The Raiders front seven went through a lot of changes this off-season. They lost three starters in free agency, including two of the best players on the roster in Lamarr Houston and Vance Walker. To replace them as well as add depth, they brought in Lamarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Justin Tuck and drafted Khalil Mack.
While they have been running a 4-3 defense dating back to the Howie Long days, there is evidence to support the idea that the Raiders defense will look much more like a 3-4 defense in 2014 than it has in the past. Here you’ll see the evidence to why I believe the Raiders defense will be more 3-4 than 4-3, and how the players in this front are likely to be used.
Looking at 2013
In 2013 the Raiders defense looked like a 3-4 the majority of the time. The Raiders had four or more players on the defensive line just 19.3% of the time. In comparison they had four or more players playing linebacker on 43.2 percent of their snaps. They often had a 3-3-5 front, which is something that is much more common of a 3-4 team than a 4-3.
The key to what made them look like a 3-4 defense was their edge rushers. Lamarr Houston lined up as a linebacker rather than a defensive linemen on 80.2 percent of his snaps. For most of the season the other edge rusher was Jason Hunter, who typically stayed at defensive end which led to many 3-3-5 fronts. However late in the season he began playing more linebacker. Prior to Week 16, he played linebacker at most 18.4 percent of his snaps. In Week 16 that was up to 48.9 percent, and in Week 17 that was at 71.0 percent.
Of the players the Raiders brought in, a few of them have more of a history in a 3-4 front than a 4-3. Lamarr Woodley had been playing left outside linebacker in a 3-4 front in Pittsburgh during his entire career. Antonio Smith for the past three seasons has played as a 3-4 defensive end, and that is also the position he played in Arizona prior to joining the Texans. Khalil Mack makes more sense as a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 outside linebacker. The only addition that doesn’t have the same experience is Justin Tuck, but Tuck has moved inside for the Giants in pass rushing situations in the past, so that might not be as big of a change.
How the Defensive Line would look
The starting three defensive linemen would most likely be Tuck at left end, Pat Sims at nose tackle and Antonio Smith at right end. During Tuck’s time in New York he mostly played on the left side, and in both Houston and Arizona Smith played mostly on the right side. If they had a four man line, Woodley would be at defensive end, and Smith would be moved to defensive tackle.
If the Raiders were to go with a three man line, it would make sense for Smith to be designated as a defensive end and not a defensive tackle in fantasy leagues. This would hurt his value for those playing in leagues that distinguish defensive ends and tackles, as he would rank higher as a tackle than an end. The big thing to note is that in the nickel defense only two of these players would be on the field at the same time. This would likely be true even if they have a 4-3 defense, but a 3-4 defense would guarantee it. In 2013 the Raiders used a nickel or dime defense over 62 percent of the time, which means there will likely just be 38 percent of the time that these players or one of their backups would be on the field together.
On early downs it would make sense to put Justin Tuck and Pat Sims there. In 2013 Tuck had a Run Stop Percentage of 7.6 percent which was above average for a 4-3 defensive end. Pat Sims was also at 7.6 percent which put him in the top third for all defensive/nose tackles. On the other hand Antonio Smith was at a low 5.6 percent which put him in the bottom third for 3-4 defensive ends. It could very well be a younger player instead of Smith in the base defense regardless.
On later passing downs it would make more sense to put in Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck in most cases. Smith was a top 7 pass rusher for 3-4 defensive ends at an 8.9 Pass Rushing Productivity. Justin Tuck had three sacks, two hits and seven hurries on his 120 snaps as a left interior pass rusher. Sims is much younger than Tuck, and was a decent pass rusher especially later in the year, so Sims might take some of Tuck’s snaps.
The key takeaway for Tuck is he will likely be asked to pass rush from the inside more than he was in New York, so his sack production is likely to decrease. Year after year Tuck was seeing anywhere from 70-85 percent of snaps in New York, but with the Raiders depth, that will likely decrease.
From Week 12 to Week 16, Pat Sims was the highest scoring defensive tackle in fantasy football. However with the infusion of pass rushers, Sims will likely see a sizeable decrease in his snaps which will also hurt his fantasy value.
How the Linebackers would look
The first step would be putting Lamarr Woodley at left outside linebacker instead of defensive end like most are projecting him as. If the Raiders do this, it would make sense for Woodley to be classified as a linebacker rather than a defensive end in fantasy leagues which hurts his value. That would put Khalil Mack at right outside linebacker. In Woodley’s brief time at right outside linebacker last year, he did have four pressure on 18 pass rushes. While that is a very small sample size, it does suggest they could make the linebackers dependent on strong side and weak side if they wanted.
The biggest mystery is with Sio Moore. In 2013 more often than not, Moore was rushing the passer instead of going back into coverage. In fact on pass plays he rushed the passer in 69 percent of the time. While he had five sacks, he was more effective in coverage. While he gave up a few big plays, more frequently he made tackles for short gains including one for a loss and one for no gain. He also had a pass defense. He was also great against the run which is more typical of an inside linebacker than a pass rushing outside linebacker. Due to his strong play against the run and in coverage, it makes sense to make him an every down linebacker. His sacks would decrease, but due to the number of snaps, his tackles would increase greatly. If I needed to have one Raiders defensive player in 2014, Sio Moore would be that man due to his potential.
The main reason it makes sense to move to a 3-4 defense is the flexibility it would give these last few players mentioned. As a 4-3 defensive end Woodley would very rarely go back into coverage, which would mean players like Moore or Mack would only pass rush is if they send a five man rush, or go in a 3-3-5 front. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, Woodley would go into coverage more often, allowing Mack to pass rush a higher percentage of the time, and also let Moore or another inside linebacker pass rush more often. Woodley has played well in coverage on a limited sample size, and other linebackers have played well rushing the passer. A 3-4 defense gives the Raiders the flexibility they need to maximize their talent.
These first six players were getting significant playing time regardless of the front the Raiders use the most. There will be a little more competition for this last spot. In my opinion it would make sense to have Kevin Burnett and Nick Roach share time. Burnett was great against the run but struggled in coverage. His Run Stop Percentage of 8.4 was fifth best for 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 300 run snaps. However his Yards Per Coverage Snap of 1.38 was second worst for 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 300 coverage snaps.
On the other hand Nick Roach was in the bottom ten in the league for inside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage, but was in the top half of the league in terms of Yards Per Coverage Snap for inside linebackers, and his 27 pressures were the most by an inside linebacker. Putting Burnett in for run downs and Roach in for passing downs would be the best way to get the most out of Oakland’s talent, but also greatly hurt both Roach and Burnett’s fantasy value.
Most likely this will be more of a hybrid defense that will be considered a 4-3 even though they will end up looking more like a 3-4. While the influx of talent is a good thing for the Raiders defense, for many of the individual defensive players it might not help them due to the playing time lost or the position they will play. Due to the uncertainty of playing time and positions, in both redraft leagues and dynasty a lot of these players should be avoided. As most would expect, Sio Moore and Khalil Mack are the key players to keep an eye on as both have high ceilings.