The Las Vegas Raiders have struggled to field a competent linebacker unit for many years. That seemed to have changed in the offseason when the Raiders signed a couple of marquee free agents. They immediately improved a group that will be a major factor in the 2020 season.
The Raiders defense wasn’t always like that
The Raiders rarely invested resources in their linebacker corps. Either they spent late-round draft picks in players such as Marquel Lee or signed run-of-the-mill veterans like Derrick Johnson. Regardless of the approach they took, the unit as a whole was a liability both in coverage and against the run.
That all changed in free agency when the Raiders signed Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. Although the Silver and Black had previously signed relatively known linebackers, the 2020 signings marked the first time the Silver and Black made a sizeable financial investment at the position in a long time.
Littleton is excellent at coverage, something his predecessor, Tahir Whitehead, was poor at. Last season, the Washington product accounted for four for sacks, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions. It wasn’t an anomaly in his career either. Throughout his tenure with the Rams, the linebacker got positive coverage grades from Pro Football Focus (PFF) while accounting for four passes defensed, three forced fumbles and six interceptions.
Meanwhile, Kwiatkoski prove he can thrive in an expanded role last year with the Chicago Bears. He finished the 2020 season with 51 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and one interception. That’s precisely the kind of production the Raiders have lacked from their linebackers in past years and will get this upcoming season.
Seriously, the Raiders have a top 10 linebacker corps
Littleton and Kwiatkoski were some of the most coveted free agents this year. Although many prognosticated the Raiders would get one, nobody really thought they would get two premiere linebackers. However, that’s the way it played out, and the Silver and Black automatically upgraded a position that really needed it.
After the infusion of talent at linebacker, Pro Football Focus graded the Raiders unit as the sixth-best in the NFL. For starters, they mention the group’s new look and highlight Littleton’s and Kwiatkoski’s strengths.
Regarding Littleton, PFF says he’s the prototypical modern-day linebacker and his forte are his coverage skills. Despite the fact he isn’t as good in coverage, he’s still a top-end player at the position.
Littleton is a modern-day linebacker who can match up with running backs and make plays on the ball in zone coverage. His 90.3 coverage grade is fifth-best in the league over the past three years. The question for Littleton is in the run game, where he’s graded at only 48.9 over that three-year span, but that hasn’t hurt his standing as one of the league’s most valuable linebackers.
What Does Kwiatkoski Bring?
Although Kwiatkoski isn’t as good as Littleton in coverage, he makes up for it by being great in the running game.
Kwiatkoski is the opposite of Littleton — he loves to get dirty in the run game and can get after the quarterback as a blitzer, evidenced by his 81.8 pass-rush grade last season. Kwiatkoski is not as dynamic as Littleton in coverage, but he plays his role well and broke up three passes on just 34 targets a year ago.
PFF doesn’t dwell too much into the third linebacker spot as the Raiders play nickel, two linebackers, and three cornerbacks, most of the time. However, Nicholas Morrow will likely be Silver and Black’s third linebacker. Another choice for the role is rookie Tanner Muse who the team intends to switch from safety to linebackers. Due to a unique offseason and lack of time to make the transition, Morrow will be atop of the depth chart.
The Raiders defensive line is trending upwards and the team acquired plenty of players with potential in the secondary. However, it is their linebacker corps the ones that have already shown they can play at a high level. If the other units can catch up, this will be the best defense the Raiders have had in a while.
You May Also Like: Raiders 2020 Draft Strategy Proving To Be Genius
Top Photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports