The Oakland Raiders are looking for a new starting defensive end after releasing Antonio Smith on Tuesday. He signed a one-year contract with the Denver Broncos on Thursday worth $2 million.
Smith, 33, played just one season for the Raiders. He started all 16 games and recorded three sacks, his lowest total since 2006. The veteran recorded a career-high seven sacks in 2012 with the Houston Texans.
Even though Smith didn’t put up big numbers, the Raiders might need to make it a priority to add talent on the defensive line. Smith was third in sacks on a team that had difficulty getting to the quarterback. Justin Tuck led Oakland with just five sacks, and the Raiders were tied for second-to-last in the NFL with 22 total sacks in 2014. Their run defense was nothing special either, ranking 22nd in rushing yards allowed.
Oakland didn’t improve the defensive line in free agency. Ndamukong Suh was the top free agent on the market, but he might have been out of Oakland’s price range. The defensive tackle signed with the Miami Dolphins for $114 million.
Both Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul ended the season without contracts, but they were franchised before the official start of free agency. Pernell McPhee was the best defensive end to switch teams, going from the Baltimore Ravens to the Chicago Bears, having recorded 7.5 sacks and 27 combined tackles a year ago.
But the Raiders still have a chance to improve their front four. The 2015 NFL Draft will feature a few defensive linemen who have a chance to be stars in the pros, and Oakland can select one with the No.4 overall pick.
USC’s Leonard Williams might be best defensive player in the draft. The defensive end played 13 games in each of his three seasons with the Trojans, totaling 21 sacks and 36.5 tackles for a loss. Williams managed to earn First-Team All-American honors last season, despite playing through shoulder and ankle injuries. He was a First-Team All-American in 2013, as well.
Many draft experts believe Williams will be gone with the second pick, right after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers presumably take quarterback Jameis Winston first overall. But there’s a chance the Tennessee Titans will go in a different direction, possibly allowing the Raiders to take Williams.
The Jacksonville Jaguars could draft Williams at No.3 overall, but a lot of mock drafts have them selecting Florida outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.
J.T. Thomas ranked second among Jacksonville linebackers in tackles last season, and he signed with the New York Giants in free agency. They also already have a young defensive tackle in Sen’Derrick Marks, though he did tear his ACL in the final game of last season.
If the Raiders miss out on Williams, they’ll have a few more options to improve their defensive line. Missouri’s Shane Ray and Washington’s Danny Shelton are almost certain to be available at No.4 overall.
The Raiders struggled on defense last year, but their biggest problems came on offense. They could be targeting wide receivers Kevin White or Amari Cooper instead of a defensive lineman.