NFL draft makeover: Raiders need fresh blood at several spots on defense

Eric Edholm
·7 min read

Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous few Sundays and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Round 5 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Las Vegas Raiders. How can they improve the defense and avoid another late-season fall?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

The Raiders showed nominal improvement in their first season in their new home, turning their 7-9 farewell campaign in Oakland to an 8-8 record in a challenging 2020 season in Las Vegas.

Those results were eerily similar in one way: Both Raiders teams were in strong shape heading into the home stretches — a 6-5 mark late in 2019, followed by a 6-3 mark in 2020 — before fading.

Now the brain trust of head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock must ask the hard questions as to why the team hasn’t been built to last.

There are plenty of reasons for optimism. Darren Waller has turned into a star, and Nelson Agholor has become a surprise development. The offense has a foundation in place, with Derek Carr showing improvement in Year 3 under Gruden. There are some parts on defense that should be part of the rebuild on that side of the ball.

That said, some of the team’s high draft picks (a lot that was bolstered by the Khalil Mack trade), free-agent signings and other trades have not panned out as expected. The Raiders’ five first-round picks the past two years with Mayock in charge (Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, Johnathan Abram, Henry Ruggs III and Damon Arnette) can be summed up as a mixed bag so far.

On defense, the lack of pass rush pressure, third-down efficiency, run-stopping prowess and forced turnovers are issues that must be corrected. The back seven endured myriad issues, and the front line was inconsistent.

The unit ranked 25th in yards allowed, 26th in interception rate, 29th in sack percentage, 30th on third downs and 30th in points allowed. Over the final seven games, the Raiders allowed 33.9 points per game. That’s unsustainable.

How much did the Raiders’ COVID-related issues factored into this? Well, some, it seemed. Ferrell, Abram, Arnette, Maliek Collins, Nick Kwiatkoski and others on that side of the ball all spent time on the COVID reserve list. But the Raiders’ own missteps related to virus protocol can’t be blamed on anyone else — the NFL even stripped them of a draft pick for their violations.

And as the Raiders try to keep building this offseason, they will be working with less draft capital than in recent years. They’ll lose the higher of their two sixth-rounders for the COVID violation but do have one pick in every round now. Las Vegas will be picking 17th overall in Round 1.

That’s still high enough to land a respectable defender capable of starting Day 1. Then again, Ferrell, Abram and Arnette each started in Week 1 of their rookie seasons, and none of the three has yet established themselves as a standout.

Michigan defensive lineman Kwity Paye only suited up for four games in 2020 but turned in a strong performance. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan defensive lineman Kwity Paye suited up for only four games in 2020 but turned in a strong performance. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Early-round prospect

Michigan EDGE Kwity Paye

I went back and forth on this one, with linebacker a spot I considered strongly here — and there would be multiple prospects at that position who make sense.

One would be Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, an athletic roamer who can help cover the division’s best tight ends and backs, and Mayock’s connection to the school couldn’t hurt. (We also selfishly would love to see a player nicknamed “JOKer” to end up in Vegas, naturally.)

We instead pivoted to the pass rush, which also needs help. If the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Paye is available here, it would make a lot of sense for the Raiders. His football character and athleticism both check the boxes you’d assume Mayock would be smitten by.

And that would give the Raiders a strong top three of Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Paye. Crosby played a lot of snaps this season and could use help. Ferrell played better but isn’t yet an impact pass rusher. Paye is very good against the run and is developing some real pass rushing promise.

The Raiders were forced to play Arden Key and Carl Nassib too much this season, receiving replacement-level performances out of both. Adding a potential star to the mix in Paye — who can also kick inside on passing downs — could give this group a strong boost.

Paye was limited to four games this fall after suffering what’s believed to be a groin injury. In the games he played this season, Paye was Michigan’s best all-around defender.

Mid-round prospect

USC DT Marlon Tuipulotu

For this exercise, we consider “mid-round” to start in Round 3. Will Tuipulotu still be available close to the Raiders’ pick (No. 81 overall) there? It’s a tough call.

Tuipulotu’s late rise during a shortened season has his stock simmering. He still remains a challenging evaluation when it comes to projecting how he might best be utilized in Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme.

At 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, Tuipulotu doesn’t profile as a typical nose tackle. But he’s disruptive with his quickness, strong and active hands, and high energy. He should stand out on tape when Bradley, Gruden and Mayock sit down to watch him.

USC defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu had a good season for the Trojans. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
USC defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu had a good season for the Trojans. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

With Bradley as the defensive coordinator, it’s imperative the Raiders add multiple rushers — inside and out — to the mix. Bradley is among the most selective blitzers of any coordinator in the NFL in recent seasons. The scheme’s success requires the front four to consistently get home.

The Raiders are shorthanded up front. Collins was a disappointment. Johnathan Hankins appears to be a stop-gap option. They can upgrade over Kendal Vickers and others who received snaps up front. The only true building block appears to be Maurice Hurst, as other recent picks haven’t panned out as well.

Tuipulotu lined up mostly as an undersized nose, but he also saw time at almost every technique up and down the line. Bradley says he wants to mix and match a lot, and Tuipulotu could bolster that effort.

Late-round prospect

Georgia S Richard LeCounte

It might be surprising for some to see LeCounte’s name here, as he has been one of the better college safeties over the past few seasons, playing at a high level in the SEC and earning a reputation as a strong leader for Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs.

But there is hesitation among scouts with LeCounte’s physical traits. He might not measure out to be 5-foot-11, and he has played in the 180-pound range. On top of that, LeCounte’s athletic testing numbers are not expected to be great. If the NFL scouting combine is pushed back this year, we could see those workout numbers having even more recency bias and hurting his stock.

Some teams we’ve spoken to have placed third- or fourth-round grades on him. It’s no guarantee LeCounte will make it to Round 5, but it wouldn’t be stunning if his testing is disappointing.

Georgia S Richard LeCounte isn't the biggest or fastest, but he makes the most of his ability. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Georgia safety Richard LeCounte isn't the biggest or fastest, but he makes the most of his ability. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Even so, LeCounte’s value is measured well beyond his height, weight and speed. He has a proven track record of being a playmaker at Georgie (176 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions, 10 pass breakups, four fumbles forced, six fumbles recoveries). Mayock appears to be a fan of players producing at the highest level of competition, too.

LeCounte plays at max speed — occasionally to his detriment, putting himself in tough spots at times. That might frighten some Raiders fans who have seen Abram’s undisciplined style work against the defense more than once. But LeCounte’s smarts, toughness and solid range could help a secondary that must face Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert for 25 percent of the next several seasons.

And here’s a fun tie-in: LeCounte is very close friends with Raiders linebacker Raekwon McMillan.

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