Sports

Better, worse or the same? How the Las Vegas Raiders’ defense has changed this offseason

HENDERSON, Nev. — Three images of the Las Vegas Raiders defense collapsing late to burn into your cerebral cortex:

Yeah, the defense was the issue last season, the difference, many say, between the 8-8 finish Las Vegas had and an 11-5 playoff berth.

Enter Gus Bradley, architect of the Legion of Boom defense in Seattle. With the right pieces in place, the Raiders’ new defensive coordinator can field a unit that more than disrupts opposing offenses. And five of the Raiders’ seven draft picks were on the defensive side of the ball. As Bradley said, with such a young and impressionable cast, it’s a “race to maturity” for his defense.

So did the defense get better this offseason, worse or stay the same? Time will ultimately tell, but the defense, which ranked No. 25 overall last year and had just 15 takeaways, 30th in the 32-team NFL, was not always terrible. It did have late stops in Carolina, at the Los Angeles Chargers and in Denver to close out wins. Otherwise, the Raiders would have finished 5-11, right?

Defensive line

Additions: Yannick Ngakoue (Baltimore Ravens), Malcolm Koonce (third-round draft pick), Solomon Thomas (San Francisco 49ers), Matt Dickerson (Tennessee Titans), Quinton Jefferson (Buffalo Bills), Darius Philon (did not play in 2020), Darius Stills (rookie free agent)

Losses: Maurice Hurst (49ers), Arden Key (49ers), Maliek Collins (Houston Texans), Vic Beasley (unsigned), Takkarist McKinley (Cleveland Browns), Chris Smith (unsigned), David Irving (unsigned)

Returners: Maxx Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Hankins, Carl Nassib, Kendal Vickers, Niles Scott, Gerri Green

Better, worse or the same? Better

Crosby (17 career sacks) and Ferrell (6.5 career sacks) remain the third-year foundation pieces on the edge and will only benefit from the arrival of a bonafide sack master and turnover creator in Ngakoue. The question, then, is whose pass-rushing snaps does Ngakoue take?

Expect a beefed-up Ferrell to move inside on those downs. The interior of the line, meanwhile, has been totally revamped and the arrivals of Thomas, Dickerson, Jefferson and Philon will make for a crowded — albeit, entertaining — DT Room in training camp.

Linebackers

Additions: Divine Deablo (third-round draft pick), Max Richardson (rookie free agent), Asmar Bilal (Chargers), Darron Lee (Bills)

Losses: Kyle Wilber (unsigned), Raekwon McMillan (unsigned)

Returners: Nick Kwiatkoski, Cory Littleton, Nicholas Morrow, Javin White, Tanner Muse, James Onwualu,

Better, worse or the same? Same

It can’t get worse, can it? So any move here is an improvement, especially if Bradley can get Littleton moving in the right direction. But let’s stay with “same” here for now since the only real addition was Deablo, who is not only making the move from safety but was banged up enough to miss most of OTAs and minicamp (he had also yet to sign his rookie contract). Also keep an eye on Bilal, as he knows Bradley’s scheme.

But again, it all comes back to Kwiatkoski in the middle and Littleton finding his old form as a sideline-to-sideline coverage LB like he was with the Rams, where he led the team in tackles in 2018 and 2019 with five interceptions. In a career-low 14 games last year, Littleton was shut out on INTs, sacks and forced fumbles. Morrow was the Raiders’ best linebacker last year and, no insult to him, but that has to change for this unit to improve.

Cornerbacks

Additions: Casey Hayward Jr. (Chargers), Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Atlanta Falcons), Rasul Douglas (Carolina Panthers), Nate Hobbs (fifth-round draft pick), Shaun Crawford (rookie free agent), De’Vante Bausby (Denver Broncos)

Losses: Daryl Worley (unsigned)

Returners: Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette, Keisean Nixon, Nevin Lawson, Isaiah Johnson, Amik Robertson

Better, worse or the same? Better

And in the role of wily vet Richard Sherman to teach these youngsters not only Bradley’s scheme but how to be a pro … Hayward. For better or worse, Mullen and Arnette should benefit greatly from the nine-year vet’s presence. Because even if Hayward has lost a step, it’s one those two have yet to take. Hayward has 23 career interceptions, or, 20 more than Mullen, Arnette, Nixon, Lawson, Johnson and Robertson have — combined. Hence the importance of adding other vets like Wreh-Wilson (4 career picks) and Douglas (5).

Hobbs impressed enough in OTAs and minicamp that he could be the team’s nickel cornerback, which should also put warning flares up around Arnette, a first-round pick last year who only played in nine games as a rookie and spent much of the offseason program as an observer. Then there’s this — the Raiders had just 10 interceptions last season, tied for fifth-fewest in the NFL, and only two of those INTs came from cornerbacks. Yes, both by Mullen.

Yikes.

Safeties

Additions: Trevon Moehrig (second-round draft pick), Karl Joseph (Browns), Tyree Gillespie (fourth-round draft pick), Roderic Teamer (no team in 2020)

Losses: Lamarcus Joyner (New York Jets), Erik Harris (Falcons), Jeff Heath (unsigned)

Returners: Johnathan Abram, Dallin Leavitt

Better, worse or the same? Better

Moehrig was the top-rated safety on so many draftniks’ boards this spring, so his falling to Las Vegas in the second round is a boon for the secondary. He can play free safety, and that would allow the often-out-of-control Abram to focus solely on his more natural spot in the box. Gillespie could also be a steal as a Day 3 pick and will be challenging for snaps, while Joseph returning after a year away in Cleveland should help Abram’s maturation.

Half of the Raiders’ 10 INTs last year came from safeties — a team-leading three by the departed Heath and two by Abram — so the takeaways have to improve if Bradley wants to see some semblance of Legion of Boom 2.0 in this young and erratic but potentially talented position group.

Last week: Offense.

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