The Oakland Raiders boast their most talented roster in over a decade, and after addressing their biggest areas of need through free agency and the draft, Jack Del Rio's squad appear poised to reach the postseason for the first time since 2002. The seven additions through last week's draft might provide enough of a boost to make Oakland a serious threat in the AFC.
Grading draft picks is often a futile endeavor, and this year's group might be more unpredictable than previous years. But the Raiders’ recent track record is strong, having selected Pro Bowl players with their first pick in 2014 and 2015. General manager Reggie McKenzie is hoping first-round selection Karl Joseph, who battled a serious knee injury, can have the same level of success as Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper.
"The medical is checking out fine," McKenzie said. "He's going to be ready to roll. Our doctors gave us the thumbs up."
Following a 7-9 season in which the team struggled against the pass, Oakland revamped the secondary by signing free-agent cornerbacks Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson. But McKenzie and Rio weren’t done there, using the No.14 overall selection to draft the safety from West Virginia.
“He’s [Joseph] a guy that is very versatile,” Rio told reporters. “He can come off the edge as a blitzer. He can play down in the box. He can play centerfield. He’s a guy that does a great job of taking angles, and he’s a very efficient hitter and tackler. He plays with a great temperament. [We’re] really excited to get our hands on him and looking forward to working with him.”
Some draft experts might argue that the Raiders reached with their first selection, as multiple mock drafts projected Joseph to go in the second round. But Oakland upgraded an area of need with Charles Woodson retiring, and Joseph was considered one of the top safeties on the board. If the Raiders didn’t pick Joseph, he might have realistically been drafted by the Houston Texans or Washington Redskins, who picked No.21 and No.22, respectively.
Raiders go Karl Joseph, S from WVU. Texans, Skins, others really liked him. Wasnt getting past 22. Fla S Keanu Neal could go 1st rnd too
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) April 29, 2016
Scouts have praised Joseph's talent and intensity, but he only played five games as a senior after tearing his ACL in October. He made the most of his final collegiate season, with five interceptions and two tackles for a loss. The 22-year-old is expected to be ready for Week 1 of the 2016 season.
Taking a chance on talented prospects with health concerns often pays off, as young players tend to recover quicker than veterans. The Rams used their No. 10 pick to select Todd Gurley, who had tore his ACL with Georgia in the 2014 season. Gurley would go on to enjoy a sensational rookie campaign in 2015, rushing for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games.
Drafting players with injury concerns was a theme for Oakland last week. Illinois defensive tackle Jihad Ward was chosen with the No.44 overall pick in the second round, despite ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that some teams believe Ward needs arthroscopic knee surgery. The Raiders, though, believe Ward is fully healthy.
"If I need to get it checked out again, we can check it out," Ward said of his knee in a conference call. "I don't want to be at camp or on the field and the next thing we know my knee is messed up. If they want me to get it checked out, we can get it checked out."
Ward didn’t put up big numbers or make many highlight-reel plays in 2015, but the Raiders feel he has a lot of upside. ESPN’s Mel Kiper projected him to be a first-round pick after the Senior Bowl, though other experts projected the inexperienced lineman to be a third-round selection.
The big needs entering the draft were the defensive line, an inside linebacker and a safety, and McKenzie mostly addressed them. With a young, talented offense that features the likes of Cooper, quarterback Derek Carr and running back Latavius Murray, Oakland mainly focused on the defensive side of the ball by drafting Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun in the third round, and later taking Colorado State outside linebacker Cory James in the sixth round. Calhoun, who has the tools to be a starter, was projected to be a fourth rounder, while James is considered a versatile talent but not a "difference maker" next season.
McKenzie, however, didn't just select players to fill holes in their roster. The Raiders are set at quarterback with Carr, but that didn’t stop Oakland from taking Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook in the fourth round. Cook entered the draft as a potential first rounder, and there was some speculation the Denver Broncos were considering him at No. 32. Because of his effective play in college, Cook could be considered trade bait if he performs well in preseason.
Cook, who will compete with Matt McGloin for the backup job, could still end up being the No.3 quarterback in Oakland. McGloin has three years of experience, with a respectable 58.4 completion percentage.
The Raiders took Texas Tech running back DeAndre Washington in the fifth round, and they made their final selection at No.234 when they picked massive LSU guard Vadal Alexander.
Washington will likely enter camp with the opportunity to get a decent number of carries behind Murray. The versatile 23-year-old is coming off a stellar season with the Red Raiders, rushing for 1,492 yards and 14 touchdowns. McKenzie thinks Washington's "going to help our team a lot."
Alexander, meanwhile, is listed at 6'5 and 326 pounds and began playing in the highly competitive SEC as a freshman at right tackle. He was projected to go as early as the third round, and likely slipped due to a reputation for making mental errors. For a seventh-round pick, the Raiders could have done a lot worse.
Here are our pick-by-pick grades for the Raiders' 2016 draft class, based on their overall selection:
Karl Joseph (14) B+
Jihad Ward (44) B-
Shilique Calhoun (75) B-
Connor Cook (100) A-
DeAndre Washington (143) B+
Cory James (194) C
Vadal Alexander (234) A