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NFL Draft Preview: Raiders expect impact return at No. 4

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ALAMEDA, Calif. — The Oakland Raiders capped off their free-agency period by bringing in wide receiver Michael Crabtree, having added a dozen unrestricted free agents to go along with an almost entirely new coaching staff.

Having completed a training and conditioning phase, the Raiders got on the field for the first time during their first voluntary minicamp and were still sorting through the process of getting to know one another.

Despite all the new faces, enough foundational pieces remain that head coach Jack Del Rio resists the notion that the cupboard of a 3-13 team was essentially bare.

“I think when teams struggle and have bad records I think people want to dismiss everyone on the roster and claim there isn’t any talent,” Del Rio said. “I think we have some talent on our roster. We’re going to develop from that talent, we’re going to demand from that talent, and we’ll add to it.

“We’ve added pieces along the way, but we feel good about what we’ve been able to assemble.”

The addition of Crabtree is a potential upgrade at wide receiver, and there’s plenty of speculation that more help could be on the way with the No. 4 overall pick in the form of either Amari Cooper (Alabama) or Kevin White (West Virginia).

Center Rodney Hudson arrived via free agency to strengthen the middle of the offensive line, with tackle J’Marcus Webb supplying depth. New running backs include Trent Richardson and Roy Helu Jr.

Lee Smith arrives as a blocking tight end, with Christian Ponder lending some experience in backing up second-year quarterback Derek Carr.

On defense, defensive tackle Dan Williams was signed to clog the middle, with beneficiaries including new linebackers Malcolm Smith and Curtis Lofton.

In the secondary, cornerback James Dockery and safety Nate Allen are the new faces.

Having won 11 games over the last three seasons, an influx of talent is needed — and the big difference between this year and last year is the free-agent crop of players are in almost every case in the prime of their career in terms of age.

“We ended up strengthening ourselves in a lot of different areas in free agency,” Del Rio said. “If you have a set roster, you don’t have to do as much. But obviously, we had a need for competition at several levels of this team and we sought to go out and address that through free agency.”

The early drama in the draft and how it will affect the Raiders will be at a position for which they have no need. The Raiders are happy with Carr, but general manager Reggie McKenzie’s hand will change based on what happens with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Many draft analysts believe there are a handful of teams ready to trade up for Mariota as far up as No. 2. The Raiders could get a call if Mariota is available at No. 4.

The ripple effect of a move for Mariota would change the landscape.

For all the speculation on getting that wide receiver the Raiders so desperately need, Mariota moving into the top three could leave a blue-chip defender potentially on the board in either USC’s Leonard Williams or Florida’s Dante Fowler.

Given that McKenzie and Del Rio are both former NFL linebackers who approach the game with a defensive mindset, it could be difficult to bypass either one of those two players to pair with 2014 top pick Khalil Mack and add to what could be a dramatically improved defense — particularly in terms of a pass rush.

There is also the possibility that given a rich class at wide receiver, the Raiders, particularly in light of the Crabtree signing, could opt for trading back and getting, adding picks and getting that position later.

2014 Record: 3-13, 4th in AFC West

First Draft Pick: #4 Overall

BEST FIT: WR Amari Cooper, Alabama

As the most polished receiver in the draft, Cooper can step immediately into a major role and provide something the Raiders haven’t had since 2005: a wide receiver that gains 1,000 yards. He would become Derek Carr’s go-to target the moment he steps on the field.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Wide receiver: The Raiders carefully managed veteran James Jones last season for maximum production and brought in Michael Crabtree. Even with the return of Rod Streater from injured reserve, there isn’t the dynamic game-changing talent at the position that desperately needs it with Carr charged with being a franchise quarterback.

2. Edge rusher: The Raiders had only 22 sacks in 16 games last season. Although that’s in a sense a misleading figure given the pressure they had in some games, Oakland was a classic “close but no cigar” team in terms of finishing the deal. Khalil Mack, with the addition of a second rusher, could morph into a 10-plus sack player immediately.

3. Guard: The shuffling along the offensive line since last season sent Austin Howard (a former tackle) back to his normal position at right tackle after spending a season inside. As of now, veteran Khalif Barnes is the right tackle, but ideally the Raiders discover a people-mover in the draft on the right side much as they did last season on the left side with third-round pick Gabe Jackson.


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