One Theory: Raiders Will Seek Heavyweight Linebacker With Top Pick

If defensive coordinator's past is any indication, Oakland could take Virginia Tech's Edmunds or Boise State's Vander Esch in Round 1

At this time of year, every NFL draft analyst in the nation is looking for any indication — any hint at all — that shows which way a team is leaning for its No. 1 pick.

Because nobody has a crystal ball and NFL GMs don’t like to show their cards, the batting average for those analysts isn’t all that good. But this week, Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated’s Monday Morning Quarterback took a different tack by looking at incoming defensive coordinators around the league to discern what type of players each has liked and which first-round talents fit those specficiations.

In the case of the Oakland Raiders, Benoit looked at the track record of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, a former linebackers coach, defensive coordinator for the Bengals and disciple of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

As Benoit notes, Guenther runs a 4-3 defense similar to the one used by Zimmer in Cincinnati and Minnesota, and in that scheme, Guenther and Zimmer have employed at least one big linebacker (250 or more pounds) “with the stoutness to spar with guards” and solidify the middle of the defense against the run.

So, in looking at the linebackers that will be available when the Raiders use their No. 1 pick (No. 10 overall) in Round 1 on April 26, Benoit sees a couple of options — and neither is Roquan Smith, the Georgia linebacker who is considered by many the top player at his position in this year’s selection process.

“Zimmer’s first draft pick as the head coach in Minnesota was 255-pound UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr,” wrote Benoit. “If Guenther gets a say on Oakland’s first pick — and he should, since that pick is almost certain to be on defense — don’t be surprised if it’s Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds or Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch (both weigh around 250), even if Georgia’s Roquan Smith is still on the board.”

Vander Esch hasn’t received the national publicity that Smith and Edmunds have gotten, so he’d be a surprise. At 6-foot-4 and 256 pounds, he was a big-time playmaker for the Broncos and the Mountain West Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 as a junior.

Edmunds, 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds, had a huge season for the Hokies in 2017, with 109 tackles (including 14 for loss) and 5½ sacks.

Of course, Guenther is far down the flow chart when it comes to Raiders hierarchy on draft day, behind new head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie. If one or both of those decision-makers has a draft crush still available with the 10th pick, what Guenther wants won’t be the deciding factor.

But, at least, Benoit is taking a new approach.

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