Tuesday, April 25, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Like everyone in the Raiders’ personnel department, general manager Dave Ziegler doesn’t see his family much during this time of year.
Long work hours are a constant in preparation for the NFL Draft, which begins at 5 p.m. Thursday in Kansas City and runs through Saturday. If Ziegler wanted to escape from the constant chatter of prospect evaluation and draft-board strategy during the little time he’s at home, he’s out of luck.
The 45-year-old’s oldest son won’t allow that to happen.
“Cam has a lot of draft opinions on what we’re going to do here this year as a 7-year-old, so I’ve got to fight him down,” Ziegler said with a grin in a news conference last week. “He wants to know who we’re picking, where we are going. Are we going to stay on the defensive side of the ball?”
The young Cam Ziegler isn’t alone in thinking Las Vegas needs to focus on defense with its league-high 12 picks this year. The prevailing sentiment is that the Raiders will infuse their long-struggling defense with a large dose of rookie reinforcements in an attempt to pull the unit out from the bottom of league statistical rankings in virtually every category.
For as much scrutiny as the Raiders’ offense received a year ago for its inconsistency — culminating with the late-season benching and offseason releasing of longtime quarterback Derek Carr — it produced at a high enough level to compete for a playoff berth. The defense did not, despite having one of the most impactful edge rushers in the league in Maxx Crosby.
“You’ve got to touch the quarterback or touch the ball,” Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said at the NFL Draft Combine last month. “So we’re looking for guys that can do those things. To be able to get after the quarterback and be able to affect the passing game … whether that’s creating fumbles, touching the ball, deflections, interceptions. Certainly, I think we’d all agree that our defense could improve in those areas. We have some players that did some of those things; we need more of them.”
The Raiders finished last in the league with 13 takeaways a season ago. They were also worst in sack rate for much of the season before ultimately finishing 30th out of 32 teams.
Another disappointing campaign lies ahead if the Raiders can’t improve on those numbers, and they’re going to look to boost them by making wholesale changes.
“We’re going to try to improve the competition at every position on defense,” McDaniels said. “Our depth, obviously, is something we need to improve across the board. But we need tough, smart, explosive players, period.”
The Raiders may only have five starters locked in defensively going into the draft. Next to Crosby, veteran edge rusher Chandler Jones, promising third-year cornerback Nate Hobbs, free-agent linebacker Robert Spillane and free-agent strong safety Marcus Epps all appear to be secure in their roles.
A few other incumbents will likely retain their spots — defensive tackle Bilal Nichols, linebacker Divine Deablo and free safety Tre’von Moehrig — but could be pushed if the Raiders land on the right players.
Upon being hired a year ago, defensive coordinator Patrick Graham publicly de-emphasized the need for players that specifically fit his system. He said he just wanted “good football players that buy into the team concept,” and that he would figure out the rest.
That may have changed after last year’s poor season as there were rumblings of frustration from the new coaching staff and front office with the level of talent they inherited, particularly on the defensive side. Without having been around for an actual season, it’s always difficult for people in Ziegler’s and McDaniels’ positions to know exactly what a team needs going into a draft.
That shouldn’t be a hurdle this year.
“You have a little bit of a better understanding what we’re looking for,” Ziegler said. “So there was less teaching (to the scouts) going on, more just getting into the nuts and bolts of the film, the nuts and bolts of the evaluation process. Many more people are speaking the language and things of that nature. That has led to a more comfortable, fluid process for us. It doesn’t guarantee any results, but we feel confident in what we’ve done.”
Defensive help is expected to arrive early for the Raiders in the draft. Although a top-end quarterback or offensive lineman could also conceivably be an option for their No. 7 overall pick in Thursday’s first round, cornerback has remained the favorite position for the Raiders to address.
The consensus pulled from hundreds of mock drafts is that Las Vegas will most likely select either Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon or Oregon cornerback Christian Gonzalez.
Ziegler has been complimentary of this year’s defensive-back class as a whole, and he was asked in his news conference which traits he most values in a cornerback.
“I think people that can make an impact on the ball is important,” Ziegler said. “I think, for us, we have a little bit more of a diversification in our coverages in terms of both playing zone and playing some man scheme. So, guys that can play man coverage, guys that you can see have a feel at the top of routes, to match routes, stay in phase and those types of things. And also press technique, which is something I think you can improve on.”
That response sounded carefully crafted not to give much away, especially as it pertains to whether the Raiders rate Gonzalez or Witherspoon more highly. The latter is scouted as better in press technique and has made a higher rate of plays on the ball, but the former is more comfortable in zone coverage.
If the Raiders are truly zeroing in on cornerback for their first pick, they could also perhaps trade down and still get a first-round graded player like Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. if they prefer him to his slightly more highly-touted peers.
Endless possibilities exist for how the Raiders could utilize their large amount of draft capital. The one near certainty is that they’ll deploy it liberally to get the right defenders.
“When you’re picking at the top where we are at in some of these rounds, you hope that you’re able to find some guys that are going to impact the team, and selfishly we want to do it throughout the whole draft,” Ziegler said. “But I think we’re in a good position with the number of picks that we have and where we’re picking to find some players that are going to come in here and have a positive impact on the team.”