Raiders’ free-agent additions solidify secondary, still need help at LB

Eric Eager takes a look at 2016 Raiders' defense with free-agent additions Reggie Nelson, Sean Smith, and Bruce Irvin.

| 1 year ago
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

| Analyst

Eric Eager joined Pro Football Focus in 2015. He is currently working on a number of analytics projects, primarily focused on the NFL.

  • Chris Gill

    Should move dj to safety

    • Malachi

      except he can’t tackle, kind of important at the last line of a defense

      • Chris Gill

        Might not even come to that with this new defense so worth a shot

        • Malachi


  • Matt Skiles

    TJ McDonald plays for the Rams

    • codered5

      Trevin McDonald my g

  • Jesse Gardner

    McDonald shouldn’t even be on there, Allen was injured pretty much all season and wasn’t 100% when he came back on limited snaps, so that number will improve. We def need an upgrade @ILB, I’m a big Heeney fan but his ceiling is most likely as a two down run stopper/blitzer, he was a liability in coverage. Him and Ball were a nice one two punch since Ball was more effective covering TEs and RBs, but a 3 down backer would be better so that opposing offenses can’t take advantage of the rotation. This will look much better by the time next offseason roles around.

    • codered5

      I believe if ball could stay healthy that he’s fine for three down. Heeney actually has problems overrunning some run plays and beating blocks. Most linenackers dont regurlarly beat oline blocks but hes gotta figure out a way to use speed and instincts to navigate through trash better and avoid blocks instead.Coverage is not his biggest issue.

  • Patrick Fouhy

    Exactly why I’ve been saying, for months now, their two main priorities should be Inside Linebacker and Safety.

  • Al Fonso Capone

    SS, LB and a DE or DT all coming from the draft.
    1) Rankins
    2) D. Thompson
    3) Scooby Wright or Kentrel Brothers
    4) Tyler Ervin
    5) Devin Fuller
    5) Sebastian Tretola
    6) Charles Tapper
    7) Jakeem Grant

    One could only wish !

  • VanCity21

    I think TJ Carrie will be the Safety or Nate Allen unless a Safety is drafted this year…There is no way MacDonald ever sees the field.

  • Malachi

    WVU’s karl joseph in round 1 would help them a lot

    • AzaAdam

      Nice call man. Hoping he can ball out in the silver & black

      • Malachi

        big fan of his, that said, go broncos! lol