The 2020 NFL season exposed a lot of areas in need of improvement for the Las Vegas Raiders. Perhaps, in need of the most help, the Raiders defense received a serious off-season makeover.
Starting with a personnel change, Las Vegas added Gus Bradley as its defensive coordinator. Jon Gruden also addressed positional needs in both free agency and the NFL draft. Yesteryear’s struggles create an opportunity for a huge leap forward, but can the Raiders produce multiple Pro Bowlers on defense? With fresh talent and new coaching, the 2021 Raiders defense looks to erase the doubt of fans and critics.
Most Likely Raiders Pro Bowlers
Yannick Ngakoue/Maxx Crosby
Rushing the passer hasn’t been a strong suit for the Raiders since Khalil Mack’s departure. Joining Vegas during free agency, Yannick Ngakoue looks for a clean slate with the Raiders. Ngakoue, who hasn’t produced less than eight sacks since entering the league, looks to perform the way he did in 2017, notching a career-high 12 sacks. Applying pressure from the other side of the line, Maxx Crosby is a budding talent as well. His rookie season saw a dominant four-sack game against the Cincinnati Bengals, totaling ten for the year. The fourth-round selection could see a bigger leap forward in 2021 with help from Ngakoue and others.
2020 saw the Raiders make efforts to solidify their linebacking corps. With an injured Tanner Muse, and Cory Littleton slow to transition, Nick Kwiatkoski shined in just twelve games. Overall, Vegas’ tackling suffered but Kwiatkoski couldn’t be to blame. The former Chicago Bear notched 81 tackles, while also logging an interception and a sack. A veteran IQ and high motor could see Kwiatkoski eclipse 100 tackles in 2021. Filling stat sheets or not, Kwiatkoski’s leadership and intangibles are a must-have on the Raiders’ young defense.
Trayvon Mullen/Casey Hayward
A young Raiders secondary had Gruden adding pieces throughout the free agency period and the draft. A new scheme from Bradley demands different skill sets, however, Trayvon Mullen should still thrive as a rising corner. Arguably the best coverage option for the Raiders in 2020, Mullen tallied 64 tackles and two interceptions. Veteran Casey Hayward and rookie additions to the secondary could drive Mullen to improve production in 2021. Headed into his third season, Mullen could quietly ascend to elite status. Conversely, mentoring the younger group could propel Hayward into a role that sees him returning to his 2016/2017 Pro Bowl form.
On the Cusp of Pro Bowl Performance
Barring success at other positions, Moehrig is in a perfect spot to make a difference in Las Vegas. Playing single high safety in Bradley’s system could be essential in this unit performing well. Drafted in the second round, the former TCU defender will likely be a Day 1 starter. Predicting rookie performances is never an exact science, but Moehrig has the tools to stand out as a Raider. Provided his transition is smooth, Moehrig could provide stability to a hungry secondary. The Raiders adding a rookie to the list of Pro Bowlers on defense would be ideal in 2021.
After heading to the Cleveland Browns for a one-year stint, Karl Joseph returns to the Raiders. Slow to progress, Joseph has shown he can be a solid contributor in this league. In his one-year hiatus from the Raiders, Joseph registered 67 tackles and an interception. A small leap from his seasons in the Silver and Black, Joseph is now in a veteran role. Bradley loves box safeties and a marriage with Joseph could see success for both parties. If other linebackers or safeties struggle, look for Joseph to be relied on more heavily.
Not Impossible But…
After being selected fourth overall, Clelin Ferrell has not quite lived up to his own expectations. Reaching the Pro Bowl wouldn’t be impossible for the former Clemson Tiger, but the work is cut out for him. With talents like the aforementioned Crosby and Ngakoue, Ferrell may find it more difficult to produce. Ferrell may also be feeling pressure to act now, as the Raiders could move on from him after year’s end. A meteoric rise from the edge rusher would be necessary to propel him into a Pro Bowl.
Safety was perhaps the largest void on the Raiders roster heading into 2021. Former first-round selection Johnathan Abram has shown flashes of brilliance in pursuit but struggles in coverages. Discipline on routes is also an area of concern. If Abram is to succeed at safety, it will require both patience and focus. Losing sight of receivers could be fixed in Bradley’s new scheme. Vegas adding at least six other defensive backs in the off-season should alert Abram. Concentrating on balancing his aggressive style, Abram could shock with an improbable Pro Bowl run.
The Las Vegas Raiders defense is a microcosm of balance. Young guns and veterans will have to synchronize in 2021 to create personal and team successes. Players will have to trust new coordinator Gus Bradley’s decision-making and play-calling as well. With so many variables in play, Las Vegas has many pieces essential to fielding a formidable defense. If the Raiders are to have multiple Pro Bowlers on defense in 2021, Bradley must put each player in the best position to succeed every down.
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*Top Photo: Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal