The Raiders invested significant funds and a first-round NFL draft pick on their defense this offseason, hoping to add depth and talent to a unit that has been completely overhauled during this Jon Gruden era.
It has been a slow build, with additions coming largely through the draft. Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock pushed the accelerator down a smidge in free agency to shore up the middle of this unit with talent vital in the modern NFL.
That includes interior pressure, fast, sideline-to-sideline linebackers and a versatile, aggressive safety pairing.
While the Raiders defense' undoubtedly is better than it has been, it’s still uncertain whether it’s legitimately good. We’ll find out more about this group in training camp, which starts up next week after the NFL and the NFLPA agreed on terms of playing the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Coordinator Paul Guenther needs improvement from several young players and a lift from important newcomers at each level of the defense to make a significant leap in production, but there are a few who could make others better if they produce and play well. They don’t have to be the most talented player, but they have to make a great impact on their position group and the defense as a whole.
We’ll call them X-factors. Let’s focus on one from every level of the defense, something we discussed in Friday’s episode of the "Raiders Talk" podcast.
DT Maliek Collins
The Raiders got great value by adding Collins, a 25-year old interior pass rusher, on a one-year, $6 million contract. His 48 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus, would’ve led the Raiders in 2019. He's capable of creating havoc from the inside unlike any recently featured Raider. Collins can flush a pocket and create sack opportunities for rushers off the edge or shut things down himself from the inside.
Solid play from the three technique can make everyone on the line better, something important we’re considering an X-factor along the front. Collins will be supremely motivated to produce this season and cash in with a longer-term deal next year either with the Raiders or another team, so expect him to ball out on the inside. That will help Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby on the outside, as well as tackle Maurice Hurst when he and Collins work together in the sub package.
Collins is an exciting player with his best football ahead of him, someone capable of making the entire line better in a snap.
[RAIDERS TALK: Listen to the latest episode]
LB Nick Kwiatkoski
We all know that Cory Littleton offers the linebacker corps a massive upgrade and helps turn a glaring weakness into a team strength, but he’s not the only reason why. Kwiatkoski also got a few pretty pennies to join the Raiders and become Guenther’s new field general from the middle linebacker spot. He proved a capable three-down linebacker with the Chicago Bears last year after Danny Trevathan got hurt, parlaying that performance into a lucrative deal with the Raiders.
Guenther puts a ton on his middle linebacker in terms of reads, checks and adjustments, so Kwiatkoski must be a quality field general who keeps everyone on the same page. If that happens, the defensive overall will play as a cohesive unit. They have to play smart and play together to show steady improvement, and that effort starts with Kwiatkoski in the middle.
S Johnathan Abram
Last year’s first-round pick barely played as a rookie. Abram was lost for the year in Week 1 with a shoulder injury, pushing his initial impact into the 2020 season. He was given the No. 24 for a reason, with coaches believing he could be the next in a long line of excellent Raiders defensive backs to wear those digits.
Abram can do everything well and comes with the leadership and strong personality required to be a defensive leader. He prides himself on being a tone-setter, filling that role with a physical style and an ability to make plays on the ball.
While several could’ve been the X-factor in the secondary, including LaMarcus Joyner and Damarious Randall, Abram has an opportunity to make a profound impact against the run and pass. He can play in the box or deep center field and will be motivated to realize vast potential after spending most of his rookie season on injured reserve.