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2019 Raiders relying heavily on 2018 draft class making big leap in second season

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NFL: Oakland Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

There doesn’t appear to be a lot of optimism out there that the Raiders will be a considerably better team in 2019 than their 4-12 club in 2018. At least, not outside of Raider Nation anyway.

Vegas odds have their over/under at 6 wins which is the lowest in the AFC West. That seems to be right about where most predictions have them.

Mostly those predictions are looking at the players and their performances from the previous season and expecting the same level of performance. That’s fair for most players, but as we know the largest leap players will take in their NFL career usually happens between year one and year two.

Late last season the Raiders had as many as ten rookies either starting for the team or playing significant roles. Not all of them will take a step in the right direction. Some have shown all they will ever show, many of them will be replaced.

With as many needs as the Raiders had going into last season and as many as they still have, it’s a tall order to expect them to be able to upgrade every position. Some positions were left without an upgrade. Many of those were manned by a rookie in 2018 and the team is now looking at those players and expecting the need to not be filled by someone else, but rather the same player with a year of NFL under their belts.

First round pick Kolton Miller is chief among those who will be asked to step up. He gave up 16 sacks in 2018 as a raw prospect. He was playing left tackle in the NFL after just one season at the position in college at UCLA. He will be back at either left or right tackle this season (which side is yet to be determined). Regardless of the side on which he lines up, he will still be facing some of the league’s top pass rushers. He needed to pack on weight while still being able to move well in Tom Cable’s downhill zone scheme.

There’s no way around Miller needing to improve. Derek Carr needs time to work or this offense will crumble. He was sacked 51 times last season and the offense was stagnant because of it.

The team signed Trent Brown to take one of the tackle spots, bumping third round rookie Brandon Parker out of the starting lineup. Parker’s duty now will be to bulk up and be able to play at either tackle position at a moment’s notice as he will be the team’s reserve swing tackle. He was worse than Miller, giving up 14 sacks in 12 starts and could once again an injury away from being a starter again.

Equally as important as the two rookie pass protectors from last season is the Raiders rookie pass rushers. The Raiders shockingly and unwisely completely neglected the edge rusher position in free agency. They figure to be aggressive in addressing it in the draft (or one would hope), but any rookie they add will still depend on 2018 third round pick Arden Key improving on his 1.0 sack as a rookie.

“I want to see Arden Key play better,” Jon Gruden said recently at the league meeting. “I want to see our second year players play better. They got to play a lot last year. Big deal. I want to see them play great this year. I’ll start the conversation right there Arden’s gotta play better, he’s got to get stronger.”

Fifth round rookie Maurice Hurst showed the most promise, but it wasn’t enough. Without him living up to that promise in his second season, it would just be promise. Combined with second round pick PJ Hall, the team could be relying on them to provide interior pass rush to help free up Key or any drafted rookies they add as well. As we know, edge rushers can be great (Khalil Mack) but without the interior line pushing the pocket, the defense will still suffer.

“I’ve always felt second year players show the most improvement. I’m counting on that happening with Hurst,” Gruden said. “I think he’s a legitimate 3-technique, I think he’s potentially got a chance to be an every down, good one. He’s got to prove it.”

This is a passing league. As we know the pass rush and secondary work in tandem. One depends a lot on the other. The cornerback position needs to be deep. And for the most part it is. With starters Gareon Conley and Daryl Worley and new additions Lamarcus Joyner and Nevin Lawson, the Raiders have a decent group. But as Gruden has said, a team needs five good cornerbacks to fill out a roster.

Should the team look to other needs in the draft than cornerback — and there are plenty to address — their best chance to fill that final cornerback spot is for 2018 4th round pick Nick Nelson to play up to his potential.

Nelson was considered a round two prospect until he tore his meniscus in a workout with the Lions. That caused him to miss offseason practices with the Raiders and no doubt slowed his development. It stands to reason, then, that he should show improvement going into next season. The Raiders may be counting on that. Or at very least, it would be a valuable contingency plan for him to develop.

At most positions, there are no luxuries. There are players who the Raiders will have no choice but to hope they put their rookie seasons behind them and start playing like NFL talents. Whether this team rises or falls may be wholly dependent on it.