Raiders' defensive front seven still full of numerous question marks


The NFL is heading into its one true hibernation period, a quiet stretch when coaches and players alike get away from the game before it consumes them all once training camps begin.

Focus will hone to the Raiders at that point, as NFL fans nationwide check in on Jon Gruden’s roster rebuild via weekly installments of HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” There’s plenty of intrigue in a team with uncertain legitimacy and plenty of question marks at important positions, which is common at this stage of a radial reconstruction.

That’s why this is a good time to check in and answer some questions in the Raiders mailbag about what happened during the offseason program and what’s up next in camp.

The upgrade in talent looks obvious on the offense. Did you get a similar impression about the defense during OTA’s/mini camp? – Joe Bonura
I certainly do not. The offense has improved significantly because the Raiders invested heavily in veterans who can help it and, specifically, quarterback Derek Carr thrive. Antonio Brown is expensive. So, is Trent Brown and Tyrell Williams in 2019. Josh Jacobs cost a high draft pick. Those are major upgrades at important positions.

While this might be the deepest and most well-rounded secondary I’ve seen in years, the front seven does not inspire confidence. Honestly, who intimidates in the front seven? Anybody strike fear?

The linebacker corps is older with unwelcome recent injury history. The Raiders have used five draft picks on defensive linemen the past two seasons, but that area remains a giant work in progress. Even if Arden Key makes a second-year leap and Clelin Ferrell impresses right away, where are even middle-of-the-road sack totals coming from?

All that’s what we see on paper. These guys could prove doubters wrong, and we might well see that early.

But it’s going to be hard, and that’s no shock for a defensive front that didn’t get much attention in free agency. It will take time to develop a young corps into a scary unit. There’s work to do there, without many sure things in the front seven.

What's your take on Chris Warren and his chances of being on the roster this year? Do you think he can fill a Zack Crockett type role in the Gruden offense or does Josh Jacobs shoulder the entire load? – Gabe Duran
It’s still up in the air. Count Jacobs, Doug Martin and Jalen Richard as roster locks. So is a fullback, whether favorite Keith Smith retains the post or Alec Ingold wins the gig. That doesn’t leave much room.

DeAndre Washington never quits and will continue to compete. Warren offers a true thumper’s dynamic to the crew, which isn’t present in his form on the depth chart. He’s a bruising 260 pounds right now, and remains an intriguing option with plenty to prove. He’s a tough read, considering he missed all of last season with a knee injury and Gruden doesn’t give him much public praise. A lot will weigh on his pass protection and versatility.

Hey Scott thanks for taking questions. I know sacks are crucial but are the DEs and LBs showing they can set the edge? – Thomas Davis
I hate to say "wait ‘til the pads come on," but I have to in this instance. Josh Mauro certainly will play a role here, and Clelin Ferrell must excel in this area to be the three-down player the Raiders hope he can be. That isn’t an area with much depth, and could be an issue if not shored up in camp.

Hey Scott it’s been a while, that time of the year again! Who do you see as the main slot guy? Hunter [Renfrow] is going to get every chance but grant and [J.J.] Nelson can make a strong push, how do you see it playing out? How many of those guys make the team? – Landon Weber
The Raiders really like Renfrow and his progress during the offseason program, but don’t count out Ryan Grant. He comes highly recommended from Gruden’s brother, Jay, while working with the receiver in Washington. He’s a tough veteran and solid No. 3, someone whom Gruden easily could get behind as the primary guy.

Nelson has speed to spare, but I would think Renfrow will get every opportunity to earn a roster spot for sure, and likely a role even as a reserve.

In terms of receivers, Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams and return man Dwayne Harris are in for sure. Grant and Renfrow (if he earns it) both could be in, leaving everyone else to fight for one spot. Those are tough odds, but I’ll call my shot way, way too early and take Keelan Doss there. There will be heavy competition for the final one or two spots in this receiver corps.

It’s been almost 10 months and I still can’t believe it. I still haven’t heard a valid argument for it other than ego. I know hindsight is always 20/20, but you trade a HOF at a premier position for a 1st round RB prospect and some draft capital next year? Not to mention his cap number is only $11.9 million this year when we still have $27 million...So I guess my question is had everything but that trade happened, would we be SB candidates this year? – Mike Tarnovetchi
Wow. A Khalil Mack question, without actually naming him, nearly a year after the trade counts as a surprise. Gruden surely hopes improved play will slip that controversial move further into the background, but we apparently aren’t there yet.

To directly answer the question, the Raiders would not be serious contenders this year. They weren’t with Mack in 2017, and Gruden clearly believed this roster had to be torn down and rebuilt. There were holes before he got here, and he wanted to make this roster the way he wanted, without being saddled by yet another massive contract.

How effective do you see the Karl Joseph and Johnathan Abram [tandem] working on the back end? And how is Trayvon Mullen doing? – Idris Gray
I think it could be a solid pairing, with Erik Harris active in the rotation as well. Abram has been impressive thus far, and Joseph has motivation to spare with the Raiders declining his fifth-year option. He was playing his best football near last season’s end, and wants to build off that positive play.

Abram is a natural-born leader, and fits in well as a versatile piece.

I can’t say that Mullen stood out in practices open to the press, but you can’t draw judgments from a rookie’s offseason program.

Who has been a offseason surprise either UDFA or last year didn't play much or just someone not on everyone's radar but has a good chance to make the team and provide an impact? – Lorenzo Taylor
Again, too early for such predictions. We normally select a "pick to click" during training camp of an undrafted guy who makes the squad. Doss and Ingold are early favorites, but don’t sleep on Ronald Ollie along the defensive line. An interior offensive lineman could find a spot as well.

Biggest weakness going into camp, and ways to address it? Has to be pass rush by a mile. – Mark Lubienski
It’s the pass rush, and nothing else is even close. I talked about it earlier, but this defensive line remains a work in progress. It isn’t just sack totals. Run defense must be improved inside and out. But, yeah, the Raiders need some real juice off the edge.

It might take another draft class to find it, unless rookies in Ferrell and Maxx Crosby make a profound impact that’s hard to do.

If the O-line continues to struggle will [Tom] Cable be let go or is he getting a free pass? – Cody Knudtson
The Raiders drafted two offensive tackles in the first three rounds last year, and Cable was integral in those selections. He will have some time to develop them. Adding veteran help and a year’s experience to 2018 first-round left tackle Kolton Miller especially means the pressure will be on Cable a bit more this year.

The sack totals have to come down and run totals must go up and stay there for Cable to remain as secure as he is right now.

Who will be the standout for the D line this year?? – Donnie Medeiros
Maurice Hurst is the easy answer. I think he’s going to be a quality pro for a long time. We’ll go in a different direction here and say Maxx Crosby ends up with five to seven sacks as a tenacious situational pass rusher and surprise standout.

I can go big with these predictions. It’s not like they'll stay on the Internet for everyone to see or anything.

Who's the starter come Halloween, [Daryl] Worley or [Trayvon] Mullen? Will [Lamarcus] Joyner play the slot exclusively or will he bounce to safety any? And is [Darren] Waller really what they say he is? – Michael Stewart
That wasn’t one question, Michael. I’ll quickly answer all three:

1. Worley. I believe this will be his best year. Coaches like him, but he will be tested.

2. We only can go off what’s been seen and said thus far. Right now, Joyner is a slot cornerback.

3. Since I’m part of "they," and have written about his impressive offseason program, I’ll say I believe Waller will be an impact player in 2018. He has all the tools you want in a receiving tight end, and should receive favorable matchups with Brown and Williams in the pattern.

Is Richie Incognito the opening day starter? – Bob Jugan
I’m pretty sure that’s a trick question. Are you asking if he’ll be suspended to start the year? He’s pretty set as the primary option and could lock the starting gig down this summer, and could start in his first game eligible. That could be Week 1, or whenever a possible NFL suspension for off-the-field mistakes concludes.

The Raiders still are waiting for an answer there.

[RELATED: Raiders' Jacobs not sure he wants life story going Hollywood]

Can we get a late round pick for DeAndre Washington? I like him but he probably doesn’t make the 53 with Warren coming on and his skill set similar to Richard, Martin, and Jacobs -- Kevin Nisbett
It’s certainly possible with a solid preseason. He’s an NFL back. Don’t count Washington off the roster just yet. He’s a fighter.

Scotty, is Musburger going to call Raiders games again this season? -- Willie Gabel
Yes, you will be listening LIVE to another Raiders season of Brent Musburger on the call.

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