Raiders don't overreach, emphasize improving defense

·4 min read

HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — This time, there was no Clelin Ferrell, Damon Arnette or Alex Leatherwood going much higher than projected in the NFL draft, a sure indication the Jon Gruden/Mike Mayock era genuinely is over for the Las Vegas Raiders.

The somewhat new regime of coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler didn't massively overreach, and they picked their spots when to be patient and when to trade up.

Whether their efforts the past three days will help the Raiders improve on their 6-11 record from last season is unknown, and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers remain the teams to beat in the AFC West. But the tone is much different coming out of this draft than many recent ones.

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This was the second draft under McDaniels and Ziegler, but they didn't get a pick until the third round last year.

They owned picks in the first two rounds this time, and used the No. 7 overall choice on Texas Tech defensive end Tyree Wilson and traded up three spots in the second for Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer to address two areas of need. In both cases, Las Vegas selected players who were projected by many to go higher.

This is unlike 2019, when Ferrell went fourth overall. And 2020, when Arnette went 19th. Or 2021, when Leatherwood went 17th. All were selected well above their projections. Ferrell and Leatherwood are now playing elsewhere and Arnette is out of the league.

Of the Raiders' seven first-round picks dating to 2018, only left tackle Kolton Miller and running back Josh Jacobs are still on the team. Miller is Las Vegas' best lineman, and Jacobs led the league last season with 1,653 yards rushing.

There is no guarantee McDaniels and Ziegler will steer the Raiders in the right direction and they certainly had a low bar to clear with making sure their early picks this week weren't roundly criticized.

As for their overall approach to this draft, they took steps to improve a defense that ranked 28th last season in giving up 365.6 yards per game. In addition to Wilson, Las Vegas selected Alabama tackle Byron Young in the third round, Maryland cornerback Jakorian Bennett in the fourth, Georgia safety Christopher Smith II in the fifth, Florida linebacker Amari Burney in the sixth and Arizona State tackle Nesta Jade Silvera in the seventh.

“There was a defensive focus going in, but I would say generally speaking, the board fell that way," Ziegler said Saturday. “When there were maybe some things that were close here today, we leaned a little bit heavily to the defensive side.”

The Raiders, who entered the draft with 12 picks, were selectively aggressive. They moved up three spots to take Mayer, five to get Bennett and nine to select Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell in the fourth round. Las Vegas also moved back into the fifth round to choose Smith.

“I wouldn’t say the depth in this draft as we went through was maybe as strong as it has been in past years,” Ziegler said. “So I think it was a product of how the draft started to play out. Once you get into it — almost like how a game is going to be played — you start to get a feel of the board and what the overall surpluses or lack of a surplus is.

“I think that influenced some of our decision-making in terms of packaging some picks and moving up to get some targets based on what we thought was potentially going to be left for us at the end of the draft.”

One question that remains, even with the selection of O'Connell, is who is the Raiders' quarterback of the future? O'Connell will come in and back up Jimmy Garoppolo, but whether he's the long-term solution is an open question. It's possible the Raiders will still need to look for that player, or O'Connell could be a mid-round surprise.

“There are areas to grow into, but he showed a lot of the things that we wanted from the quarterback position,” Ziegler said. “Then we got to meet him and spend time with them, he confirmed a lot of the neck-up traits that we look for.”


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Mark Anderson, The Associated Press