Gipsy Safety and I have teamed up to grade out the Raiders draft class so far this season. Yes it is early, but I can’t remember rookies making as big as an impact on a 9-2 team in the NFL before. There are only a few players that look like they have blue-chip ability but almost every rookie has made an impact on this team already, which is absolutely remarkable. This was more of a quality depth draft, but credit Reggie Mckenzie for another job well done.
Karl Joseph (by Gipsy Safety)
Draft Position: 1st Round
The moment Karl took the field, he showed that he’s a Raider through and through. Coach Jack Del Rio and Coach Norton were being careful with him and allowing him to ease himself all the way back from his 2015 ACL injury and in Week 3, Karl showed the Raider Nation that the wait was worth it.
He has not only flashed great play, but he’s also shown sustained performance and week-to-week improvement in nearly all areas. He still looks like a rookie, makes mistakes, and is still adjusting to the speed of the game, but comfortingly, Karl corrects mistakes almost immediately. The guy is smart and hard working.
As the season has gone on, he’s been given more responsibilities and the defensive coverage packages have grown and expanded. Karl may be one of the real keys to making this defense run at full strength.
His cumulative grade for the season is B+, but his “snapshot” for his most recent performances is closer to A- with the arrow firmly pointed upwards.
Early Projection: He keeps improving and will make some impact plays soon. Expect him to do something special from the FS position that will help turn around a game or seal a victory.
Jihad Ward ( by Gipsy Safety)
Draft Position: 2nd Round
It’s a little unfair to judge Jihad on strictly his production on the field; Jihad was drafted as a developmental prospect and he was not expected to be an immediate impact player.
His play earlier this season showed that he was not ready to be a starter, either as a run defender nor as a pass rusher. He was a half-count late off the ball and his hands were very slow; this allowed blockers get into him and take him entirely out of a play. Double teams were doubly bad. Perhaps his worst game of the season was against Tennessee where not only was he being overwhelmed, but his conditioning was being taxed. By the 4th quarter, Jihad was totally gassed and being shoved downfield.
Throughout it all, he’s never wavered in his effort and in the past 3 games, his hard work started to pay off. He’s getting off the ball quicker and his hands are firing off into blockers. He’s understanding his assignment and is learning how to hold his position.
Unfortunately, Jihad Ward made his biggest impact (both literal and figurative) in preseason when he was chasing down a running play and landed on top of Mario Edwards’ hip, putting Mario on IR for 9 weeks (and counting).
Early Projection: As a pass rusher, not much should be expected from Jihad other than an occasional pressure play, but as a run defender, he should continue to improve and stabilize the interior edge. Expect him to start looking more comfortable, but his big contribution will probably be in 2017.
Shilique Calhoun (by Gipsy Safety)
Draft Position: 3rd Round
Shilique falls into the developmental category. As a pass rushing defensive end at Michigan State University, he was very productive and a dangerous defender, but in the Raiders’ defense, he’s making the difficult transition to linebacker.
Early in the season, Shilique looked hopelessly lost and overmatched. He seemed unsure of what he was supposed to do and when he engaged blockers on either pass rush or run defense, he was quickly neutralized. In space, he looked as stiff and lumbering as you’d think a defensive end would look.
A credit to his intelligence and work is that Shilique has shown some consistent growth over the course of the season. He has started to be able to play Force on the edge and is willing to attack and engage the blockers and he’s more active in his pass rushing (though he still appears to have very few actual pass rush moves).
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his development so far is that he has improved substantially in his coverage drops. He appears much lighter on his feet and has shown so awareness of the receivers in and around his space. On his drops, he actively seeks out passing lanes and tries to disrupt them. The most notable one was the final play in Week 4 v Baltimore when he was closing Flacco’s passing lane and forced a narrow window throw.
His biggest contribution so far has been to give Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin a nice breather and keep them fresh for the endgame. Shilique has not made a large impact at these times, but he’s become less and less of a liability and it allows Coach Norton to be more comfortable to take Mack or Irvin out for a few plays in a row.
Early Projection: Will continue to be a rotational OLB and will make minimal impact, but again major contribution will be helping to keep frontline players fresh.
Connor Cook (by Ted)
Draft Position: 4th Round
Grade: (no grade)
Early Projection: Cook’s play was up and down in the preseason, but it is much too early to make any sort of judgement on him. The plan for him seems to back up Derek Carr if Matt Mcgloin decides to leave in the offseason.
Deandre Washington (by Ted)
Draft Position: 5th Round
There was some belief that Washington could have challenged Latavius Murray for the starting job, but Murray responded with improved play. Washington is part of a three-headed rushing attack with Murray and Jalen Richard.
Washington is average 4.8 yards a carry with 302 yards rushing and 72 yards receiving. He has provided competition for Murray and spells him to keep him fresh. He has had a few big runs this season and has provided a nice spark for the offense.
His production has cooled off a bit lately as Richard has been taking some of his snaps and hasn’t been as productive in the passing game as expected. Washington was healthy scratch in week 11 against Carolina, but I’d expect him to get back in the rotation soon.
Early Projection: Overall, Washington has played well and has made an impact on the offense. His ceiling could still be a good starting back and his floor seems to be a very solid third down back at the very least.
Corey James (by Ted)
Draft Position: 6th Round
James was seen as a project. He was drafted in the sixth round as a player making the transition as an edge player to inside linebacker. He was expected to play some special teams while developing as an inside linebacker during practice.
However, Ben Heeney’s poor play and injury thrusted him into action and he’s flashed the tools to be a starting linebacker including a 15 tackles performance against the Ravens. When he doesn’t start, he still plays significant snaps spelling either Malcolm Smith or Perry Riley. His demotion from the starting line up has more to do with the stellar play of veteran, Riley.
Early Projection: James has shown the ability to quickly diagnose plays and his ability to shed blocks come from his time as an edge defender. Surprisingly, his a ability as a pass defender is exceptional. If he continues to develop, he could be a very good starter in the league.
Vadal Alexandar (by Ted)
Draft Position: 7th Round
Alexandar has seen action in five games this season and started in two of those against the Ravens and San Diego. He was drafted as a guard, but played out of position as a tackle. Although he was beat occasionally, he held up surprisingly pretty well.
He has also seen snaps as a sixth lineman in the Raiders heavy formations, but Menelik Watson and Denver Kirkland have taken over that role. He has provided good return for a seventh round draft pick.
Early Projection: Alexandar has shown potential as a right tackle, but his moderate success at that position shows that he has the athleticism to be a really good guard. He is a physical player that wants to hit and has great feet for a man with his size. He has a small sample size, but he looks to have the potential to be a starting guard.
Jalen Richard (by Ted)
Draft Position: Undrafted
Richard began making some noise by making spectacular plays regularly in training camp. He began his career with a dream play by scoring a 75 yard touchdown run in his homecoming in New Orleans in Week 1.
He’s averaging an incredible 5.7 yards per carry with 304 yards rushing and 175 yards receiving. Although he was underrated, he has surpassed Washington in the pecking order.
His biggest impact might be on special teams. Before taking over the role as the main kick/ punt returner, the Raiders return teams were terrible. After he took over, the Raiders offense have regularly enjoyed good field position. Pro Football Focus has ranked as the second best kick/ punt returner this season.
Early Projection: Richard looks like he could have the ability to be a 1,000 yard rusher, but lacks the power to consistently run in between the tackles. However, the Raiders look like they at least have a star return man and dynamic running back with potential for more.
Darius Latham (by Ted)
Draft Position: Undrafted
Latham started flashing in the preseason. Pro football focus routinely graded him as one of the top performers in the preseason week after week. When the season started, he played sparingly because the Raiders wanted to let Ward develop, but when Latham did play, he played well.
Latham’s workload has increased the last few weeks. Against Denver, he played on 48 percent of defensive snaps, his highest percentage of the season, and he responded with a monster game. Although he only recorded three tackles, his impact was clear on film. He was stout and disciplined in the run game, provided an interior pass rush, and contained the quarterback whenever Khalil Mack or Bruce Irvin flushed him out.
For being undrafted, he has been excellent for the Raiders and is a major part of the Raiders defensive improvement.
Early Projection: Latham may lack the athleticism to be a star, but he has the ability to be a very, very good interior linemen. He isn’t flashy but already is playing like a solid starter in the NFL.
Denver Kirkland (by Ted)
Draft Position: Undrafted
Most fans have not even heard of Kirkland until Lee Smith went down with an injury. He was the original sixth linemen in the Raiders heavy formations. He started slowly and wasn’t maintaining his blocks particularly well, but improved every week. But he had a monster game against Denver and was a big part of the Raiders gaining over 200 yards on the ground.
Since then, Watson has gotten healthy and have taken most of the snaps as the sixth linemen though.
Early Projection: Again, Mckenzie has gotten great return from an undrafted rookie free agent. Kirkland has made an impact in run blocking and has some potential to provide quality depth for the Raiders line in the future.
Johnny Holton (by Gipsy Safety)
Draft Position: Undrafted
Impact: Moderate with Opportunities
On offense, Holton only sees the field a couple of times during the course of a game and in the early part of the year, it was only on the End Around play. Against Denver, he had his first downfield target on the end zone pass interference play.
His blazing vertical speed is Taiwan Jones-esque and similarly, Holton’s primary contribution to the team has been on coverage units in special teams.
His grade is a little low owing to lack of opportunities on offense.
Early Projection: Holton has been kept mostly on the sideline, partly because the WR corps has stayed healthy, but his speed is too exciting to keep bridled for too long. The play against Denver may have been just a taste of things to come. Expect Holton to get on the field a little bit more and help threaten the downfield coverage and open up the field.