ALAMEDA — The Raiders zeroed in on adding depth on the defensive line in Friday’s second and third rounds of the NFL Draft.
Oakland first picked up raw Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward from Illinois with the No. 44 pick, then grabbed Michigan State linebacker/defensive end Shilique Calhoun with the 75th pick.
“We feel good about fortifying the front,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “That’s what we were able to do today and add strength and depth and competition to the front.”
Ward is relatively new to his position, having not focused full-time on the defensive line until his sophomore year at a junior college. The 6-foot-6, 295-pounder was a wide receiver and defensive back in high school and a tight end initially in junior college. He played defensive end at Illinois, but Del Rio expects him to play more on the interior.
“He’s a guy that stays on his feet, chases the ball, plays hard, does a great job finishing, getting off blocks and making plays in the run game in particular right now,” Del Rio said of Ward. “We’ll need to develop him as a pass rusher. He’s more of an interior defensive lineman.”
The 6-5, 250-pound Calhoun is more of a finished product, a player who can rush the passer as either a linebacker or defensive end and had 26.5 sacks over his final three years at Michigan State.
“He’s a very productive young man, really understands how to rush the quarterback and he’s been an All-American,” Del Rio said of Calhoun. “He’s been a very productive guy at a good college program.”
The Raiders have gone all defense through their first three picks, including Thursday’s first-round selection, safety Karl Joseph of West Virginia.
“It wasn’t like we orchestrated to come out with that being the case,” Del Rio said. “We have a lot of areas where we feel like we can strengthen, add competition to the roster, add depth and it just has worked out in that way.”
While Friday’s two picks are both different types of defensive ends, the addition of two players at that spot brings up questions about the future of last year’s second round pick Mario Edwards Jr. The Raiders have remained quiet about his prospects of returning to football following a neck injury that general manager Reggie McKenzie has said may be genetic in nature.
Del Rio offered a simple, “no,” when asked if Edwards’s status played any role in Friday’s selections.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to better ourselves and we’re going to continue to work at it anywhere we can,” Del Rio said. “For us, the hype surrounding where we are and where we see ourselves as a football team maybe are at two different places. We see a lot of work in front of us and an opportunity to make it much more competitive at many spots on our roster.”
Del Rio mentioned the word depth several times when describing the additions and while neither may come in and immediately grab a starting position, he expects both to be able to contribute.
Ward dealt with a small tear in his meniscus in his right knee before his senior season that required arthroscopic surgery that could need looking at again. He recovered quickly from the initial procedure in August, making it back by the season opener after being projected to miss the first two games.
“If I need to get it checked out again, we can check it out,” Ward said on a conference call of his knee. “I don’t want to be at camp or on the field and the next thing we know my knee is messed up. If they want me to get it checked out, we can get it checked out.”
Del Rio said he expects Ward to be available for the start of the season.
Ward comes to the league with a tough background, having grown up in poverty. A recent MMQB story highlighted his rough road at Globe Institute of Technology, a junior college in New York where he at times had to sneak onto subways as part of his 24.5-mile daily commute that included three miles on foot and a ferry ride. He also wore No. 17 in college because that was his mother’s age when he was born.
“He’s come through quite a bit to make it where he is now,” Del Rio said. “It’s a special story. Clearly, those kinds of stories are a lot better than some of the others that you hear.”
Calhoun is a studious player who earned a criminal justice degree and is eager to absorb knowledge from the other Raiders pass rushers such as Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
“I look forward to coming in and trying to learn from those guys and just trying to soak it all in like a sponge,” Calhoun said.