Upon Further Ramble Review: Top 5 Surprising Raiders This Season

Would you look at that? The Las Vegas Raiders didn’t even need to play a game to remain atop the AFC West. Bloody brilliant!

With the Los Angeles Chargers getting zapped at home by the New England Patriots, the 5-2 Raiders remain the top team in the division. Meanwhile, the 4-3 Chargers entrenched in second place. But before you pull up your big boy britches with glee, simmer down. There are lots of seasons left.
Yet, for one more week — at least — Raider Nation can pump their collective chests.

Thus, it’s an opportune time to look at the top five surprising Raiders this season.

No. 1: Denzel Perryman

Acquired via trade with the Carolina Panthers after Vegas lost starting linebacker Nicholas Morrow to a foot injury, Perryman has not only fit in but he’s stood out tremendously in Silver and Black. Familiar with the nuances and style of the Gus Bradley defense, the 5-foot-11, 240-pound former second-round pick plays bigger than his size and is a true thumper as the Raiders’ middle linebacker. Perryman is second in the NFL in solo tackles (51) and total tackles (81) through seven games. Vegas’s win over the Eagles two weeks ago was the first game in which the linebacker didn’t have more than ten total tackles.

“He’s got a presence about him,” Bradley said of Perryman during a mid-week press conference. “I think when he’s in the huddle, (his teammates) feel him. So he’s a very good leader, a very good pro. He brings some explosiveness to us. He’s got very good instincts. Denzel, we have a lot of history with him just from our time back with the Chargers. He understands the package and what is asked of him. He’s been a good addition. He fit in well with that group, too.”

The one area that’s lacking, however, is Perryman’s cover game. While he’s quick to react and strike going downhill, when he’s tasked with covering someone in Bradley’s zone scheme, 82.5% of targets Perryman’s way are completed. Opposing quarterbacks who target Perryman in coverage sport a 122.3 passer rating and three touchdowns. 

No. 2: Corey Littleton

Finally playing like the do-it-all defender he was as an L.A. Ram, Littleton is adjusting nicely to the Bradley zone scheme in the linebacker’s second season as a Raider. Littleton was signed to a rich free-agent deal (three-year, $32.25 million) in the 2020 offseason. The 6-foot-3, 228-pounder is now finally living up to the pact. Second on the team with 61 total tackles (33 solo), Littleton ranks 16th in the league in total stops. 

Where he’s made his mark felt, however, is when tasked with coverage responsibilities in the Raiders zone defense. Littleton has shown both the awareness and required athleticism (namely turn-and-run skills) to not only keep pace with pass catchers but smother them in coverage. Of 34 targets, Littleton allowed 24 for completions (70.6%) with zero touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks sport an 83.2 passer rating when throwing the linebacker’s way. 

Let’s put it this way: Of Raider defenders who’ve been targeted 20 times or more, Littleton ranks third, only behind cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and Casey Hayward in passer rating when targeted.

Unlike a lost 2020 campaign where Littleton (and several other defenders) didn’t know their right arm from their left, Bradley’s simplified scheme’s working wonders. As a result, Littleton is showing out in 2021. “Less thought,” Littleton explained the week before Week 1 kicked off. “Less thinking about what your assignment is or how you play a certain concept or formation. Just a lot more just playing football and ultimately having fun with it because you know what to do.”

No. 3: AJ Cole III

The Raiders once again have a field-flipping boomer for a punter. Following a distinguished line of boot masters, Cole leads the league with an impressive 52.6 yards per kick average. He also owns the third-longest punt of the season at 71 yards. Also, he is sixth in the league in total yards (1,524) punted on his 29 boots.

Cole’s ability to pin the opposing team either deep or on the 20 (with touchbacks) is a tremendous boost for Bradley’s defense. He’s dropped 12 of his 29 total punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Where he needs to improve is the net average (44.3) as opponents have been able to field the punts and churn out the third-most punt return yards (179) in the league. Of course, that doesn’t solely fall on Cole’s shoulders, as the coverage team plays a critical role in that.

No. 4: Nate Hobbs

Talk about a find in the fifth round of the 2021 draft, eh? The Illinois cornerback is both fiery and confident, and it translated bloody well on the field as Hobbs grabbed the starting slot corner job and never looked back.

The 6-foot, 195-pound defender has stuck to his task like glue and smothered pass catchers through seven games. While his overall stats appear lackluster — 27 of 31 targets completed (87.1% completion percentage) — the completions are short and don’t gain YAC (yards after the catch). And, more importantly, Hobbs hasn’t allowed a touchdown all year.

Equally impressive and mission-critical for nickel corners is Hobbs’ ability to tackle. He gets his nose dirty in run support and has missed only one tackle out of the 32 of his combined stops.

No. 5: Casey Hayward

This ageless corner is another example of when Bradley wants a defender on the roster, you go get said defender and don’t blink or hesitate. At the ripe age of 32, Hayward is playing his best football through seven games as a Raider.

Opposing quarterbacks that go Hayward’s way complete only 47.8% of their throws (11 of 23) for a meager 109 yards and zero touchdowns. The 61.7 passer rating is second on the Raiders.

The 5-foot-11, 192-pound veteran has solidified one of the outside corner spots in Vegas and, if his body holds up, Hayward may see another season in Silver & Black beyond 2021 — if he were inclined.

Based on his play thus far and how he’s returned to shutdown-corner status, if Hayward closes out the year starting the 17-game regular-season slate, a handsome payday awaits this offseason (or a lucrative extension with the Raiders).

Omitted But Not Forgotten

Young receivers Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards have delivered quality snaps and production as pass catchers and shouldn’t be ignored. But the much-maligned Raiders defense takes the cake as the unit’s improvement in 2021 is head-and-shoulders more impressive.

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*Top Photo: Michael Clemens/Las Vegas Raiders

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