Raiders' free-agent additions solidify secondary, still need help at LB
The 2015 Oakland Raiders took many steps in the right direction, witnessing the emerging superstardom of edge defender Khalil Mack, significant growth offensively, and the maturation of players like PFF’s most-improved player, David Amerson (83.4), rookie Mario Edwards Jr. (80.9), and Denico Autry (76.1) on defense.
After making upgrades to their offensive line and adding cornerback Sean Smith (83.8), edge-rusher Bruce Irvin (78.0), and now safety Reggie Nelson (84.2), the 2016 Raiders appear poised to contend in the AFC West and, quite possibly, beyond. In this article we take a deeper look at the re-vamped Raiders’ defense.
While there’s still some work to do, the Raiders boast a front-seven to be reckoned with, with the cornerstone being Mack on the edge. The addition of Irvin, who played a hybrid 4-3 outside linebacker/defensive end role with the Seahawks, gives the Raiders a formidable duo of edge defenders, who combined for 120 total QB pressures last season. While Irvin has never quite lived up to his first-round draft position, he has been at his most productive when in more of a part-time role (11 sacks, 12 hits and 24 hurries in just 533 snaps in 2012). The retention, and possible reinstatement, of Aldon Smith (79.7) and the emergence of Edwards should eventually spell Irvin enough so that he can approach those productivity levels again in 2016. The presence of Irvin and Mack should also allow Edwards to play more defensive end in his second season, a role in which he shined prior to the suspension of Smith last season, posting the 12th-best run stop percentage among 3-4 defensive ends. Nose tackle Dan Williams (88.0) was one of the better offseason pickups last season, finishing third among defensive tackles with a 12.1 run-stop percentage.
The big question mark for the Raiders’ front-seven is at inside linebacker, where former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith (58.6) struggled in his first full-time role, allowing the 11th-most yards per coverage snap (1.09) out of qualifying inside linebackers. Curtis Lofton (33.7) played so poorly that he was replaced by a combination of 2015 fifth-round pick Ben Heeney (64.4) and journeyman safety/linebacker Taylor Mays (64.6) on passing downs midseason. Lofton and Mays are gone, leaving Heeney, John Lotulelei (no snaps last season) and free-agent pick-up Darren Bates (64.9 overall grade on just 39 career snaps) to team with Smith. Luckily for Oakland, there are many solid options at inside linebacker in the draft, headed by Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame, Reggie Ragland of Alabama, Su’a Cravens of USC, and Scooby Wright of Arizona.
Smith and Nelson bring a professionalism to the Raiders’ secondary that will help replace that of the retired Charles Woodson, whose coverage grade was the best among safeties last season, and build upon the unexpected bright spot that was Amerson. The acquisition of Sean Smith to pair with Amerson gives the Raiders a formidable pair on the outside, who combined to surrender only 54.6 percent of passes into their coverage to be completed last season. Two of the Raiders’ other corners, former top pick D.J. Hayden (37.4) and safety/corner hybrid T.J Carrie (46.3) struggled mightily in 2015, with Hayden surrendering the most yards after the catch of any corner in the league, and Carrie finishing third among corners in missed tackles. The signing of Nelson, who led the NFL in interceptions last season and surrendered just a 61.8 passer rating on passes into his coverage, in many ways makes up for the failed signing of Nate Allen (41.3), who struggled with injuries and in coverage, surrendering a 118.8 passer rating in just 227 snaps. The Raiders still need to address the other safety position, with T.J. McDonald (48.8) and Allen currently poised to battle for that role, as well as slot cornerback, where Carrie figures to start if they don’t add someone like Leon Hall (78.4) in free agency or improve via the draft.
The Raiders both had and used significant resources this offseason in free agency, and have appeared to allocate those resources wisely. While there are still weak spots along the defense, a solid draft coupled with the continued development of young players like Mack, Edwards, Autry, and Amerson should elevate the Raiders from the 11th-highest graded unit in the league in 2015 into the upper-echelon in 2016.