Smart draft picks by general manager Reggie McKenzie were the key for the Oakland Raiders’ transformation from a team that failed to produce a winning record for 13 years to one that won 12 games a year ago and was considered a top contender in the AFC this season.
A lack of contributions from the past two draft classes are a major reason why the Raiders (4-5) have been a major disappointment this season and head into their bye week barely holding on to playoff hopes.
With top two picks Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu missing most of their rookie seasons with injuries and a group of defensive tackles taken in recent years failing to bolster a lacking interior pass rush, the Raiders have struggled all season defensively.
“There’s chances to make more plays,” McKenzie said. “We have to make more. I think it goes hand in hand. I don’t just want to beat up the pressure. We have to have better coverage. We have to have the total package. It has to get better. We have to be better on defense.”
With Derek Carr and a high-powered offense playing too inconsistently to overcome those deficiencies each week, Oakland has almost no more margin for error to get back into the playoff hunt.
The Raiders trail Kansas City by two games in the AFC West and will need some help to get back into the wild-card race because of losses to contenders such as Buffalo and Baltimore. Coach Jack Del Rio told his players they might not be able to afford more than one more loss the rest of the way to get back to the playoffs.
“It was like, ‘Hey, this is reality. This is reality in the National Football League. It doesn’t mean that it necessarily gets it done. Sometimes less gets it done, but this is just to understand where you are at the halfway point. We’ve got very little margin for error. We need to get it rolling now. The urgency needs to pick up,'” he said.
In order to do that, some of the recent draft picks must play better on a defense that is the first in NFL history to fail to intercept a pass through the first nine games and is tied for last in the league with only six takeaways.
“You can’t get going until you get that first one,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “It’s going to happen. We know it’s going to happen, we truly believe. It’s about going out there and not talking about it, going out there and doing it.”
Capitalizing on turnovers was one of the few things the Raiders did well defensively in 2016 when the team ranked second with 30 overall to help make up for allowing a league-worst 6.1 yards per play.
But the defense has been only marginally better at stopping opposing offenses, but the inability to take the ball away has made it less effective overall.
The hope was Conley and Melifonwu would help in that regard, but they have played just 100 defensive snaps all season.
Conley injured his shin during minicamp in June and missed all of training camp before getting into action in Week 2. He made an acrobatic pass breakup on the first pass he faced in Week 2 against the New York Jets, but has been sidelined the past six games by the same shin injury and the Raiders will decide next week whether he’ll be able to return or go on season-ending injured reserve.
Melifonwu had a lower leg injury in training camp and spent the first eight weeks on injured reserve before coming back last week in a limited role.
The Raiders also have spent second-day picks on defensive tackles the past two years, but 2016 pick Jihad Ward has been a healthy inactive six times as he has failed to develop as planned and 2017 third-rounder Eddie Vanderdoes has just five quarterback pressures, no sacks and seven tackles in nine games.
With little interior push, 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack has been less impactful this season and the Raiders are tied for second worst in the league with just 13 sacks.
“I am a little surprised we haven’t been a little more effective with it,” Del Rio said. “We’ve got good pass rushers, we need to have a little tighter coverage so that the quarterback has to hold the ball.”
Last year, the offense was able to overcome poor defense on numerous occasions with Carr leading the way to seven fourth-quarter comebacks. While the Raiders have had good moments on offense in winning the first two games and in a comeback win against Kansas City last month, it hasn’t been nearly as consistent this season.
The Raiders failed to score more than 17 points in any game during a four-game losing streak and will need much better play during a difficult closing stretch that includes a “home” game in Mexico City against defending champion New England, road games at first-place Kansas City and Philadelphia and a home game against Dallas in order to have playoff hopes.
“It’s obvious that some of the games that we lost we were not able to put up some points,” McKenzie said. “We definitely need to get better there and find a way. We have some guys we feel like can get that thing done and that’s what they’re working on. We’ll get it done.”