What the releases of Arden Key, Maurice Hurst means for the Las Vegas Raiders’ draft

The Las Vegas Raiders are slated to select 17th overall when the 2021 NFL Draft gets going in two weeks. The expectation here is that Las Vegas will go defense with that pick after giving up nearly 30 points per game a season ago and hiring Gus Bradley as their new defensive coordinator.

Thursday’s surprising decision to release defensive linemen Arden Key and Maurice Hurst adds a completely new layer to all of this. Both have been contributors over the past three seasons and were selected in Jon Gruden’s first draft with the Raiders.

In particular, the release of Hurst after just three seasons is telling. Considered a potential first-round pick coming out of Michigan back in 2018, the defensive tackle fell to the fifth round due to concerns over his health. He has not yet rounded into the player we saw with the Wolverines, but has flashed potential.

As for Key, the 24-year-old edge rusher was a third-round pick in the same draft. He’s recorded 26 quarterback hits and three sacks in three seasons. While these two moves won’t make headlines, they do tell us a story about the Las Vegas Raiders and their plans heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.

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Las Vegas Raiders now likely to go defensive line in Round 1

Las Vegas Raiders draft Kwity Paye
Nov 2, 2019; College Park, MD, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive lineman Kwity Paye (19) and linebacker Jordan Glasgow (29) prior to the snap during the 2g against the Maryland Terrapins at Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The signing of Pro Bowl edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue will help Las Vegas big time moving forward. In stints with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens over the past five seasons, Ngakoue has recorded 96 quarterback hits and 46.5 sacks. He also starred under Bradley in Jacksonville. This means the veteran knows Las Vegas’ defensive scheme.

Even then, there’s still a need out on the edge for the Raiders. The team recorded a mere 21 sacks a season ago, the second-lowest figure in the NFL. Former No. 4 pick Clelin Ferrell has proven to be an absolute bust since being selected in 2019. In two seasons, he’s recorded 18 quarterback hits and a mere 6.5 sacks.

The Raiders might be happy with Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby (17 sacks in two seasons), but they are not going to be able to rely on Ferrell moving forward. That’s where potentially adding another dynamic edge rusher in Round 1 could come into play. Kwity Paye from Michigan and Texas product Joseph Ossai seem to be fits in Bradley’s defensive scheme.

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Green Bay Packers: Packers mock draft
Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Christian Barmore (58) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive tackle could also be a target area for the Las Vegas Raiders in Round 1. Of course, that’s dependent on the consensus No. 1 player at this position, Alabama’s Christian Barmore, being available. Right now, the combination of offseason acquisitions Quinton Jefferson and Solomon Thomas are going to be relied on to Johnathan Hankins inside. That’s a less than ideal scenario.

Barmore isn’t merely a run-stuffing defensive tackle. He’s explosive off the line and would be a perfect fit next to Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue on the defensive line.