An updated look at the defensive depth chart for the Oakland Raiders 2017-2018 season.
The Oakland Raiders came into the draft with needs at every level of the defense’s depth chart, uncommon of a 12-4 team.
Depending on the legal proceedings for newly acquired cornerback Gareon Conley, the Raiders can roll out a defense by Week 1 with at least one-third of the starting lineup turned over, and a mostly remade depth chart.
There is plenty of preseason competition to play out between now and September, but we can imagine a depth chart based on talent and scheme fit.
Ken Norton, Jr. employs a 3-4 defensive framework and uses 4-3 defensive alignments, not uncommon in the NFL now. The front three defensive linemen were a problem all season, but after the draft, expect a mostly familiar lineup.
Defensive “Over” Tackle/3 Technique
- Jihad Ward
- Eddie Vanderdoes
I am personally unimpressed with Jihad Ward’s tenure in Oakland thus far. I don’t find his spotty pass rushing production to outweigh his poor gap discipline. My draft hopes going into this past weekend were for the team to grab multiple plug-and-play defensive linemen. For the time being, Ward will suffice, and Vanderdoes is good enough to move from his spot to 3 tech in a pinch.
Nose Tackle/1 Technique
- Eddie Vanderdoes
- Justin Ellis/Darius Latham
Vanderdoes steps into Oakland, if nothing else, as one of the most physically talented interior defensive linemen in the class. His prior ACL injuries and surgeries played a part in his inconsistent film. He will have to clean up his worst habits against combo blocks, but he steps into camp familiar with this kind of defense and plugged into the position he played in college.
Ellis and Latham split reps last season, and both fit into the roster better as second and third options.
Defensive “Under” Tackle/5 Technique
- Mario Edwards, Jr.
- Jihad Ward/Denico Autry
As is apparent, the defensive line still is missing quality pieces. Mario Edwards Jr. is still developing, and a large step forward from him would do a lot to answer questions about this roster up front.
Autry, like the others getting snaps last season, all would fit better as #2 options. Ward can play as a 5 in spot snap situations, but the inside linebackers are going to be stressed in stopping the run and edge rushers are stressed further to get to the QB.
- Marquel Lee, Cory James
- Ben Heeney, Shilique Calhoun
Marquel Lee walks into Oakland’s training facilities for mini-camp season as the most talented linebacker on the roster. Lee’s range, blitzing, and coverage skills makes him an immediate asset in every facet of the defense.
Having a more trustworthy player inside should improve things for James and the backups, though I anticipate there to still be some troubles in stopping the run. The status of Perry Riley Jr. remains up in the air.
Outside Linebacker/Edge Rusher
- Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin
These two play north of 85% of each games snaps, so unless something catastrophic happens between now and Week 1, don’t expect much change here. The preseason will be an interesting opportunity for some young players to contend for backup spots, even if they don’t see many regular season snaps.
- Gareon Conley, Sean Smith
- David Amerson, T.J. Carrie
Norton Jr. and Reggie McKenzie had to have sighed in relief very loudly when Conley fell to them. His legal situation is not yet resolved, so this chart may look very differently between now and late July, but I imagine Conley will be at the top of the depth chart no matter when he is available to play. In terms of measurables and traits alone, no corner is as complete as Conley in this past draft class. It will be interesting to see if the coverage concepts change for Norton with Conley in tow.
The D.J. Hayden era is effectively over in Oakland, and T.J. Carries figures to slot in as the team’s no. 4 cornerback.
- Obi Melifonwu
- Reggie Nelson
Reggie Nelson didn’t miss a single snap last year, a testament to his health and trustworthiness for Norton. The bottom line, however, is that Melifonwu is better than Nelson at all skills necessary to be a success at free safety. Melifonwu brings speed, range, good-enough instincts and tackling ability to fill the position. I do still expect Nelson to log important snaps, as I’ll get into.
- Karl Joseph
- Reggie Nelson/Shalom Luani/Obi Melifonwu
More important here will be what direction Norton decides to go for backup strong safety. Nelson is aging and may be best used as a utility safety, and he’s always been well-rounded enough to play in either spot. If anything were to happen to Joseph, Melifonwu has the size and ability to drop down into the box as well.
Shalom Luani will be an interesting fit for the Raiders as a possible backup as well. He lacks pure linear speed, but his ability to sit in a hole in zone coverage and tackle crossing receivers and roll into the box to fill moving gaps are some of the best in this class. I expect Luani to get a lot of preseason reps in the hopes of keeping to defense from re-purposing talent out of position.
- Obi Melifonwu
- David Amerson
This is where Melifonwu can create surplus value for Oakland in a way that allows Nelson to remain on the field. A safety of his athletic profile is an ideal player to match up over dominant receiving tight ends and inside receiving threats. This allows the defense to remain multiple and allows Joseph to roam the middle instead of matching up in 1-on-1 situations.
I believe that the most realistic improvements will come in pass defense. There are more favorable matchups in coverage now, and having an elite rusher in Mack makes every addition more valuable.
The rush defense will still struggle. Marquel Lee will have to cover for a lot of holes in the middle of the defense. If they can hover anywhere near league average in run defense, it will be a massive help.
Vanderdoes, Conley, Lee, and Melifonwu all plug very important holes in the defense. It is rare that teams improve every level of defense in the draft, but the Raiders were able to accomplish that, and that will be important for the long term prospects of this roster.