Patrick Graham, Las Vegas Raiders, Defensive Coordinator (Photo by Getty Images)

Outsiders Edge: Is It All ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ Or Is There A Legit Plan For Raiders Defense?

Is there a legit plan when it comes to the Las Vegas Raiders defense, or is it possible that it is all ‘smoke and mirrors’ in reality?

Oh snap!? Is defense en vogue once again in the NFL?

Just two seasons after the league boasted its highest points per game average of 24.8 in 2020, the offensive firepower dipped to 23 points per game in 2021 and 21.9 this past season. That average is the lowest since a 21.7 per game output in 2018 and 21.5 in 2005.

The diminishing point total was quite noticeable at the start of the 2022 season, and while there were high-scoring affairs, it wasn’t as bombastic as it was in 2020. Which beckons this question when it comes to the Las Vegas Raiders: Is it mere smoke and mirrors for 2023, or is there a legit plan for the defense?

We’ll hit up three topics here: The Raiders cap spending, free agency moves, and draft picks.

The discrepancy in cap spending is just ludicrous.

According to OverTheCap, Las Vegas is spending $138.36 million plus on offense, good for second in the league in total coin allocated to Josh McDaniels’ side of the ball. Flip the coin to defense, and said coin pretty much turns into a rusted penny. Patrick Graham’s side of the ball sees a total of $86.502 million plus dedicated to it—that’s 29 out of the 32 teams in spending.

For reference, only the Cleveland Browns have more invested in their offense than the Raiders. And only the Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals, and Los Angeles Rams spend less on defense.

It reeks totally of “you get what you pay for,” no? And it’s the lack of coin spent on defense that highlights it’s another Raiders rebuild, much to the chagrin of loyal Raider Nation.

A trio of defenders do land in the Top 10 in terms of cap numbers in 2023. We’re referring to defensive ends Chandler Jones ($14.244 million) and Maxx Crosby ($12.978-plus million) and defensive tackle Bilal Nichols ($6.687-plus million).

Eight of the seventeen unrestricted free agents the Raiders have signed are defenders.

Highlighted by safety Marcus Epps, cornerback Duke Shelley, and linebacker Robert Spillane, Las Vegas’ additions via free agency reads “more depth and competition” outside of that trio.

Epps is a hard-hitting enforcer on the back end, but the team had one of those previously (drafted in the first round, even) before releasing him. The former Philadelphia Eagle must showcase that he’s effective in coverage, too. Shelley, meanwhile, has shutdown corner traits and production, albeit on a 5-foot-8 frame. He’s stingy and makes plays on the ball in coverage, and that’s something that didn’t happen enough for Las Vegas this past season and before that. Spillane is the hard-nosed middle linebacker who packs a wallop. He’s similar to Denzel Perryman but has proven to be more durable.

Looking at other signings, Jordan Willis has potential to be a power/speed combo at defensive end, while John Jenkins can push for a role as the massive nose tackle, but the rest of the group are fringe role players or depth types. Although that’s not a bad thing—quality depth is a trait of a good football team—the Raiders are in need of impact starters on a defense devoid of takeaways.

Six of the nine Raiders 2023 NFL Draft picks are defensive prospects.

Spearheaded by selecting Texas Tech defensive end Tyree Wilson No. 7 overall, Las Vegas spent pick No. 70 on Byron Young (defensive tackle, Alabama), No. 104 on Jakorian Bennett (cornerback, Maryland), No. 170 on Christoper Smith II (safety, Georgia), No. 203 on Amari Burney (linebacker, Florida), and No. 231 on Nesta Jade Silvera (defensive tackle, Arizona State).

That’s young talent at several positions of need. And it’s in the draft that Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler and his player personnel crew intend to lay the foundation for the Silver and Black.

Yet, Las Vegas’ defensive needs are so dire that the team needs not only all of those defensive picks to make the roster but also to contribute in some way in 2023. Quality talent can be found throughout the draft, and the team can get a lot of return on investment if mid- to late-round picks blossom. It can happen. It occurs quite often across the NFL landscape.

But is this coaching staff—particularly Graham and his assistants—the proper group to develop young defenders?

The jury is very much out on that, but there’s no choice but to see if Graham is indeed “Black Picasso,” who can create a defensive masterpiece, or if he ends up being like every other recent Raiders defensive coordinator who was merely drawing with dull crayons.

Las Vegas’ dilapidated defense is a result of bad personnel moves in free agency and draft picks.

The flops of big-money signings like Lamarcus Joyner and Corey Littleton combined with prospect whiffs like Damon Arnette, Johnathan Abram, Clelin Ferrell, Gareon Conley, and P.J. Hall—the list goes on. In fact, Littleton holds a $9.986 million dead cap number, with Carl Nassib having a $4.956 million dead cap number, too.

This is something Ziegler must do better than the regimes that preceded him. Time will tell if he’s got a keener sense of talent or not. Year 2 with Ziegler as Raiders GM will tell us a lot but won’t completely answer the questions that remain.

*Top Photo: Getty Images

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