The Raiders haven’t had stability at linebacker in years. They tried and failed to get by with short-term stopgaps, rotating one past-his-prime veteran after another.
Curtis Lofton. Miles Burris. Nick Roach. Vontaze Burfict. Novorro Bowan. Perry Riley. They all made pit stops in silver and black, many for the last time in NFL football.
Those half measures availed them nothing.
Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock committed the resources required to shore up a glaring weakness that wasn’t given more than veteran chump change and a fourth-round pick since 2012. And, boy, did they use them well.
The Raiders got a commitment from Nick Kwaitkoski on Monday and paired him with free agency's best modern linebacker less than 24 hours later.
The Raiders agreed to terms with Cory Littleton Tuesday morning, a source told NBC Sports Bay Area. According to NFL Network, which first reported the news, Littleton intends to sign a three-year deal worth up to $36 million.
Littleton’s market was strong, but the Raiders emerged with the guy they really wanted and desperately needed. That addition alone should dramatically improve the Raiders defense.
They shouldn’t have a problem covering tight ends and running backs in the middle of the field anymore, now armed with a quick and agile former L.A. Ram who can blanket targets as anyone.
Gruden will detail his linebacker alignment at a later date, but it’s fair to anticipate Kwiatkowski in the middle as the defensive signal-caller, with Littleton working the weak side as a three-down player and a perfect fit for Paul Guenther’s defensive scheme.
Litttleton ranked fourth in passer rating allowed among linebackers with at least 500 coverages snaps. He also had two interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2019 and six picks in the last two seasons.
Kwiatkoski compliments Littleton well as more of a sure tackler and run defender who proved capable taking over for Danny Trevathan in Chicago last season.
These guys aren’t just good. They’re also entering their primes at 26 years old and won't be 30 when their contracts expire.
The Littleton signing could be the crown jewel of a thus-far solid free-agent class, one that will allow the Raiders to eliminate a significant need in the NFL draft and focus on others with two first-round picks in the top 19.
Gruden and Mayock were on the hunt for defensive impact players and prepared to pay the freight required to secure them on the open market. They weren’t scared of cornerback Byron Jones’ big price tag but weren’t deterred when he chose Miami.
They declared interest in Littleton early and stuck with their pursuit, eventually locking him down on a big-money deal that was actually a bit less than national pundits projected.
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Going after younger free agents to join a foundational draft class was the right way to go. The Raiders defense is young in most spots, with last year’s additions coming primarily through the draft. These young linebackers will be able to grow with guys like Maxx Crosby, Trayvon Mullen and Clelin Ferrell, with more additions on the way.
The Raiders are still looking for some secondary help and will continue searching for assets that improve the defense as free agency continues. The Raiders have more veterans to sign, maybe just one more expensive one, though Tom Brady is still lingering out there unattached. Most additions will help flesh out the roster and position it well for the NFL draft.
These early signings, Littleton in particular, have made the Raiders a better football team and improved an area of glaring weakness.