Coming off a disappointing 8-8 season, the Las Vegas Raiders have reshaped their roster on both sides of the ball. A restructure has made for parity when determining the Raiders’ strongest position group.
Head coach Jon Gruden has new tools everywhere, but the improvement was most necessary on defense. After drafting an offensive tackle in round one, the Raiders rattled off five straight defensive selections. Notable free agents such as Yannick Ngakoue and Casey Hayward have also joined the Silver and Black. With as many fresh faces as familiar ones, the Raiders look new on defense, but are they improved? Speculation and analysis will only ease the minds of Raiders fans until the 2021 NFL season is underway.
Potential…But Not Proven: Secondary
The 2020 NFL season exposed a lot about the Raiders young secondary. Tackling issues and maturity were mostly to blame for the team in ranking 30th in points per game on defense. Addressing the youth at the position, Hayward joined Las Vegas, formerly from the rival Los Angeles Chargers. Former Raider Karl Joseph has returned to the team after a brief stint in Cleveland as well. However, Vegas will remain young when fielding a starting defense. Rookie Trevon Moehrig will look to start day one at free safety. Johnathan Abram excels in pursuit at safety, but looks to improve his coverage in Year 3. Trayvon Mullen has easily been the teams’ best coverage player and must maintain his success if the unit is to take a step forward. New coordinator Gus Bradley will be tasked with turning talent from potential to proven play.
Close But Not Quite: Linebackers
Injuries and inconsistency plagued the Raiders linebacking corps in 2020. Veteran Cory Littleton hasn’t lived up to original expectations but has still contributed solidly. An injury saw Tanner Muse miss his rookie year, however, he expects to be at full force in camp and ready for Week 1.
Underrated and unsung, Nick Kwiatkoski somehow found success in Paul Guenther’s scheme in 2020. Bradley should find ways to improve upon Kwiatkoski’s skills. Converting from safety, rookie Divine Deablo will add speed, size, and flexibility to the group. Bradley loves roaming backers and safeties, and Deablo should have no problem filling the role. Other names like Nicholas Morrow and James Onwualu have played rotating roles, but have only contributed minimally. More integral than athletic, the Las Vegas linebackers are the epitome of heart but lack the production to be the Raiders’ strongest defensive position group.
Progressing But Not Finished: Defensive Line/Edge
The Raiders’ pass rush has struggled in recent years. Yannick Ngakoue was a marquee acquisition to create pressure off the edge. Maxx Crosby has impressed and looks to maintain his quarterback assault, notching 17 sacks in his first two years. Clelin Ferrell hasn’t quite reached the expectation scouts had hoped for but is ascending. Losing fan-favorite Maurice Hurst was a blow at defensive tackle, but players like Kendal Vickers, Johnathan Hankins, and Darius Philon should fill the void. The recent release of David Irving thinned out tackle a bit but newly acquired Solomon Thomas could spice up the position. Third-round selection Malcolm Koonce brings fresh legs to the edge and could split reps with Carl Nassib in rotations. Both time and money have been heavily invested in the Raiders defensive line, and on paper, it shows. Under scrutiny as of late, a reconfigured line is arguably the Raiders’ strongest defensive position group. If any unit on the Las Vegas defense is to excel, it starts with the trenches, applying pressure to opposing offenses.
The Raiders head into the 2021 NFL season with more questions than answers on defense. Last year’s performance is still bitter in their mouths, and all three levels have weapons to improve. A young secondary must overcome growing pains. A resilient linebacking corps looks to regroup after unforeseen setbacks. Lastly and possibly the strongest unit, the defensive line is hungry for more of what they tasted just slightly in 2020. Collectively, the Raiders defense will be under heavy surveillance in what is sure to be a chaotic 2021 NFL season.
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*Top Photo: Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal