Oakland Raiders: One stat that outlines team’s 2019 draft priorities

Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images /

The Oakland Raiders have a terrible defense, that’s not a secret – yet one wild stat paints a brighter picture and outlines the team’s draft priorities.

If you were told the Oakland Raiders have an absolutely terrible defense, what would you say? After you stopped laughing, of course.

If you heard that, you’d undoubtedly say that’s hardly groundbreaking or earth-shattering news, right? You’d probably also say that’s about as obvious as water being wet, fire being hot, and bears taking care of their business in sylvan environments, right?

But, what if you were then told that the defense really isn’t as horrible as you might initially think? And that with a couple of tweaks and additions here and there – yet, fewer than you might think – this could actually be a pretty formidable unit?

Again, go ahead and laugh it out, we’ll wait.

It’s easy to see Oakland’s defense and think the whole thing needs to be burned to the ground and the earth salted.

Given the fact that this defense gives up a tick under 30 points per game – 31st in the league – and has the 28th-ranked defense overall, you could hardly be blamed for feeling that way. But, if you start unpacking all of the stats and really looking at things a bit closer, you’d see that it’s not necessarily as black and white as all that.

One interesting stat, highlighted by Football Outsider’s Aaron Schatz, tells a story of a defense that’s not necessarily as far off from being solid as one might be tempted to otherwise think.

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You’d probably scoff at that — and nobody could really blame you if you did — but, let’s take a look at a couple of interesting numbers that may sort of support that. Consider this just a little food for thought.

If you’re one who puts stock into numbers and metrics, in looking at the following state, you’d have to conclude that Oakland’s pass coverage is improving by leaps and bounds.

All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

That they’re ranked first against the opposing team’s WR1 and fourth against their WR2 shows that this defense is starting to round into form under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

Gareon Conley is starting to play like the dominant force they expected him to be when they drafted him and Daryl Worley has been a nice surprise addition to the unit – one they should most definitely look at bringing back.

With the corners playing at such a high level, how is this defense so horrible? The simple answer, of course, is the lack of a pass rush.

Through 13 games this season, the Raiders have just 11 total sacks. And three of those belong to Bruce Irvin, now of the Atlanta Falcons.

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Yes, not having Khalil Mack hurts, but the problems extend far beyond one single player regardless of how dominant he is. Improving on Oakland’s inability to get sustained pressure on – and dropping – the opposing quarterback is the key to unlocking this whole defensive nightmare.

While the corners are doing a great job of blanketing the opposing receivers, the lack of any sort of pressure up front is giving opposing quarterbacks all the time in the world to go through their progressions – probably several times – before finding a matchup (or mismatch) to exploit.

It’s not exactly going out on a limb to say the Raiders have had trouble defending tight ends and running backs catching balls out of the backfield. And while yes, Oakland absolutely has to improve their linebackers group, the more fundamental problem is that the quarterback has all the time in the world to find those third, fourth, and sometimes fifth options in the passing game.

And that starts up front – or rather, doesn’t start, depending upon your point of view.

That stat though, would seem to outline Oakland’s draft priorities and strategy in 2019. Or at least, it should. While yes, they may want to take a look at the linebackers available, more than anything, they need help with the pass rush.

Head coach Jon Gruden (and presumably former general manager Reggie McKenzie) used up some draft capital to fortify and improve the interior pass rush last year, adding Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall. It’s a move that’s paid off as Hurst is as good as expected, leading the team with four sacks.

Combined with a hopefully healthy Justin Ellis and Eddie Vanderdoes next season, Oakland’s interior pass rush could be solid. Where they are going to need massive amounts of help is on the edges. That’s where not having Mack hurts, although, with the compensation they got in return, they can hopefully improve on the edge.

Arden Key is having an up-and-down rookie year – which is to be expected. Perhaps even more so, given that he’s really the only legit pass rushing threat at defensive end. He needs to improve his overall game, that much is certain, but he’s flashed big potential.

Which is what makes that third (and possibly still first) overall pick in 2019 so critical – they need a bookend for Key. With a strong push up the middle from Hurst and Hall (and presumably Vanderdoes), they need strength off the edges.

Assuming all things remain the same over the final four weeks of the season, the Arizona Cardinals will be picking first – which means, they’re likely going to snag Ohio State’s Nick Bosa.

Although, given the fact that they need a solid corner to play opposite Patrick Peterson, don’t be too shocked if they bypass Bosa and snatch up LSU’s Andraez Williams (aka Greedy Williams) or Georgia’s Deandre Baker – whom many consider to be the two best corners in the draft.

But we’ll assume for now that the Cardinals elect to select Bosa. What then?

While there’s a strong push from some corners for the Raiders to take Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, the fact that Gruden used two picks last season on interior linemen would seem to suggest that he’s going to look to fortify the defense elsewhere with some of the draft capital he’s accrued – namely, the edges.

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The Raiders have a lack of competent bodies at defensive end and are basically using duct tape, bailing wire, and bubble gum to hold the position down. Aside from Key, the Raiders are running out the likes of Frostee Rucker, and the recently signed Damontre Moore and Kony Ealy – is it any wonder the team isn’t getting any pressure on opposing quarterbacks?

Once the season is up, all they’re going to have left on the edge really is Key – which brings us to the draft.

Given the fact that the Raiders have three first-round picks, don’t put it past Gruden to use two of them on edge defenders – though, it might be a bit wiser to spread those out to other areas of need, such as cornerback and linebacker as well.

However, assuming things remain the same and Bosa is gone at one, Gruden should absolutely target a defensive end. Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, Boston College’s Zach Allen, and Michigan’s Rashan Gary sit atop most people’s lists of best edge defenders not named Bosa.

And Gruden should absolutely target at least one of them with what we’re assuming will be Top 5 pick.

Obviously, the team will need to supplement the position via free agency, but having a couple of dynamic youngsters on the edge, along with a couple of dynamic youngsters in the middle, could give the Raiders a very solid defensive line – one that could potentially get after the quarterback in ways we haven’t seen them do in, quite literally, years.

If Gruden plays his cards right and picks up some game-changing talent at defensive end, thus improving the pass rush, perhaps then, the statistic Schatz points out about Oakland’s cornerback play will mean something.

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If the Raiders can actually get to a quarterback before he goes through his progressions half a dozen times, and the corners continue to dominate the opposing team’s WR1 and WR2, this is a defense that could be pretty good – perhaps even great.

But it all starts up front.