With the hoopla surrounding Jon Gruden’s hiring now subsided, the Raiders touch down in Indianapolis this week for the 2018 NFL Combine.
After last year’s 6-10 campaign, Oakland has myriad issues. Securing a new head coach was No. 1 after Mark Davis fired Jack Del Rio shortly after the season finale. With Chucky in place for almost two months, the focus shifts to personnel matters.
Both Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie will speak at the combine, the first time we’ve heard from each in a group setting since Gruden’s introduction on Jan. 9. Ahead of the festivities in Indy, let’s take a look at the Raiders’ five most pressing questions at the moment.
Where will secondary help come from?
This can be expanded from simply “cornerback help” since Reggie Nelson isn’t getting any younger or faster – the Raiders may not even bring him back in free agency – and Obi Melifonwu is vastly unproven as a sidekick to Karl Joseph.
Lump in the release of David Amerson, aging and impending legal matters surrounding Sean Smith, uncertainty regarding Gareon Conley’s shin and immediate future of unrestricted free agent TJ Carrie and Oakland’s secondary has little stability entering the combine.
Does Gruden find a budding star in Indianapolis, and then the draft? It’s possible, but unlikely with his first-round pick. Alabama star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick – who was coached by new Raiders defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley in college – will be off the board by Oakland’s selection. Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson may not be worth grabbing at Nos. 9 or 10 given Oakland’s need for an edge rusher or linebacker (most mock drafts peg the Raiders taking Georgia LB Roquan Smith). Maybe Gruden likes Conley’s former Ohio State teammate Denzel Ward there, though the same sentiment with a potential Jackson pick applies to Ward.
After the Rams acquired Chiefs star cornerback Marcus Peters (not official until the start of the new league year on March 14), it signified the end of the Trumaine Johnson era in Los Angeles. Johnson is probably the top free-agent cornerback, along with the Jaguars’ Aaron Colvin. Former Colts cornerback Vontae Davis recently completed a free-agent visit with the Raiders, too.
Since cornerback is a slightly more pressing need than safety for the Raiders at the moment, it’d be surprising if Gruden doesn’t pursue either Johnson or Colvin – on top of already showing interest in Davis – if he doesn’t think the Raiders can pluck a star defensive back in the first round.
Will both Marshawn Lynch and Michael Crabtree return?
With the restrictions on player-coach interactions, Gruden hasn’t been afforded much chance to converse with Lynch or Crabtree. Everyone wants to know whether the two veterans – who the Raiders could let go without much consequence in the financial department – will stick through the regime switch.
Are their on-field results worth the distractions – both received suspensions last season – or will Gruden cut ties with one or both and replace them in the draft/free agency?
Gruden hasn’t indicated entirely one way or another regarding either, leaving their statuses somewhat up in the air, though one’s best guess would be both are back next season.
Gruden on if he’ll coach Lynch: “I don’t know. I bumped into him. Some of these players that live locally do come to the facility to get a workout, see the trainer. I’ve been downstairs and met several guys. I have talked to Marshawn briefly. We’ll see. We’ll keep everybody posted. Right now, he’s our leading ballcarrier. He’s our back, and we’re counting on him. Hopefully we get an opportunity to work together. that’s a man that has a lot of respect in this league as a player and I certainly have respect for him also.”
Gruden on Crabtree: “I got to bump into Crabtree. Hopefully we can get the best out of Crabtree and his career.”
Where does Khalil Mack’s aid come from?
The Raiders possess one of the world’s best pass rushers, but that only counts for so much if he’s smothered and nobody can relieve him on the other side.
Before John Pagano took over the defense starting Week 12, the Raiders sat tied for last in the NFL with 14 sacks. Even after 16 games, they ranked tied for 24th with 31. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has stressed the importance of quarterback pressures – not necessarily sacks – and the Raiders ranked 22nd in that category with 201 in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.
A couple pass rushers could surface atop Gruden’s draft board, including LSU edge rusher Arden Key and UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport. The draft’s top pass rusher, North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, will more than likely be off the board when the Raiders pick.
In free agency, names like Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn and Trent Murphy are some of the top names expected to be up for bidding. Maybe Gruden gets in on that fun if he doesn’t snag a starter in the draft.
Does the coin toss winner matter?
On Friday, a coin flip will determine who picks ninth and who picks 10th in the draft. The two teams involved just happen to be the Bay Area’s two teams, who started the season as polar opposites but finished an identical 6-10.
You might be thinking, “What difference will one pick make?” Well, both teams are in dire need of cornerbacks. And if both Gruden and 49ers brass have their eye on, let’s say, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, then this week’s flip will certainly mean something.
Then there’s the prospect of trading that ninth or 10th pick, and the earlier pick would yield greater return if either team wants to swap, however hefty that return is. No word yet on what time the flip will occur or who will call heads or tails for each side, but Friday’s flip might just be the most intriguing event of the week to Raiders fans.
If the Raiders like Roquan Smith as mocks peg, what’s next for NaVorro Bowman?
The common name popping up for the Raiders in the first round is Smith, the standout linebacker from Georgia.
A Sports Illustrated mock draft published Feb. 21 says, “Smith is a heat-seeking sideline-to-sideline linebacker who could man the Oakland middle for a decade.” So if the Raiders do indeed snag Smith at Nos. 9 or 10, what does that mean for Bowman?
He enters unrestricted free agency as a 29-year-old who more than sufficed as a run-stopper for Oakland following his acquisition before Week 7. But he probably won’t man the middle for much longer, so could he mentor Smith for a season before handing over the reigns? Could he give them up altogether before next season, heading elsewhere if the Raiders select the former Bulldog?
We’ll see who Gruden thinks should call the plays for his defense in 2018.