In the age of wide-open, versatile offenses, the Raiders' defense is being left in the dust.
The lack of premiere talent at linebacker is a key reason why. The Raiders put all their eggs in the Vontaze Burfict basket last season. He played solid for four games before being jettisoned for the rest of the season by the NFL after a questionable hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle.
Even with Burfict on the field, the Raiders had no one to match up with opposing tight ends. They tried moving cornerback Daryl Worley inside against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13, but he was bodied by Travis Kelce. The linebackers struggled in coverage no matter who it was against. Tahir Whitehead allowed a 150.5 passer rating when targeted, the worst number for an off-ball linebacker in the NFL.
In other words: The Raiders must address the linebacker position this offseason. They can't put it off any longer.
With two picks in the top 19, the Raiders will have a decision to make. Do they trade up to draft Clemson star Isaiah Simmons or do they lay back and choose between LSU's Patrick Queen and Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray at No. 19? Or do they elect to go to free agency to pick up a linebacker and fill other needs in the draft?
Let's take a look at their draft options.
Isaiah Simmons: The Athletic Mutant
Simply put, Simmons is the perfect linebacker for the modern NFL.
He's 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and can play all over the field. During his junior season at Clemson, Simmons recorded 299 snaps at inside linebacker, 262 at slot cornerback, 132 at free safety, 116 at outside linebacker and 100 at strong safety. Simmons is of the Derwin James mold but in a bigger package. He's Brian Urlacher with an extra gear.
Now, it's one thing to play all over the field and it's another to be effective at it. Simmons was incredible no matter where he was, especially when in coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, Simmons earned an above-average coverage grade at every position he lined up at. During his career at Clemson, Simmons had a career coverage grade of 92.5 and only allowed 6 yards per target.
Perfect for the modern NFL, Simmons can cover tight ends, run sideline-to-sideline with running backs, blanket slot guys and make plays in the middle of the field as a safety.
He also was extremely effective at getting after the quarterback. Simmons pressured the passer on 32.9 percent of his rushes, the highest of any power-five defender.
Isaiah Simmons is about to destroy the NFL combine.— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) February 27, 2020
Definition of versatility. pic.twitter.com/wUSnKaENH0
Talked last week about #Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons — Has the traits to play Safety & Dime LB in the NFL.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) February 24, 2020
Let’s run through some film examples (thread).
Think Cover 3 here — rolled down to the TE side. Force player vs. the run. Watch him close on the QB... @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/Yfz5UlMYbd
Great coverage instincts.
In order for the Raiders to make him the lynchpin of their defense, they likely will have to trade up.
If there's any doubt they are thinking about it, Mayock gushed about Simmons and his versatility Tuesday.
"You start looking at guys on offense who can play in the slot, running back, be H-backs, there's really not a label for them," Mayock said Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "They are just either dynamic players or they are not. And then you start looking about trying to match up with those guys on defense and when you start looking in any division, particularly ours, and the tight ends that we have to play in our divisions. You kind of go, 'Who matches up? If we want to play man coverage who can match up with those type of guys? The big guys that run fast, who do we have?'
"I think more and more defenses around the league are saying who are the guys you don't have to put a label on, but they are dynamic football players? Isaiah Simmons, he's played in the back end, he's played at linebacker, he's come off the edge and really the only limitations on him are whatever the defensive coordinator puts on him."
Patrick Queen: The Fast Riser
Queen was a star in his first season as a starter in Baton Rouge, La. Built more like a safety at 6-1, 227 pounds, Queen has the sideline-to-sideline range to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL.
Some teams might want to see more film from Queen, but he was a key cog in LSU's title run, making countless plays during the Tigers' historic run. He's physical, athletic, fluid and intelligent and has drawn comparisons to 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander.
He has the skill set to be an immediate starter as a rookie either as a MIKE or WILL and looks to be a dynamic playmaker who won't have to come off the field in nickel packages.
Kenneth Murray: Plug And Play
The third and final first-round option at linebacker for the Raiders is Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray.
Murray is most successful as an off-ball linebacker who is allowed to pursue and wreak havoc. He's an athletic freak, who was prone to missed tackles before cleaning his technique up this past season.
While Murray has incredible range and can wreck an offense with his gap-shooting ability, the Oklahoma product's turn-and-run coverage skills are a work in progress. The range, athleticism and explosiveness have teams hoping he can polish up the rest of his game and be an every-down MIKE linebacker. Even if that doesn't work out, he should be able to be a solid three-down WILL at the NFL level.
Simmons is projected to be drafted somewhere between No. 3 and No. 9 overall. The Raiders currently holding the No. 12 and No. 19 picks will watch the first few picks of the draft closely. If teams move up to draft quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, Simmons could slip a touch, giving the Raiders an opening to make a move up and get the guy who has all the skills to be one of their defensive leaders for the foreseeable future.
If the Raiders can swap the No. 12 pick, one their third-round picks (No. 80) and a future pick for the right to move up and snag the Clemson linebacker, it should be a no-brainer for Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden. Simmons will give them the dynamic player the defense has been missing and he would fit in seamlessly with the Clemson-esque culture the Raiders are trying to create.
Due to the deep class of wide receivers, the Raiders still would be able to get an electric weapon like Henry Ruggs at No. 19 overall.
If a deal can be made to bring Simmons to Las Vegas, the move is a no-brainer. A player of his caliber and skill set rarely comes along. Drafting him will be well worth the price.