Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio made it clear that he wants an improved interior pass rush this season, and on Friday his team reached into the Sacramento region to address that need.
The Raiders used their third-round draft pick on Placer High School and UCLA product Eddie Vanderdoes, a 6-foot-3 defensive tackle whom they envision becoming a physical, active inside presence on their defensive front.
A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Vanderdoes was a freshman All-American his first year at UCLA. But he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in 2015, and returned last season to record just 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks while dealing with several ankle sprains and struggling to keep his weight down.
“He’s got awareness, he’s not a guy that just pushes blocks and has no idea where the ball is,” Del Rio said late Friday. “I think his film is inconsistent, honestly. I just talked to him a little while ago and said we’re looking for the high-energy guy, the motivated guy.”
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On a conference call Friday night, Vanderdoes said he received that message clearly.
“That’s going to be the player I’m going to be, the one that I was earlier in my career,” he said. “I learned. I had a bad season. That wasn’t me. That’s not the person that I am.”
Vanderdoes said motivation was not an issue last season and that his weight “just got out of hand.” He worked hard to get it back down after the season and said he now weighs in around 302 pounds, compared to 340 last fall.
That might help account for his impressive showing at pre-draft events like the combine and Senior Bowl, where he displayed some of his earlier explosiveness. Vanderdoes also said his knee is 100 percent healed and that he feels “at top shape right now.”
Vanderdoes was projected to go somewhere in the middle rounds. Still, on Thursday, he posted a message to his Twitter account that read: “Whoever drafts me in these next few days is getting the biggest steal of the draft.”
“I definitely think that people slept on me a little bit this offseason,” Vanderdoes said. “And I love the fact that they slept on me. I think that’s what motivated me every morning waking up, is knowing that I get to prove people wrong today. I think I’ve done a good job so far of that, and I’m going to keep doing that.”
Vanderdoes said he’ll arrive at camp “expecting to contribute and play right away.” Del Rio said he should compete for a role on a defense that ranked last in the NFL last season with 25 sacks, 18 of which came from linebackers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
Del Rio said Vanderdoes could eventually have a role like Stacy McGee, who departed in free agency this offseason. “Similar to how he’d bounce around,” Del Rio said. “(McGee) would go anywhere from a nose to a six-technique. I think Eddie shows the traits to be able to do the same.”
Vanderdoes might have to brace for another move in a few years, when the Raiders re-locate to Las Vegas. But he is at least starting his NFL career two hours from where he grew up in Placer County.
“Most of my family is Raider fans,” he said. “Some (49ers) fans, but I think those Niners fans turned into Raider fans today. I’d say Auburn’s a little Raider Nation bubble now for sure.”
The Raiders selected Vanderdoes with the 88th overall pick in a defense-heavy draft for them so far. Oakland took Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley in the first round and further addressed their secondary by drafting Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu in the second round Friday.
A four-year starter in college, Melifonwu opened eyes at the Combine with his 6-foot-4, 224-pound frame, 44-inch vertical jump and 4.40 40-yard dash time. That combination of size and athleticism could allow him to cover NFL tight ends, an area of weakness for the Raiders in recent years.