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Brooks: What to watch for as Raiders' 2021 draft class enters second year


The majority of NFL players make their biggest developmental gains heading into the second season of their pro careers. A full offseason of strength and conditioning workouts combined with daily positional work and film study gives players a chance to build upon the skills that were developed during their rookie seasons.

With the game starting to slow down for players as they become more comfortable with the speed, physicality and complexities of the NFL game, coaches and scouts are counting on their second-year players to vie for bigger roles this season.

The Raiders certainly have high hopes for their 2021 draft class with Josh McDaniels and the coaching staff emphasizing attention to detail with the fundamentals and playbook. The diligent work performed throughout offseason workouts, OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamps should help prepare the sophomores for more responsibility this season.

After taking some time to study the tape from their rookie season while also assessing their projected roles heading into Training Camp, here are my thoughts on the Raiders' 2021 draft class:

Alex Leatherwood, G/T: The former first-round pick could return to his natural position in 2022 with the Raiders rotating him through right guard and right tackle throughout offseason workouts. Leatherwood's combination of size, strength and power could give the team a run at some dominant pass rushers that are positioned at the left defensive end. Considering Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa, Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory could spend time opposite him, the Raiders could benefit from aligning the massive second-year pro at right tackle. If Leatherwood refines his technique and becomes more consistent with his hand placement and finish, he could emerge as a solid starter and key contributor to an offense that should light up scoreboards around the league.

Tre’von Moehrig, S: After logging nearly 1,300 snaps on defense and special teams as a rookie, Moehrig could vie for all-star honors in Patrick Graham's new scheme. The second-year pro is a standout playmaker in coverage with the athleticism, instincts and skill to shadow opponents in man coverage or thrive as a centerfielder in zone schemes. In addition, Moehrig's versatility could align in the slot to handle some of the nickel cornerback duties in a variety of sub-packages. As the Raiders' defense evolves to incorporate more concepts and personnel groupings under Graham, the former TCU standout has a chance to develop into a critical chess piece that fills a variety of roles in the secondary. Whether he matches up with the ultra-athletic tight ends in the division (SEE: Travis Kelce, Gerald Everett and Albert Okwuegbunam) or plays the deep middle like a classic free safety, Moehrig should make more plays in a scheme that features him as a utility man.

Malcom Koonce, EDGE: Just because Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby man the edge rusher spots in the starting lineup does not minimize Koonce's role as a "super-sub" off the bench. The second-year pro could play a key role in the rotation as a designated pass rusher with the potential to rush from either side of the line. With opponents certain to pay close attention to the all-stars on the edges, Koonce will have plenty of opportunities to sack the quarterback against one-on-one blocks. Last season, the Buffalo product tallied a pair of sacks (in five games) in a limited role, but his production should surge with more playing time and experience. In addition, the daily tutorials from Jones and Crosby should help him add a few maneuvers to his repertoire that results in more production and a greater impact from the second-year pro. Given his success as a special teams standout in Year 1, Koonce should emerge as a "two-phase" contributor this season.

Tyree Gillespie, S: If Gillespie is going to make an immediate impact as a second-year pro, he will need to carve out a role as a "core" special teams player and backup defender. After getting his feet wet in a limited role as a rookie, he must shine in the kicking game to increase his chances of being on the active list each week. While that might not sound like a big deal on the surface, Gillespie working his way onto the gameday active list as a special teams starter could put him in position to step in for Moehrig or Jonathan Abram if one of the starters suffers an injury. As a developmental player competing for playing time against a veteran like Duron Harmon and a handful of street free agents, Gillespie needs a strong showing in the preseason to lock down a spot as a rotational player in the defensive backfield.

Divine Deablo, LB: The former safety turned linebacker could become an intriguing chess piece for Graham in his hybrid defense. Deablo's instincts, toughness and physicality enable him to survive in the box as an undersized linebacker on run downs. He showed the ability to weave through traffic on the way to the ball, and those skills could serve him well as a "Big Nickel" defender near the line of scrimmage. As a linebacker with defensive back-like movement skills, Deablo is an ideal fit for a role as a utility man in sub-packages. Given Graham's desire to mix and match personnel and scheme based on opponent, No. 5's versatility as a box defender could make him a key defender in the team's nickel and dime packages.

Nate Hobbs, CB: After a solid rookie season manning the slot cornerback position, Hobbs has shown the potential to play like an all-star 12th starter. The crafty defender with outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills is a natural fit in the slot, and Graham should be able to take advantage of his skills against spread sets. Whether it is matching Hobbs up against slot receivers or pitting the second-year pro against smaller wideouts on the outside, the Raiders have the potential to play musical chairs based on matchups with their cornerbacks. If Hobbs can demonstrate solid skills as an outside corner, the Raiders' defensive playbook could expand with Graham possessing plenty of options to match up with the explosive offenses within the division.

View director of photography Michael Clemens' best black and white photos from the Raiders 2022 Media Day.

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