Covering tight ends has been a major bugaboo for the Oakland Raiders ever since Jack Del Rio arrived as coach in 2015.
The Raiders hope that using a second-round draft pick Friday on a 6-foot-4 safety in Obi Melifonwu, who has the speed to thrive in coverage downfield, will solve that issue heading into this season.
“It’s no secret we’ve struggled the past few years covering the opponent’s tight ends,” Del Rio said. “We think this is a guy who can help with his length to match up against some of the bigger tight ends, the better tight ends.”
Over the past two seasons, Oakland has allowed opposing tight ends to catch 161 passes for 1,938 yards and 19 TDs, ranking near the bottom of the league in all three categories.
After taking Melifonwu with the 56th overall pick, the Raiders targeted another defensive need in the third round when they took UCLA defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes with the 88th selection.
Oakland finished last in the league with 25 sacks last season, with 18 of them coming from edge rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin. Finding a player who can provide an inside push was a key need this offseason.
Vanderdoes had just 1 1/2 sacks last season when he was out of shape at about 340 pounds in part because of three high ankle sprains. But he lost 40 pounds since the end of the season and is eager to prove that he can get back to the form he had before a torn ACL ended his 2015 season after only one game.
“I need to be the guy to step in and do what I do and dominate,” he said. “I definitely think people slept on me a little bit this past offseason. I love the fact that they slept on me. I think that’s what motivated me every morning waking up, knowing that I get to prove people wrong.”
Fixing the defense was the top priority for the Raiders, who ranked in the bottom 10 in most defensive categories last season despite winning 12 games and making the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
They have focused entirely on that side of the ball so far, having taken Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley in the first round. They still have a big hole at inside linebacker that could be filled with one of five picks on the final day of the draft.
The Raiders are happy with the pieces they have added so far. Melifonwu had 118 tackles as a senior at UConn with four interceptions and 2 1/2 tackles for loss. He can play both in the box and at deep safety and also worked at cornerback in the Senior Bowl practices, providing some versatility for the Raiders.
“I feel like I’m best with my range,” he said. “I feel like I’m a guy who can cover a lot of ground, who can really track down balls and make plays.”
The Raiders liked what they saw from Melifonwu in college and then became even more intrigued after a stellar combine workout. Melifonwu ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, posted a 44-inch vertical jump and a 141-inch broad jump — best among all safeties in all three categories.
“He’s got good tape that tells you he’s a good football player,” Del Rio said. “Then you watch him work out and you go, ‘Wow! He’s a good football player with upside.'”
The Raiders took a strong safety with their first-round pick last year with Karl Joseph and also have Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson at free safety.
Vanderdoes is strong in the run game and as a pass rusher and will help fill the void created by the departures of Stacy McGee and Dan Williams this offseason.
“His film is inconsistent,” Del Rio said. “Some is better than others. I just talked to him a little while ago and said we’re looking for the high-energy guy, the motivated guy. But he’s a really good athlete.”