Raiders defensive depth chart: Biggest question mark entering 2017 is...
Can the defense improve?
The Raiders defense gave up yards and points aplenty last season, but always seemed to show up in big moments. They would buckle down in the fourth quarter, or find a way to create a timely turnover. Khalil Mack was the leader of that effort, which often made Derek Carr comebacks stand. That, however, is a tough way to survive. While the Raiders defense wants to be better in 2017, some question whether it can. There are question marks aplenty regarding this unit, with depth issues at key spots and a reliance on rookies to contribute right away. Let’s take a look at each position heading into training camp:
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Ken Norton Jr.
ASSSITANT HEAD COACH – DEFENSE: John Pagano
DL: Jethro Franklin
LB: Sal Sunseri
OLB: Travis Smith
CB: Rod Woodson
S: Brent Vieselmeyer
DEFENSIVE ASSISTANT: Sam Anno
Pagano was added to the staff this offseason to bring fresh perspective and improve communication on a previously troubled unit. Pagano has pedigree, with five seasons as Chargers defensive coordinator. Norton will continue calling plays, but Pagano and head coach Jack Del Rio will have influence on the game plan. Woodson will focus on cornerbacks and Vieselmeyer takes over safety duties for the first time this year. Pagano also spends significant time working with the secondary.
DE: Khalil Mack
NT: Justin Ellis
DT: Jihad Ward
DE Mario Edwards Jr.
BACKUP ENDS: James Cowser, Denico Autry, Branden Jackson, Fadol Brown, Chris Casher, Jimmy Bean
BACKUP TACKLES: Darius Latham, Eddie Vanderdoes, Treyvon Hester, Paul Boyette
Mack is a constant threat to make plays against the run and pressure the quarterback whether he’s double-teamed or not. Edwards Jr. is a versatile piece. He’ll play a closed end spot, with Bruce Irvin on his flank, in the base defense and slide inside in the sub package. His renewed health should make the front far better than last season, especially rushing the passer. The Raiders expect Ward to make significant strides this year. Latham will challenge Ellis, and Vanderdoes will push for playing time right away. He could be a three-down player in time.
SLB: Bruce Irvin
MLB: Cory James
WLB Tyrell Adams, Jelani Jenkins
BACKUP SLB: Shilique Calhoun, Nicholas Morrow
BACKUP MLB/WLB: Marquel Lee, Ben Heeney, Brady Shledon, LaTroy Lewis, Najee Harris, Xavier Woodson-Luster
Irvin wanted to reach 10 sacks last season, and fell short with seven. This could be the year he hits double digits. He created significant pressure last year and forced seven fumbles, but he’s looking for more in 2017. Calhoun struggled some while healthy, but the former defensive end expects to fare better in his second year manning a hybrid position.
The interior linebacker spots remain the team’s biggest question mark. The Raiders don’t have much experience or depth here. Adams and James ran the first unit during the offseason program, but there’s no guarantee they’ll keep those jobs in the preseason or when games count. It’s an open competition with the real prospect of new combatants being signed before camp’s over.
STARTERS: Sean Smith, David Amerson
SLOT: Gareon Conley
BACKUPS: TJ Carrie, Antonio Hamilton, Dexter McDonald, Kenneth Durden, Breon Borders, Chris Humes
Smith and Amerson signed big contracts last offseason and didn’t quite live up to them. The pair wasn’t all bad, but allowed too many big plays to quick receivers. Improved communication and safety help could aid their efforts this season. They will be pushed by rookie first-round pick Conley, who will play slot corner in sub packages but could challenge for an outside spot in the base defense. Carrie has been serviceable when given the chance, and can play inside and out. Hamilton and McDonald saw some time last year and could be emergency options.
FS: Reggie Nelson
SS: Karl Joseph
BACKUPS: Obi Melifonwu, Keith McGill, Shalom Luani, Rickey Jefferson, Anthony Cioffi, Marcus McWilson
Nelson wasn’t perfect in his first season as a Raider, but still made the Pro Bowl and had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2016. Joseph expects to make huge strides as a sophomore. He vowed to play more aggressive and confident, and believes his knee more explosive with greater distance from an ACL tear in college. Melifonwu should have a role in the sub package and help covering tight ends and running backs. Luani has a nose for the ball and could push McGill for the fourth safety spot.