzie saw the secondary as the defense’s biggest weakness last season.

Make no mistake, Sean Smith and David Amerson had a very up and down year. They made some plays, but there were also times they got absolutely lit up. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Smith still has nightmares about Brandin Cooks.

And let’s not forget about the inconsistency from the slot. D.J. Hayden, T.J. Carrie, and everybody else they ran through the slot position seemed to struggle.

Obviously, upgrading the slot corner position was a key need. But it was surprising – and telling – that McKenzie chose to address it as early on as he did. And address it with such a selection as controversial as Conley, who is still currently facing an open rape investigation.

Conley has the talent to be a huge and instant upgrade in the slot. And he very well could be groomed to take over one of the outside roles should Amerson or Smith falter again this year.

The selection of Melifonwu was simply a case of right place, right time. Given his freakish athleticism, most believed he was a first round talent. So, for him to fall to the Raiders in the back end of the second round, it seemed like a gift from the football gods.

It makes sense that McKenzie would take him because of his size, speed, athleticism, and most importantly, his versatility.

Melifonwu is listed as a safety, but with Reggie Nelson and Karl Joseph already manning the safety spots, don’t be surprised to see him used as a safety/linebacker hybrid. It wouldn’t be shocking at all to see Melifonwu used in a very similar fashion to how the Raiders used Taylor Mays – he’s got the size to body up on a tight end and the speed to hang with backs and receivers in the slot.

Oakland Raiders
Sep 26, 2015; East Hartford, CT, USA; Navy Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds runs the ball against Connecticut Huskies safety Obi Melifonwu (20) in the second half at Rentschler Field. Navy defeated Uconn 28-18 Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

Eventually, a Joseph/Melifonwu tandem in Oakland’s defensive backfield is going to be one of the most intimidating in the league. But for now, look for Melifonwu to be a third safety, playing in that hybrid role.

Oakland secondary seems to be shaping up nicely, and should be much improved over last season’s incarnation. The team’s run defense though, has as many question marks today as it did when last season ended.

Adding Jelani Jenkins in free agency doesn’t quite offset the loss (so far) of Perry Riley.  And Marquel Lee is an unknown, unproven commodity who may or may not make an impact on this team. Vanderdoes has shown flashes, but this team needs more than just flashes. This team needs solid, consistent, reliable production.

Next: McKenzie Hoping Gamble Doesn't Blow Up In His Face

With the team getting just about zero pressure up the middle last season, opposing quarterbacks had the time to sit back and pick the secondary apart. Oakland had a league-low 25 sacks last season – and 18 of those came from two players (Khalil Mack – 11; Bruce Irvin – 7). They got virtually nothing from the interior of that line.

They say that games are won and lost in the trenches. And that goes for both sides of the ball. The Raiders, last season, lost far too many battles in their defensive trenches. And the secondary, as well as the linebackers on that second level paid the price for that.

Which makes it all the more curious that McKenzie would use his first two picks on the secondary, rather than add some impact players (ie: Reuben or Cunningham) to the team’s front seven.

McKenzie added some talent, there’s no question about it. He got a few impact guys. But if you look at his picks a little closer, you’ll see that he essentially seems to be blaming the secondary for the failures of the defense overall, rather than the lack of a pass rush or linebackers who were soft against the run and a liability in pass coverage.

Oakland filled a few needs – but they still have some glaring holes that they’re going to need to find a way to fill before the season begins. If they don’t, this defense very well may look like the 2016 version of itself all over again.