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Should Raiders draft for need or take best available player?

As the Raiders close in on a decision on what to do with the 17th pick in the first round of Thursday’s NFL draft, one key to maximizing their draft spot is not reaching for a player at a position of need.

As the roster stands, the Raiders have starting job openings at right tackle and free safety. Conventional wisdom has them selecting the best available tackle in the first round, then circling back to safety in the second or third rounds.

But conventional wisdom could also mean bypassing a better player at a position of lesser immediate need, which could open themselves up to regret two or three years later when that player turns out to be a game-changer for another team.

For instance, if Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who is generally regarded as the best defensive player in the draft, falls to No. 17, it would behoove the Raiders to kick the need for an offensive tackle can further down the draft in order to acquire a player who has a game-altering skill set.

On the surface, the Raiders are fairly set at linebacker, with starters Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski and Nicholas Morrow all returning from 2020. Waiting in the wings is second-year prospect Tanner Muse, who missed his entire rookie year due to season-ending toe surgery.

But the current state of their linebacker room should not preclude the Raiders from adding a difference-maker, even if it means putting off a more pressing need.

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, perhaps bracing for an inevitable draft night moment in which the best player available trumps the most immediate need, is already talking up in-house options to fill the tackle position should they opt to go away from need in favor of best available player.

“You ask me about right tackle, we’ve got a guy name Jaryd Jones-Smith who we signed off the street last week who we think has a chance to be a really good football player,” Mayock said. “Kind of excited about him.”

Seven years ago the Rams, much like the 2021 Raiders, had an immediate need at offensive line. Armed with the second and 13th picks in the first round, the Rams drafted Auburn’s offensive tackle Greg Robinson with the second pick and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald at No. 13.

Looking back, the Rams still aren’t sure what they would have done at 13 had they not been able to address the offensive line at No. 2. At the time, they were set along the defensive line with Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers, so there is a good chance they would have simply stuck with the plan and drafted Notre Dame offensive lineman Zach Martin.

“Good … but not as good,” said someone with knowledge of the Rams’ draft room, comparing Martin to Donald.

The Rams are fortunate it never came down to that. But the mere possibility should be a cautionary tale for any team contemplating reaching for a need pick at the expense of a superior player.

Ideally, the Raiders’ biggest need and drafting the best player available completely line up.

If, say, Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater are available at No. 17 and Parsons has already been selected, the prudent choice is Darrisaw or Slater.

But if the choice comes down to Darrisaw or Slater or Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins, and Parsons or cornerbacks like Alabama’s Patrick Surtain or South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn or Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley are still on the board, the Raiders have to think long and hard about holding off on the tackle in favor of adding game-changing ability to their defense.

“Obviously when the needs fit up with where you are in the draft board, that’s awesome,” Mayock said. “When they don’t, you have to be a little careful.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsig[email protected] Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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