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Finding defensive starters in the first 3 rounds of the NFL Draft

At all 3 levels, too

Baylor v Texas Tech
Siaki Ika
Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Las Vegas Raiders are looking for defensive players in this year’s NFL Draft. The Raiders made a few solid signings on that side of the ball during free agency, however, outside of Maxx Crosby, the defense needs playmakers/high-quality starters. According to the Associated Press’ Josh Dubow, Las Vegas is currently spending the third-most cap space on offensive players and the third-fewest on defense.

With needs on all three levels of the defense, the Silver and Black are going to have to find first-stringers on both Days 1 and 2 of the draft. Who might those players be? Let’s take a look at some of Josh McDaniels’ and Dave Zieglers’ options.

First Round

Defensive line: Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech

Las Vegas will have a plethora of options with the seventh overall pick when it comes to defensive linemen, so we’ll start with some chalk by going over the guy who has been linked to the team for a while now.

Wilson would bring a physical presence to the Raiders’ front seven, and he can play from multiple alignments. The latter would allow him to be on the field at the same time as Crosby and Chandler Jones, giving the defense a plethora of pass-rushers on third downs.

Others to keep an eye on: Myles Murphy, Clemson; Lukas Van Ness, Iowa

Linebacker: Jack Campbell, Iowa

Minnesota v Iowa
Jack Campbell
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

There’s a lot of ambiguity with this year’s linebacker class as there’s no sure-fire top prospect at the position, meaning there might not be a first-round pick out of the bunch. However, if there’s one backer who ends up getting selected on Day 1, it will be the 6’5”, 250-pound Butkus Award winner.

Throughout the pre-draft process, there have been little to no questions about Campbell’s ability to defend the run as he’s one of the best stack and shed linebackers in this draft class, if not the best. Some people raised concerns about his athletic ability, however, he put that narrative to rest by posting a 9.98 RAS score at the NFL Combine.

Others to keep an eye on: none

Defensive back: Christian Gonzalez, Oregon

Yes, yes, yes; I’m looking like an old-school blackboard with this much chalk for the first round, but there aren’t many safeties who fall into the category, so I’ll stick with a cornerback who has been consistently linked to the Silver and Black.

Gonzalez is long, can run and has good ball skills, three pretty good traits for a corner. This could be a scenario where he becomes the team’s top player at the position the moment he steps foot inside the building.

Others to keep an eye on: Devon Witherspoon, Illinois; Joey Porter Jr., Penn State

Second Round

Defensive line: Siaki Ika, Baylor

In my opinion, Andrew Billings was an underrated loss for the Raiders in free agency. He was by far their highest-graded defensive tackle by Pro Football Focus last season, posting a 76.4 grade that was nearly 20 points higher than Kyle Peko’s, who finished in second place.

At 311 pounds, Billings was a space-eater in the middle of the team’s defense and the front office didn’t replace him on the open market. However, bringing in the 335-pound Ika would be a suitable replacement. The Baylor product took a step back as a pass-rusher last season but did log 33 pressures and an 85.7 pass-rush grade as a junior while primarily lining up at nose tackle.

Others to keep an eye on: Mazi Smith, Michigan; Tuli Tuipulotu, USC; Keion White, Georgia Tech

Linebacker: Drew Sanders, Arkansas

After lining up as an edge rusher for two years at Alabama, Sanders transferred to Arkansas and moved back a level to play off-ball linebacker. It was a natural transition seeing as he ended up being a unanimous All-American and one of three finalists for the Butkus Award. He’s a high-level athlete who excels in coverage which defensive coordinator Patrick Graham covets at the position.

Others to keep an eye on: Trenton Simpson, Clemson; Daiyan Henley, Washington State

Defensive back: Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Texas A&M
Antonio Johnson
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Graham loves versatile safeties and that’s what Johnson is. Below is a snippet of his scouting report from The Draft Network:

Johnson is an instinctive defender that plays a physical brand of football and lines up all over the field. Texas A&M aligns Johnson as a slot corner, split zone safety, and even occasionally as a linebacker and he shows comfort in each of those roles. Johnson is a sharp processor that stays leveraged and has a rapid downhill trigger. He is aggressive in pursuit and physical when playing through contact.

Others to keep an eye on: Julius Brents, Kansas State; Kelee Ringo, Georgia

Third round

Defensive line: Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin

New Mexico State v Wisconsin
Keeanu Benton
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Benton is another run-stuffing defensive tackle who would be a welcomed sight on the Raiders’ line. He primarily played as a 0- to 1-technique in Wisconsin and was great at plugging up gaps but didn’t show much more than that in college.

However, the Badger played more 3-technique at the Senior Bowl and turned some heads with a few wins as a pass-rusher, indicating he has some potential to grow that part of his game in a different scheme.

Others to keep an eye on: Derek Hall, Auburn; Zach Harrison, Ohio State; Gervon Dexter, Florida

Linebacker: Owen Pappoe, Auburn

Admittedly, I’m higher on Pappoe than most. He fits into the fringe third- to fourth-round category with the majority of draftniks placing him closer to the latter. However, I’d have no problem spending a late Day 3 pick on a linebacker with 4.39-speed who also cranked out 29 reps on the bench press in Indianapolis.

Others to keep an eye on: Noah Sewell, Oregon; Henry To’oTo’o, Alabama

Defensive back: Sydney Brown, Illinois

As Duron Harmon remains a free agent, Las Vegas desperately needs a ball-hawking safety. That’s where Brown comes in as he ranked tied for third in college football last season with six interceptions. He also forced a fumble and could be the turnover machine the Silver and Black’s defense is looking for.

Others to keep an eye on: DJ Turner, Michigan; Jordan Battle, Alabama; Jammie Robinson, Florida State